Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Assault Weapon - The True Story of a Mythical Weapon

Ned Barnett © 2004

Since some time in the 1980s, “assault weapons” have been the camel’s nose of the gun-banning crowd, and the love-to-hate-em darlings of the mainstream, left-leaning media.

But there’s a problem with that. Except for these anti-gun advocates, “assault weapons” have no independent existence. The term itself was made up by the media and anti-gun crowd as a simple way of mis-identifying a variety of different kinds of legal weapons.

The term “assault weapon” sounds dangerous. Military. Hostile. Surely, nothing that peaceful hunters or sportsmen might need or want (here’s another code of the anti-gun left: Only “hunters” and “sportsmen” might actually want to own guns of any kind, and the guns they want to own ought to have some utility in either hunting or target shooting in order to be “legitimate.”).

In fact, the Second Amendment makes no mention at all about hunting or sports shooting – it refers to self defense and communal self defense (a noble and important goal), and not a hobby activity akin to bass fishing or stamp collecting.

But I digress. To explain, a bit of history is needed.

In military terms, there are “battle rifles” and “assault rifles” – but no “assault weapons.” Traditionally, “battle rifles” are military-caliber bolt-action or semi-automatic (i.e., self-loading) rifles, heavily-stocked, equipped to mount a bayonet and a sling, and used by infantry as their primary weapon. Shorter, lighter weapons (carbines, mostly) were carried by Infantry officers or by soldiers who were not infantrymen, but who might in a pinch need to shoot back
(tank crewmen, cooks, truck drivers, etc.). From the end of the Civil War to mid-1943, all military rifles were essentially either “battle rifles” or carbines.

The rifle-looking BAR and similar selective-fire weapons were classed as squad-level machine guns. The other common infantry weapon, the sub-machine guns – light, hand-held full auto/selective fire weapons shooting pistol ammo - were also considered in a separate class, more like a super-pistol than a mini-rifle (in fact, the Germans called sub-machine guns “machine pistols”). They were used primarily by infantry officers and senior NCOs, often instead of carbines.

But in 1943, the ever-adaptive Germans developed a new weapon – a selective fire rifle that could fire in full-automatic mode (i.e., like a machine gun or a sub-machine gun), using rifle-caliber ammunition – intended primarily for the inner-city urban combat that would become ever more common as German soldiers fell back on der Vaterland (the Fatherland) in defense of the Reich. This new weapon was most closely akin to a “battle rifle” in intent, being seen as the primary weapon of infantry. It fired a new rifle-style bullet (smaller than the standard rifle bullet, but still far more potent than pistol or carbine ammo). And it could fire in either semi-auto or full-auto mode. It was built robustly, like a battle rifle, but it was stockier (shorter), to make it handier in urban settings.

And because the Germans hated the idea of retreat, they named this new weapon an “assault rifle.” Not an “assault weapon,” mind you, but an “assault rifle.”

As designed, the primary difference between a “battle rifle” and an “assault rifle” was primarily the full-auto selective fire capability. Nobody would call a weapon that shot only on semi-auto an “assault rifle” no matter how it looked - it was only functionality that defined the new weapon.

This last point is important - remember it, because you’ll see it again.

This new German weapon of 1943, adapted for urban combat (with generally shorter ranges) could fire more bullets, faster, than a battle rifle – but it had less range, and, because of it’s shorter barrel, it had (especially at longer ranges) less accuracy. But it made up for these limitations with handiness and firepower volume.

After the war (even before the war ended, in the case of the Russians), this weapon began to be modeled and adapted by the Allies. First out of the block was the Russian Kalashnikov AK-47 semi/full-auto assault rifle – a rugged weapon that shot a cut-down rifle round, and which became the “standard” for communist block and third-world countries (and terrorists) for the next 50 years.

The US took a series of steps – first the M1 Garand battle rifle became the selective-fire M14 battle rifle – still full-frame, shooting a full-bore rifle bullet, but with the firepower potential of the BAR squad light machine gun.

