By Tom Demerly.
Nine families who lost children in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School have filed a lawsuit against Bushmaster Firearms, the company that manufactured one of the weapons in possession of shooter Adam Lanza.
It is likely the lawsuits will fail to increase restrictions on the distribution and ownership laws of firearms in the U.S. Instead, the suit will continue to divert attention away from the central threat of firearms crime; conduct with a firearm, not the technical specifications of the firearm itself.
The primary reason the suit will fail to achieve meaningful reform of firearms legislation is a common misunderstanding of firearms nomenclature: The difference between an automatic assault rifle and a semi-automatic sporting rifle.
An automatic assault rifle has a mode of operation that enables the user to fire multiple shots with a single depression of the trigger: Pull the trigger back one time and hold it, bullets continue to fire. This is an “automatic weapon”. The sales and distribution of these weapons is restricted in most states to persons holding a specific permit that requires more documentation than other weapons.
A semi-automatic sporting rifle has a mode of operation that fires one bullet for one pull of the trigger: Each time the user fires a bullet they must pull the trigger. The sales and distribution of semi-automatic weapons is less restricted than automatic weapons.
This distinction should be straightforward. What has created confusion is the appearance of semi-automatic sporting rifles is sometimes nearly identical to fully automatic assault weapons.
We have already seen confusion between “semi-automatic” (one trigger pull, one shot) and “fully automatic” (one trigger pull, many shots) among lawmakers. There has been more than one press conference when a lawmaker has brandished a semi-automatic sporting rifle and characterized it as capable of firing “hundreds of bullets” inferring that the semi-automatic rifle they are displaying has fully-automatic capability. It doesn’t. And therein lies the reason why attempts to improve firearms legislation have failed.
Confusion may be understandable, although not excusable. Especially among legislators.
Semi-automatic sporting rifles like the ones manufactured by Bushmaster look like fully automatic weapons. The irony is they actually store less ammunition internally than more benign looking semi-automatic hunting rifles. Some models of hunting rifles, including semi-automatic and even bolt-action hunting rifles with a less military appearance house their bullets in an internal magazine that is a part of the rifle itself. The Bushmaster semi-automatic sporting rifle (remember, it wasn’t an automatic “assault rifle”) possessed by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook holds its ammunition in a separate external “magazine” or metal box that is attached to the rifle when loaded. The magazines for these rifles have assorted capacities that can vary with design. In California, the number of bullets these magazines can hold is restricted to a maximum of 10 bullets. The idea is that, a person is forced to reload their rifle after firing a maximum of 11 bullets (remember, the rifle can chamber or contain 1 bullet ready to fire and the 10 in the magazine a maximum of 11, 10+1=11). Presumably this is intended to limit the damage they can do.
If the contention of the complaint against Bushmaster is that the rifle Lanza used at Sandy Hook was a combat weapon with automatic capability, then the complaint does not have merit. If the contention is that the Bushmaster rifle used by Lanza is styled after a fully automatic assault weapon, that argument is factually correct. However, it is a difficult argument to prove the styling and appearance of the weapon somehow augment its lethality compared to other semi-automatic sporting weapons.
The problem with the Sandy Hook lawsuits is they do not focus on a central problem in mass shootings; management of potentially violent persons who may have a history of behavior that could lead to violence. This suit also fails to address another critical aspect of all gun violence; the responsibility of the owner of the firearm (any firearm) to secure it from use by other parties. This includes the distribution of firearms through negligence by failing to adequately secure them from theft. Interestingly, in the U.S. Army, failure to secure a weapon- any weapon- from theft or loss is one of the most serious offences, comparable to a felony in civilian terms and sometimes cause for less than honorable discharge, tantamount to a felony conviction.
Firearms owners argue their rights under legislation drafted well before modern firearms were engineered. The capabilities of firearms have changed significantly since the basis of our current federal firearms laws were drafted. It makes sense that legislation governing the ownership of firearms evolves as the firearms technology does. In nearly every other area of law, legislation has evolved with technology and society, often trailing it, but eventually adapting. Firearms law in the U.S. has somehow been largely excused from this evolution. That is remiss.
Furthermore, legislating firearms specifications is an ineffective approach to moderating firearms crime. Instead, improving legislation of firearms ownership liability is a more effective approach. Legislation that would compel firearms owners to secure their weapons or face stiff felony charges, even through their unintentional distribution through theft, need to be imposing enough so that every firearm owner understands the gravity and social responsibility associated with owning a firearm.