Function, not cosmetics, should govern gun policy.
‘AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not on the streets of our cities,” President Obama told the National Urban League on Wednesday. After the deadly attack in Colorado last Friday, the president’s concern is understandable. However, even — or perhaps especially — at such a time, distinctions need to be made.
The police in Aurora, Colo., reported that the killer used a Smith & Wesson M&P 15. This weapon bears a cosmetic resemblance to the M-16, which has been used by the U.S. military since the Vietnam War. The call has frequently been made that there is “no reason” for such “military-style weapons” to be available to civilians.
Yes, the M&P 15 and the AK-47 are “military-style weapons.” But the key word is “style” — they are similar to military guns in their aesthetics, not in the way they actually operate. The guns covered by the federal assault-weapons ban (which was enacted in 1994 and expired ten year later) were not the fully automatic machine guns used by the military but semi-automatic versions of those guns.
The civilian version of the AK-47 uses essentially the same sorts of bullets as deer-hunting rifles, fires at the same rapidity (one bullet per pull of the trigger), and does the same damage. The M&P 15 is similar, though it fires a much smaller bullet — .223 inches in diameter, as opposed to the .30-inch rounds used by the AK-47.
The Aurora killer’s large-capacity ammunition magazines are also misunderstood. The common perception that so-called “assault weapons” can hold larger magazines than hunting rifles is simply wrong. Any gun that can hold a magazine can hold one of any size. That is true for handguns as well as rifles. A magazine, which is basically a metal box with a spring, is also trivially easy to make and virtually impossible to stop criminals from obtaining.
Further, the guns in a couple of recent mass shootings (including the one in Aurora) have jammed because of the large magazines that were used. The reason is simple physics. Large magazines require very strong springs, but the springs cannot be too strong, or it becomes impossible to load the magazines. Over time, the springs wear out, and when a spring loses its ability to push bullets into the chamber properly, the gun jams. With large springs, even a small amount of fatigue can cause jams.
If Obama wants to campaign against semi-automatic guns based on their function, he should go after all semi-automatic guns. After all, in 1998, as an Illinois state senator, he supported just such a ban – a ban that would eliminate most of the guns in the United States.