We’ve been here before. After Patrick Purdy sprayed a Stockton elementary school with a semi-automatic rifle in 1989, California legislators passed a law banning assault weapons. A few years — and massacres — later, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law a 10-year nationwide ban sponsored by Calif. Sen. Diane Feinstein.

A California ban on assault weapons continues, but a federal ban has expired. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Now assault weapons have exploded back onto the national agenda. Feinstein has been trying to renew the law since it expired in 2004, and last week’s mass murder in Newtown, Conn., prompted President Barack Obama to endorse that effort.

At the same time, California Treasurer, Bill Lockyer has proposed that some state pension plans should divest from companies making guns banned by California. And an inquiry from a California state teachers fund led a private equity firm to put the company that made the gun used in the Connecticut killings up for sale. Other proposals are surfacing as well. State Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) has proposed requiring permits for the purchase of ammunition. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on Thursday called for a ban on hollow-point bullets.

As with any discussion on gun policy, passions run high — and so does confusion. Here are some of the more common misconceptions about assault weapons:

1) Assault weapons are more powerful than any hunting weapon. Before 1989, the term “assault weapon” had virtually no meaning. Although the term “assault rifle” was sometimes used to refer to a type of light semiautomatic military rifle beginning in World War II, it did not have a precise definition. Both Patrick Purdy and the Newtown, Conn. shooter, Adam Lanza, reportedly used copies of rifles designed for military use — in Purdy’s case a Norinco Type 56 Assault Rife (a Chinese copy of the Russian AK-47), and in Lanza’s case a Bushmaster AR15 (the civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16).

But these guns are no more powerful than many semiautomatic rifles legally used for hunting in California and throughout the United States. They don’t shoot farther, faster or with more power. In order to create an “assault weapon” ban, legislators had to list specific models of guns or characteristics such as pistol grips on rifles, flash hiders, folding rifle stocks and threaded barrels for attaching silencers.

2) Assault weapons kill more people than other guns. Assault weapons as defined by either the California or U.S. legislation are not used in most murders. A University of Pennsylvania 2004 study found that guns covered by the U.S. ban made up less than 8 percent of the guns used in crimes before the law passed. Even when you narrow the type of crime down to mass murders or police killings, assault weapons were implicated in less than 15 percent.

So what category of guns are implicated in the most deaths? “Handguns are used in three-fourths of American fatal shootings,” says Franklin Zimring, a University of California law professor. And they make up much less than three-quarters of the guns in the hands of U.S. civilians, so they are disproportionately dangerous, he said.

The University of Pennsylvania study found that assault-weapon use declined in the four cities it examined, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Louisville, and Anchorage, by about 17 percent during the period the law was in place. But it concluded that other guns that could be loaded with large magazines took the place of the banned weapons. (Magazines for semiautomatic guns, also known as clips, are typically detachable, so the same gun could hold a large magazine or a small one.) While the federal law banned magazines with a capacity of more than 10 bullets, it did nothing to remove the 25 large magazines already on the market — about one in five civilian U.S. guns.

3) Studies show that assault weapons bans do/don’t work. The University of Pennsylvania study concluded in 2004 that it was “premature” to reach conclusions about whether the assault weapons ban had worked. Volokh, who thinks gun control can’t work, and Zimring, who thinks it can, agree on one thing: the research so far hasn’t settled the question. Reports by the National Academies of Science and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached the same conclusions: not enough data.

4) Assault weapons are machine guns. Machine guns are already illegal for civilian use in the United States. “This is not about machine guns,” says University of California, Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh. “It’s about semiautomatic guns that are not materially different from other kinds of semiautomatic weapons.”

A 1934 law required special permits for machine guns, and a 1986 law further restricted them. The term semiautomatic means that the gun automatically puts a new bullet in its chamber each time the trigger is pulled, until the magazine that holds its ammunition is empty. But to fire another bullet, the shooter has to release the trigger, then squeeze it again. By contrast, a fully automatic gun keeps firing as long as the trigger is held down.

That leaves policy makers to rely on their common sense — or prejudices — in drawing up new laws.

