"Assault Weapons," "Cosmetic Features,"
and "Gun Control"



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By Kurt Hofmann, May 14th 2014
JPFO writer contributor, © 2014.

From the very beginning of the "gun control" zealots' efforts to ban so-called "assault weapons," we on the pro-rights side have rightly pointed out that the features by which "assault weapons" are defined are merely cosmetic enhancements and ergonomic refinements, with no effect on the actual function of the firearm. We have furthermore argued that if the forcible citizen disarmament advocates were honest about their agenda, they would admit that they want a ban of all semi-automatic rifles, or at least all of them that accept detachable magazines.

For that, we have been accused of lying, with the Brady Campaign's "Mass Produced Mayhem" "study" describing the notional differences between "assault weapons" and "permissible" semi-automatic rifles:

Assault weapons have distinct features that separate them from sporting firearms. While semiautomatic hunting rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder and depend upon the accuracy of a precisely aimed projectile, the military features of semiautomatic assault weapons are designed to enhance their capacity to shoot multiple human targets very rapidly.
. . .
This contradicts the National Rifle Association's ("NRA") assertion that there are only "cosmetic" differences between the guns affected by the assault weapon ban and other firearms.

The Violence Policy Center makes a similar argument:

The assault weapons threat is exacerbated by the fact that the weapons are difficult to define in legal terms. Legislators and members of the press have proposed placing increased restrictions on all semi-auto firearms, which would include some hunting rifles. Whether these proposals are merely the result of ignorance of the wide variety of firearms that are semi-automatic, or misguided efforts in the face of definitional problems, they only lend credence to the gun lobby's argument that restrictions on assault weapons are merely the first step toward banning all semi-automatic guns.

So these "military" features, by which "assault weapons" can be distinguished from "permissible" semi-automatic rifles, were identified. These included folding or collapsible stocks, pistol grips, barrel shrouds, flash hiders, bayonet mounts, and grenade adapters. The original federal "assault weapons" ban defined the evil firearms as semi-automatic, detachable magazine-fed rifles with two or more of these "military features."

The anti-gun groups, especially the VPC, railed against this permissiveness, claiming that only one "military feature" should be enough to land a gun on the naughty list. California's never-met-a-gun-ban-it-didn't-like legislature obliged in 2000, implementing a law to do precisely that.

That, however, was still not enough for California lawmakers, who last year passed a bill banning all semi-automatic, detachable magazine-fed rifles--no "military features" necessary. Even anti-gun Governor Jerry Brown (D-of course) wasn't ready to go that far, and vetoed the ban.

Shockingly (that's sarcasm, for those who might have missed it), the Brady Campaign did not praise Brown for supporting their own position--that it's the "military features" that convert otherwise "acceptable" semi-automatic rifles into evil killing machines. Instead, they bitterly chastised him for failing to close "dangerous loopholes in California's assault weapon law."

Meanwhile, as gun manufacturers adapt to New York's offensively misnamed "SAFE Act," with AR-15 designs that comply with New York's own version of the "one-feature test" for determining whether or not a gun is an "assault weapon," both the gun makers and the law are being criticized for the fact that mere cosmetic changes can make a so-called "assault weapon" legal again:

NYU law professor James Jacobs, who has written extensively on gun control issues, praises portions of the SAFE Act, including expanded background checks.

But he says the the assault rifle ban has resulted in a remodeled gun that is no less dangerous -- just less scary looking.

"It differs only in how it looks, not in how it functions," Jacobs said.

The law redefined an assault weapon as a semi-automatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has one military-style feature such as a pistol grip or folding stock.

The obvious point here is that if all it takes to convert an "assault weapon" into a permissible firearm is some cosmetic modification, then the reverse must also be true, meaning that any such bans are by definition based on cosmetic appearances.

Perhaps sensing that trap, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence spokesperson Leah Gunn Barrett isn't letting even the emergence of "SAFE Act" compliant AR-15s steer her away from claiming that the differences are more than cosmetic:

"The legal gun looks a lot like the illegal gun," said Leah Gunn Barrett, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "Does that make this law essentially cosmetic? No. These features all have specific functions."

For example, Gunn Barrett said a forward-leaning pistol grip might give a mass shooter better control over his rifle.

"The gun is still lethal," Gunn Barrett said. "Yes, it can still kill people. But it is not as easy to manipulate and fire accurately than it would be if you had a forward-leaning pistol grip."

Unfortunately, she seems to have avoided one logical inconsistency, only to blunder into another, arguably more troubling one. She is arguing that accuracy, and control, are dangers that must be regulated out of firearms.

If that's the case, why not outlaw gun sights, or at least modern, highly visible ones? Maybe rifling should be outlawed. "Gun safety" advocates complain about what they argue are inadequate training standards for concealed carry permits (and some even want mandatory training for mere gun ownership)--but since a more highly trained shooter tends to be a more accurate shooter, isn't training a danger? They also rail against guns in bars (even when the armed patron is not permitted to drink), but since a sober shooter is likely to be a more accurate shooter, might "gun safety" not be better served by requiring that armed citizens be drunk?

Some in the liberty advocacy movement object to the term "gun control," because the other side's wish to control guns is only a means to the end of controlling people. Leah Gunn Barrett, when she praises a law that bans features that she admits allow better control of a gun, seems to bear that out.

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A former paratrooper, Kurt Hofmann was paralyzed in a car accident in 2002. The helplessness inherent to confinement to a wheelchair prompted him to explore armed self-defense, only to discover that Illinois denies that right, inspiring him to become active in gun rights advocacy. He also writes the St. Louis Gun Rights Examiner column.

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