March 24, 2018

Assault Weapons

Today is the day of the March for Our Lives—technically, Marches for Our Lives, since, at last count, 844 protests were scheduled throughout the world—the Washington, D.C., protest organized by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in response to the recent massacre at their school. Students are marching for stronger gun laws, especially the banning of assault rifles.

The now-expired Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1984, otherwise known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, banned particular weapons (as well as copies and duplicates). It also listed characteristics of weapons that would cause a weapon to be banned. It has been credibly argued that these lists are, on the one hand, too specific, and, on the other, too vague. A specific list of weapons invites litigation as to whether particular arms are effectively duplicates of banned ones. The lists of impermissible characteristics include properties that do not seem essential to making a weapon unsuited to be in civilian hands.

The problematic nature of the model list is fairly obvious. The enumerated properties that can result in a ban include such provisions as the following:
Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:
  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Detachable magazine.
If I get shot by a weapon, it does not matter to me that it had a folding stock or a pistol grip. No one said that what the Army needs to kill people is a weapon with a folding stock. What makes a weapon one to which civilians should not have access?

M16 Rifle

The answer is that the weapon should reliable incapacitate and, preferably, kill an opponent. Moreover, in a combat situation, it may be necessary to kill more than one opponent quickly. Whether or not the weapon has a pistol grip or flash suppressor is just icing on the cake.

The most essential characteristic of a weapon for the individual soldier is that it fires a round that delivers a substantial amount of kinetic energy into an enemy body. It is not muzzle velocity or slug weight that matters; what matters is the total amount of energy available to tear through the tissues of a target. Therefore, any weapon that delivers a projectile at the muzzle having an energy of more than j joules should be banned. (Due to air resistance, less energy is actually delivered to the target.) Since I know little of weapons or physiology, I don’t know what j should be, but objective experts of good will should be able to come up with an appropriate number. Weapons that can fire a round with more than j joules of energy, as well as any device that allows an otherwise legal weapon to do so should be banned.

Next, an assault weapon should be able to fire many rounds in rapid succession. Therefore, any gun should be banned that can fire two rounds in less than s seconds. Again, I don’t know an appropriate value for s. Human factors are involved here. Weapons that can fire successive rounds at intervals less than s seconds should be banned, as well as any device that modifies an otherwise legal weapon to do so should be banned.

An effective weapon of war should be able to fire many rounds quickly. Any weapon should be banned that, even if it can fire n rounds (n should be 10 or fewer) spaced more than s seconds apart, cannot fire subsequent rounds until at least c seconds have elapsed. Presumably, c is the time required to change a magazine. This provision effectively limits magazines to n rounds. Devices and procedures that get around this restriction should be banned.

An ideal weapon for a soldier must also be lightweight, which not only makes it easy to carry but also allows the soldier to carry more ammunition. It is not clear that weight is much of an issue when considering a civilian ban if effective energy and rate-of-fire restrictions are in place. However, any legal weapon should be detectable by standard metal detectors.

Finally, an effective assault weapons ban should outlaw the manufacture, importation, sale, or possession of the weapons defined as I have suggested. If the weapons themselves are banned, it is probably unnecessary to ban their ammunition as well.

Yes, I want to take away your guns. The NRA be damned.

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