Next, Colt developed what led to the M16 assault rifle (a lightweight, short and handy rifle shooting a hefty, beefed-up mega-.22 caliber round that mikes out at .223). For 40 years now, the M16 has been the standard for the US and many of its allies - a powerful, flexible and handy assault rifle.

Going back to a law passed in the US in 1934 (and affirmed and revised in 1964), full-automatic rifles (including sub-machine guns and machine guns) have been very tightly regulated. Except for collectors and museums (and with a few other very tightly controlled exceptions), nobody could own an operational full-automatic weapon.

What this means is that EVERY legitimate “assault rifle” ever made is illegal for casual ownership in the US, and has been since a full ten years before the first “assault rifle” was ever developed.

The M16 and the AK-47 are both - in their military configurations – illegal, and always have been. And in spite of the hype, almost no fully-automatic “assault rifles” have ever been in private hands here in the US. Those that were in private hands (of criminals, for instance), were already illegal before they were first designed (for purely military and police use).

So, in any rational sense, there was not only never an “assault weapon” in the US, but there was never a time when the similarly-named “assault rifle” was not already illegal for private ownership.

Enter the gun-banners and their media fellow-travelers.

They desperately wanted to get their noses inside the tent – to ban SOME KIND of firearm that wasn’t already illegal. But they were stuck.

Too many Americans (there are roughly 80 million gun owners in the US) already owned semi-automatic (a.k.a. “self-loading) rifles, shotguns and pistols, most used for hunting, collecting or home self-defense. Further, the manufacture of these guns was concentrated in New England, where a ban would cause a serious economic hardship that would be easy for the media and the public to identify.

What to do? What to do?

So they came up with a diabolically-brilliant idea. Take a small category of weapons – semi-automatic rifles that cosmetically LOOKED like military assault rifles – and make them “bad.” So they gave these perfectly legal rifles – mechanically no different from Ruger .22 target rifles or Winchester hunting rifles – and (because they looked somehow “military”) make them the whipping boys for the industry.

Make them so hated that laws could be passed – nose-in-the-tent laws – that even most average gun owners wouldn’t object to.

So the media created this fictional category – “assault weapons” – that defined not design, not use, but cosmetic appearance. Then the anti-gunners and the media were able to punish this “bad” kid of weapon by banning their importation.

That’s right – they didn’t ban the manufacture, sale or ownership of these “evil” things, these “assault weapons.” Nope – that might hurt American jobs.

All the law did was ban the importation (and subsequent sale) of otherwise legal semi-automatic rifles that merely LOOKED like they were military-issue assault rifles.

That’s all.

No sales were banned.

No ownership was banned.

No manufacture was banned.

Only importation was banned.

That’s right, the “assault weapon ban” was a fraud.

It didn’t take one “assault weapon” (which doesn’t really exist) off the street. All it did was ensure that all the new, fully legal semi-automatic rifles sold in the US were also manufactured in the US – in a way, it was a jobs protection act for US gun-makers. And it made sure that America was protected from semi-automatic rifles that somehow LOOK as if they are military rifles (but aren’t) – at least those that were manufactured overseas, rather than in the USA.

Don’t you feel safer?

It’s a joke, sure – but in spite of it being a joke, the gun-banners won. Sure, it’s a hollow victory for now. But their victory opens the door for banning other classes of legal guns.

Recently, Senator Kerry and other anti-gun legislators co-sponsored a failed piece of legislation that – if passed – would have dramatically expanded this ban, to include US-made firearms of kinds that, until now, have been perfectly legal. These banned firearms (rifles and shotguns) don’t even “LOOK” military – but they are semi-automatic/self-loading firearms, and that encompasses a huge number of legally-owned private weapons, as well as tens of thousands of US manufacturing jobs.

But that’s not about “assault weapons,” which don’t really exist – except in the vivid imaginations of anti-gunners and their media and legislative supporters.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications