By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Two rifles, very different capabilities. Lots of confusion.
One of many reasons the continuing national gun debate is so difficult to moderate.
There is widespread misunderstanding of what an “assault rifle” actually is. This misunderstanding makes effective debate over proposed reexamination of gun laws nearly impossible. It is one reason the debate feels so circular and divisive.
An assault rifle is an automatic rifle: You pull the trigger one time and bullets are fired repeatedly at a high rate of fire.
A sporting rifle is a semi-automatic rifle: You pull the trigger one time and one bullet is fired. To fire any additional bullets you must pull the trigger again.
That seems straightforward. It is defined in only three sentences. What makes these distinctions difficult for people is that the two classes of weapons look nearly identical.
I served in the U.S. Army and the Michigan National Guard as a member of an Airborne Long Range Reconnaissance Team, Co. “F”, 425th INF, LRSU (AIRBORNE). I was a Scout/Observer in a five-man reconnaissance team. We were a combat unit, trained to employ a wide range of weapons from handguns to missile systems and even airstrikes with lethal effect. We had to know weapons, how they worked and what they were for. I also come from a family that grew up with guns. To me, guns are no different than power tools. They are both dangerous if misused, useful when the user is proficient and competent. And finally, I am a victim of gun violence. That gives me the perspective of a person who has been threatened by a firearm.
In most states in the U.S. a person cannot buy an assault rifle. But gun laws vary widely from state to state.
Somewhat interestingly, in California it is illegal to buy a .50 caliber long-range rifle, often incorrectly called a “sniper rifle”. This is despite the fact that one has never been used in a sensational crime there. Part of the reason they may be illegal in California is their large size, long range and intimidating physical appearance.
It is also illegal to have a rifle with a bayonet mount in California, even though a bayonet has never been used in a mass shooting anywhere in the U.S.
By contrast, in nearby Arizona, gun laws are likely the most liberal in the United States, with most firearms easily available without any or much documentation.
Journalists and lawmakers have played fast and lose with the vernacular and nomenclature that defines firearms technology. That is one reason some gun owners are wary of new legislation. Legal gun owners are rightfully concerned they’ll be somehow “over regulated”. With inaccurate characterizations of firearms common among politicians and journalists, it seems like this is a valid concern. With spurious legislation of bizarre and irrelevant weapons specifications in states like California the concern over erroneous but well-intentioned regulation seems even more valid.
Why does the understanding of what makes one gun an “assault rifle” and another gun a “sporting rifle” matter? It is one of many distinctions that draw the fine line between reasonable regulation in the interest of public safety and overregulation that some people suggest is a threat to civil liberty.