Less than a day after Michael McLendon fired his last shot, gun control
groups issued press releases that cited his murderous rampage through three
Alabama towns as an argument for reviving the federal "assault weapon" ban. The
Obama administration also wants to bring
back the ban, on the theory that outlawing the firearms supposedly favored by
gangbangers and homicidal maniacs will reduce the casualties they inflict. But
there is little reason to believe such laws can deliver on that promise.
Last week Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun
Violence, claimedMcLendon "needed the firepower of assault weapons to execute his plan of mass carnage." In a joint statement, five anti-gun groups demanded "an
effective federal assault weapons ban," calling the Alabama massacre the latest
in "a string of preventable tragedies committed with these military-style
weapons." They identified McLendon's weapons as "a Bushmaster AR-15-style
assault rifle and an SKS assault rifle," which they described as "military-bred
firearms developed for the specific purpose of killing human beings quickly and
In truth, neither of these guns is an assault rifle, which by
definition is capable of firing automatically. Both of McLendon's rifles, like
all the guns covered by "assault weapon" bans, were semiautomatic, firing once
per trigger pull.
Gun control groups deliberately foster confusion between "assault weapons,"
an arbitrary category based mainly on appearances, and machine guns, which are
already strictly regulated under federal law. The confusion was apparent in news
coverage of McLendon's shooting spree, which erroneously called his guns "automatic
weapons" and "high powered assault
Furthermore, the standard version of the SKS, because it has a fixed
magazine, was not
covered by the federal "assault weapon" ban. It's not clear from press
accounts whether McLendon's Bushmaster rifle would have been covered by the law;
the company makes a "post-ban" version of
the AR-15 that complies with state laws similar to the federal "assault weapon"
ban because it does not have a collapsible stock or a bayonet mount.
As those modifications suggest, the definition of "assault weapons" has
little to do with features that make a practical difference in the hands of
criminals (who in any event rarely use these
guns). The aspect of the federal "assault weapon" law that had
the most functional significance was the ban on magazines holding more than 10
rounds. But that provision is unlikely to make a difference in crimes like
McLendon's, since magazines can be switched in a few seconds and the time can be
shortened by taping them together (as McLendon did). Not to mention the fact
that plenty of pre-ban large-capacity magazines would be available to a
In any case, the focus on the specific guns used in attacks like this is
misleading because murderers don't need much "firepower" when they're attacking
defenseless victims at random. The day after McLendon, using a rifle that
anti-gun activists called an "assault weapon," killed 10 people in Alabama, a
teenager used a 9mm Beretta pistol to kill
15 people in Germany. The deadliest mass
shooting in U.S. history was accomplished with two ordinary handguns; so was the
McLendon carried a .38-caliber handgun and a shotgun in addition to his
rifles, at least one of which apparently did not qualify as an "assault weapon."
Had he been prevented from buying the Bushmaster, he could have armed himself
with any number of hunting rifles that accept detachable magazines. As an agent
with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives noted
after the murders, "any gun is lethal."
Last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly recognized
for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to
arms, it suggested that prohibiting "dangerous and unusual weapons" nevertheless
could be constitutional. That is the loophole supporters of "assault weapon"
bans will try to exploit. Their success will depend on the extent to which the
courts scrutinize the specious distinction between good and evil guns.
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