With the White House poised to announce gun restrictions, many are wondering about the possibilities. Banning assault-style weapons is a no-brainer for many Americans. The argument practically makes itself: Assault? No, thank you!
The fine writer Philip Caputo, a Vietnam veteran who was shot by an AK-47 while reporting in Lebanon, attested in The Washington Post last month: “I am intimately familiar with what these weapons are designed to do, and that is to kill people.”
Indeed. But AK-47s and AR-15s are hardly alone in that regard. The technology of firearms owes its existence to man’s desire to kill other men. For many years, combat guns and hunting guns were one and the same.
That changed after World War II, with the creation of the assault rifle. But the breakthrough innovation of these guns — their use of medium-powered cartridges — actually makes them less lethal than many other rifles. In fact, their civilian variants typically bear just one indisputably sinister element: high-capacity magazines.
A more aggressive approach is also gaining steam among the left: banning all semiautomatic weapons, the large group to which assault-style rifles belong. This century-old technology allows guns to be cocked only once, thereafter firing a single shot for every pull of the trigger. Is such rapid-fire capability too great to allow in civilian hands? Perhaps. But, then, what should we do about manually actuated weapons that shoot almost as fast? Remington offers a black, pump-action .223-caliber rifle to police departments. Anyone looking at it — or being shot at by it — could be excused for mistaking it for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Unfortunately, by targeting guns’ form rather than their function, the efficacy of type-specific gun bans is questionable. The enforcement prospects, though, are downright frightening. There are probably at least 3 million assault-style weapons in American hands. As for semiautomatics in general — shotguns, rifles, pistols — the number is many times that. Buying them back would cost billions. Seizing them would provoke violent clashes as the “come and take it” crowd lived out its wildest fantasies.
The country needs a solution that limits the killing power of civilian weapons across the board — regardless of action type — while keeping enforcement costs and social unrest to a minimum. Luckily, we already have it: magazine control.
The magazine is the part of the gun that holds the ammunition. The standard magazine for a 9mm semiautomatic handgun holds 17 rounds. Assault-weapon magazines typically carry 30. Those magazines drop out at the press of a button, to be replaced by fresh ones.
Let’s replace them with smaller ones. Lower-capacity magazines will fundamentally transform the character of these guns. Put a five-round magazine in an AR-15 and you no longer have an assault-style weapon. You have the world’s ugliest varmint rifle. A Glock becomes a plastic six-shooter, capable of holding a burglar at bay but not capable of a Virginia Tech-style rampage.
Most hunting rifles and shotguns would be unaffected, as they typically hold five rounds or fewer. Some existing guns with firmly attached magazines exceeding the limit could be exempted without creating a loophole for new guns. Others would need to be modified by gunsmiths to remain legal.
The federal assault-weapons ban passed in the 1990s capped the magazines of some guns but not others — an inevitable result of focusing on gun types rather than gun capabilities. The poor results gave Congress cover to let the law expire in 2004. Today, just six states limit magazines in some way.
The politics of passing such a law are uncertain. What’s clear is that a limit on magazine capacity undercuts the hardest punch of the pro-gun side — “They’re taking away your guns!” — and leaves most hunters unmolested. Can New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, say the same about his proposal to ban assault weapons?
In fact, the biggest threat to magazine control might be from my allies in this fight: liberals. Few of my Wilco-listening brethren own guns. Many don’t understand how they work, and some loathe them. Will they see magazine control as a half-measure to be spurned? Or will they realize that the most effective assault-weapons law might be the one that melts down a grand total of zero assault weapons?
Jason Ross is a writer in New York.