Recently, Adam Peck wrote an article, “NRA supporters can’t debate the facts on assault weapons, so they use this dumb argument” for the website, ThinkProgress.

It features the following claim:

“Any attempt, made in good faith, to debate the issue of gun control and limiting access to deadly weapons like the AR-15, which have now been used in at least seven of the ten deadliest mass shootings since 2010, will quickly be derailed by gun nuts who drag the entire conversation into a war of semantics.”

I’ve previously challenged parts of this claim and of the article as a whole. The article I wrote was, as much as I was able, gun-agnostic.

However, I don’t think I can just let the topic go without talking about guns.

To be clear, I don’t want to be semantic.

I think that in order to make good public policy, we have to:

  1. Clearly and concisely outline our proposal
  2. Explain specifically why our proposal would solve a problem and solve it more effectively than competing proposals.

The flaw I see in most gun control arguments is that they fail to do both things.

And, I don’t want to strawman people with gun control arguments, but my subjective experience is that I see a lot of conversations that go something like this:

Person 1: We should ban assault weapons to prevent mass shootings.

Person 2: What is an assault weapon?

P1: An assault weapon is a gun like an AR-15.

P2: What makes a gun like an AR-15?

P1: It’s an assault weapon.

P2: You know nothing about guns! You just want to ban all of them.

Neither side understands exactly what is being banned under the proposal.

Again, I don’t want to be semantic, but the compound phrase “assault weapon” doesn’t define itself.

One of the definitions given by Merriam-Webster for “weapon” is “something . . . that is used for fighting or attacking someone or for defending yourself when someone is attacking you.” If we take a look at a thesaurus, we see that synonyms for “attack” are words that have a meaning near “physical assault.”

So, if we do a bit of substitution for near-synonyms, an assault weapon would be “an assault version of something that is used for fighting or physical assault of someone or for defending yourself when someone is physically assaulting you.”

As far as logic goes, it seems hard for an assault version of something already used for assault to exist. It’s redundant, and in this case, would appear to include all weapons.

It’s a crummy phrase, but I’m going to be generous for a moment and act as though it could just be a bad name for a real class of weapons. Let’s try and figure out what those are.

I think a good starting place for that is the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was passed in 1994. That should clearly define what an “assault weapon” is, right?

Well, maybe not.

A certain number of weapons were banned outright, while others with particular features were banned.

What separates these two categories?

I’m not entirely sure. I think, looking at the list of the models that were banned outright, that notoriety played a big role, which is unfortunate, as that suggests the policy wasn’t crafted with effectiveness in mind.

But, what’s even more baffling is the list of “sometimes-banned” weapons.

In order to understand this, we have to talk about semi-automatic vs automatic weapons.

If you hold down the trigger on an automatic weapon, it will continuously fire until it runs out of bullets. These weapons are typically called machine guns.

If you hold down the trigger on a semiautomatic weapon, it will fire one bullet. In order to get it to fire again, you have to pull the trigger again.

Automatic weapons were banned under the National Firearms Act of 1934, which also regulates the parts for those weapons.

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban is focused on semiautomatic weapons, specifically rifles, pistols, and shotguns.

Besides the ones that are banned outright, Congress banned

  1. Semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines and two or more of the following: folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, grenade launcher.
  2. Semiautomatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following: magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip, threaded barrel (barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, suppressor), barrel shroud, unloaded weight of 50 oz or more, semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
  3. Semiautomatic shotguns with two or more of the following: folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, detachable magazine.

What’s interesting about this list is that allowed weapons and banned weapons aren’t separated by function. The NRA called the features that would lead to these weapons being banned “cosmetic,” and while I don’t necessarily agree with that characterization, I do think there’s something weird going on here.

What separates the weapons that are banned by name from those banned by their features is notoriety. What separates allowed weapons in general from banned weapons is whether they have two or more of a number of features, such as folding stocks, bayonet mounts, flash suppressors, threaded barrels, barrel shrouds, a heavy weight, or a cousin that is fully-automatic. None of these actually increase the effectiveness of the weapon.

I think you could make the case that a pistol grip does change the effectiveness, but the amount is marginal. The presence or absence of a pistol grip isn’t going to matter much to a skilled shooter, and it’s not a device that is going to make an unskilled shooter appear skilled.

I am okay with banning grenade launchers. I can’t think of a legitimate use case.

That being said, under the 1994 law, it would be illegal to own a semiautomatic pistol with a threaded barrel and a weight in excess of 50 oz, but legal to own one with a threaded barrel or a weight in excess of 50 oz.

Likewise, it would be illegal to own a semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip and a bayonet mount, but legal to own one with a pistol grip or a bayonet mount.

This is weirdly inconsistent.

How does having one of the features not push the weapon over the edge, but two does?

Can anyone explain why features that don’t make a weapon more effective make it more dangerous and worthy of ban? And if so, why the mix-and-match of two?

In conclusion, I want to draw your attention to something said in the 1988 paper that is often credited with popularizing the term “assault weapon.”

“Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.”

The author also writes, “Defining an assault weapon—in legal terms—is not easy. It’s not merely a matter of going after guns that are ‘black and wicked looking.’ Although those involved in the debate know the weapons being discussed, it’s extremely difficult to develop a legal definition that restricts the availability of assault weapons without affecting legitimate semi-automatic guns. Most likely, any definition would focus on magazine capacity, weapon configuration, muzzle velocity, the initial purpose for which the weapon (or its full-auto progenitor) was developed, convertibility, and possible sporting applications.”

Notice how the 1994 ban used almost none of this definition, but did seem to go for “black and wicked looking” weapons.

Could it be that the term “assault weapon” was defined with confusion and a specific desired outcome in mind?

Can someone who so publicly declares that they are acting in good faith use terms that undermine that argument?

I’m highlighting this article because I believe that it flagrantly displays much of the doublethink that pervades modern debate on gun control. I don’t think there should be a punishment for being wrong, even for being this amount of wrong, but we need to call this stuff out as the corrupt, erroneous thinking that it is.