In online debate with my gun-loving friends, and there are many, our dialog tends to revert to two tried and true tropes: The inability of the Second Amendment to restrict the sale of a certain type of firearm and the exact definition of an assault weapon. What if your handgun accepts a high-capacity clip? The Constitution says “…bear arms…” Not, “You can keep these kinds of arms.” What if my single-shot hunting rifle uses the same ammunition as this AR-style weapon?
So let’s get to the heart of these two points.
The thought that we can’t legislate one weapon over another is patently false, and has been true for longer than we’ve been a country. When our first legislative body met in July of 1619, the General Assembly of Virginia in Jamestown set down a series of laws that would determine our course. One of the items agreed upon was a resolution decreeing that any person who sold a gun, ammo, or otherwise similar arms to a Native American would be considered a traitor and hung until dead.
It was our first gun law.
Our earliest gun owners crafted mechanisms to fire a weapon quickly, often without actually pulling a trigger. In 1771, New Jersey banned these so-called “gun traps” or “spring guns.” In 1925, West Virginia became the first in the nation to ban what became known as the “machine gun.” In 1927, 28 states enacted similar laws, with Rhode Island defining such weapons as “…any weapon which shoots automatically and any weapon which shoots more than twelve shots semi-automatically without reloading.” This list included small arms such as handguns that met this criterion.
Here in Virginia, a 1933 law outlawed any gun “of any description . . . from which more than seven shots or bullets may be rapidly, or automatically, or semi-automatically discharged from a magazine, by a single function of the firing device, and also applies to and includes weapons, loaded or unloaded, from which more than sixteen shots or bullets may be rapidly, automatically, semi-automatically, or otherwise discharged without reloading.”
Many of our early bans on these types of weapons were in reaction to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, and the ensuing gang-related violence.
How many died in that garage on Chicago’s North Side? Seven.
In another post on this site, the late Justice Antonin Scalia was quoted in his majority decision supporting a citizen’s right to bear arms: “…Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…”
Now, let’s examine our modern “assault weapon.”
While World War II saw a vast increase in the amount of urban, guerilla fighting between opposing forces, it was still very much a battle of might. Superior force numbers won streets, and then cities, and then countries. The weapon most Americans carried was the M1 Garand. While it held an 8 round clip and was considered “semi-automatic,” it was basically an evolution of the Army’s traditional single-shot, bolt action rifle.
Absorbing the lessons of Korea and entering Vietnam told the Army that they needed a different type of weapon for modern combat. While many veteran officers argued for bigger guns and bullets, commanders on the ground wanted something lightweight, easy to use, and readily modified. After a bit of trial and error, Eugene Stoner delivered the first ArmaLite AR-15 for military testing.
Initial testing showed that 5 guys with AR-15s had the same firepower as 10 with the common M14 rifle. While it used a much smaller caliber of ammunition, the ammo traveled fast. Best of all, the bullets had a tendency to tumble, so what would normally inflict a simple in-and-out wound would now blow massive holes in an enemy as the bullet twisted and turned through the body. Reports from Vietnam affirmed the lethality of the AR-15. An Army Ranger encountering Viet Cong troops fired on a guerilla fleeing. He reported that the bullet caused “a heel wound…the projectile entered the bottom of the right foot causing the leg to split from the foot to the hip.”
The Army decided that this was a killing machine, and they liked it. Best of all, the light weight of the AR-15 (with its molded and plastic parts) made it perfect for the average Vietnamese soldier who was only about 5 foot 9 and 90 pounds.
Many proponents of ownership of these types of weapons point to the fact that the military versions are fully automatic. Many, however, are not. The military orders both versions, but prefer the semi-automatic feature, allowing soldiers to fire in “bursts.” This allows for better aim, and more efficient killing of targets. They’re trained to fire one bullet or a 3-bullet burst every 10-12 seconds. Examination of audio showed that the killer at Parkland, using the “tamer, civilian” version of this military weapon, fired 1.5 rounds per second.
Many of these civilian assault weapons fire a .223 caliber bullet. The standard military round is a .223. The military version of the AR-15 accepts a 30-round magazine that can be switched out quickly. So does the civilian model. The military offers several modifications to their weapon, like laser sights, scopes, pistol grips, and flashlight attachments. So does the civilian model.
It’s long past time to put away the definitions and semantics and arguments about bullet size. Certain weapons were designed for one purpose – to kill people efficiently. They were designed as Weapons of War and have no place on our streets. We are disgusted at images of Third World countries and their Boy Soldiers. Yet we allow them to carry our Weapons of War right here in our America.