For more about assault weapons, read the Washington Post’s blog post, “Everything You Need to Know about Banning Assault Weapons in One Post.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=77001270 Rich Wang

    Permits for ammunition? Ban on hollow point bullets? Good lord… I am an advocate for gun control laws that ensure responsible ownership (this does not currently exist in America), but these kinds of hair-brained ideas suggest that our politicians don’t even know what the problem is to begin with, that they don’t care to understand the extent of the complex issue, and that their only interest is in grabbing at that low-hanging fruit of ineffective emotionally-satisfying campaign-ready legislation that misses the mark entirely.

    This sort of bad regulation is why some people in this country grow to hate all regulation, and it gives them a great case study to convince others by. It’s been the poison of the Democratic party for decades.

    It really is a shame we don’t have more competent, dispassionate lawmakers and leaders–politicians that know how to at least find the people who can define the problem properly when they cannot before jumping straight to their cookie-cutter bag of solutions.

    • Al_x

      You hit the nail on the head.It is really hard to get the responsible gun owners on board with changing the way things are done when the politicians just seem to want to beat them over the head with none solutions and demonize them as the problem. While we need to protect our firearms rights, I don’t think you’ll find too much disagreement on the need for change. Securing guns from falling into the wrong hands and being misused is just as much part of defending the second amendment as fighting the knee jerk pointless laws that will just make things worse.

  • http://twitter.com/joey89924 joey

    It’s been the poison of the Democratic party for decades.
    LM555

  • Older_Wiser2

    Why does anyone need a semi-automatic weapon in the first place? A true sporting shooter doesn’t need them. We are plenty armed in this country with law enforcement and the military who enforce the laws and provide the country’s defense. So why would an ordinary citizen need a military style weapon in the first place? A small handgun to keep at home, no problem, but for individuals to strut around public places with a gun, either holstered or concealed doesn’t make me less fearful, it makes me more fearful.

    The fact is, the NRA saw an opportunity with the Tea Party types who at best advocate an overthrow of the govt if it becomes “tyrannical”, but that reflects the militia mentality, and we know how those guys roll. If those guys are so against every single man, woman and child having the same rights to education, employment, housing and every other accommodation they think only they deserve, they are the ones who are in the wrong, and shooting up the landscape because they don’t like the laws in this country won’t change a thing but put them in jail if they act on their delusions.

    • Al_x

      The final point is that a semiauto does not make the gun more dangerous than a pump or lever action might. If you are not comfortable with guns, or as you post suggests knee shaking scared of them than of course you don’t know the uses they have. But just because you don’t know doesn’t automatically mean are no reasons for them. I fail to understand how people who don’t want guns and don’t understand them always try to decide what one would need a gun for.

    • CommonSense

      Really ? Perhaps where you live, there are police and military on every corner, but that isn’t the case for the rest of the country. Personally, I have had to defend my children and myself once when attacked by gang members in Chattenooga, TN. If i didn’t have my concealed handgun, we would be dead, hurt, mugged, etc.

      So, because you don’t know something, doesn’t mean i have to give up my right to protect my family.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.watson.397948 John Watson

      Fortunately, our constitution doesn’t only protect our needs, but many of our wants as well. The “need” card has been played a lot lately, but who really “needs” more cake or a horse?

  • C3PO

    Great article, and one that other members of the media should read. If only I had a dollar for each time a reporter or politician called a semiauto rifle a “machine gun”! Nice to see someone finally presenting facts instead of rhetoric.

  • MyNameIsTed

    Oh, they forgot Myth #5: “Owners of Assault Weapons Have Normal Sized Genitalia.” Wrong! Most assault weapons owners have teeny-tiny wieners, and owning a gun helps to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.watson.397948 John Watson

      we appreciate you being the head weiner-inspector so the rest of us don’t have to do it.

  • Stopwhining

    I think it’s funny that the pro-gun people here are using reason and logic, and the anti-gun people are resorting to insults and emotional appeal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.watson.397948 John Watson

    For the record, machine guns are NOT already illegal for civilian use in the United States.

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