Assault Weapon Weirdness

By Guy Smith, Founder of the Gun Facts project (www.GunFacts.info)

Propaganda and Political Expedience

Well-crafted propaganda has amazing longevity, outliving even government programs, which are seemingly immortal.

The creation, nurturing and old age of the “assault weapon” campaign sits high in the sky parlor of propaganda, rivaling many religions in terms of blind faith and overwhelming fear. Twelve years past the sunset of the federal assault weapons ban, the gun control industry has yet to relent that their mission was fraudulent, their goals insincere and their outcomes failed.

As the founder and chief researcher at the Gun Facts project, I am self-inflicted by gun control industry agitprop. A recent communication by one of their hordes was stunning in its composition, claiming that the common AR-15 was a “powerful weapon of war.” This is an unsubtle reminder that theirs is a long con and one that remains in play.

Josh Wasn’t Joshing

The origins of the assault on your weapons is as sinister as it was well-constructed. In the same year that Florida began the stampede toward near-universal concealed carry in the United States, a lone but well-financed propaganda master was popularizing the notion of “assault weapons.” Josh Sugarmann, the only visible working component of the Violence Policy Center (VPC), continued his crusade on private gun ownership by planting seeds of deception. Sensing that gun-owning herds could be culled, he set his sights on firearms that were simply scary to the uninitiated. At the VPC website, Sugarmann wrote:

“Assault weapons... are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons–anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun–can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons” (emphasis clearly mine).

Politicians in search of a cause (which is their main stock-in-trade) latched onto the “assault weapon” theme for the simple reason that some firearms look frightening, and fear is the primordial tool in politics. In 1968, every voter had watched the Vietnam war nightly during dinner. They saw M-16s carried by American soldiers, AK-47s carried by Viet Cong and had no other reference to what they were.

Hence, the phrase “powerful weapon of war” to generically describe “assault weapons” invokes the fear of war. Facts, the differences between civilian and military incarnations of certain rifles and the utter disconnect created by broad “assault weapons” classifications are unimportant to voters. Not being shot by a “powerful weapon of war” is.

It was the coining of the term “assault weapon” that was the gun control industry’s crowning achievement, because the term means nothing yet is instantly repeatable. Before Josh and his moneyed patrons began force feeding that phrase to the media, there was no such firearms classification. Whole cloth is a wonderful material for propagandists because it can be used to cloak legislative fiction.

This happened in 1989 in California, the caldron for American gun control. The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act outlawed ownership and transfer of more than 50 brands and models of semi-automatic rifles and a hodgepodge of pistols and shotguns. It also introduced the legislative perfidy of banning weapons on irrational–and often cosmetic–design elements, such as having a thumbhole in the stock of a rifle.

Intellectually embarrassing as Roberti-Roos was, it set the stage for other states and the federal government to ban whatever they felt like banning by using the umbrella term “assault weapon.” Proof of this came in 2004 when the gun control industry was battling mightily to preserve California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s federal assault weapon ban. The Legal Community Against Violence (today rebranded as the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence) produced an oddly honest document (Banning Assault Weapons–A Legal Primer for State and Local Action) detailing the sundry “assault weapons” legislation from around the nation.

Across eight jurisdictions, they reported from 19 to 75 banned firearms, codified using six differing generic classification schemes and with several legal systems for banning more guns by bureaucratic edict. This list might well have been created with random tosses of darts at the corner bar near the newspaper offices (there is always a bar near a reporter). You would be hard pressed to find any commonality among these laws or the firearms they banned.

Instigated by Josh Sugarmann, and accelerated by California politicians, assault weapon demonization became a working meme that has lasted over 20 years later.

A Non-Problem from The Gitgo

Because California politicians were eager to run with the assault weapon ball, certain members of California’s law enforcement community were recruited to understand the scope of the problem. Paraphrasing, they collectively said “What problem?”

“I surveyed the firearms used in violent crimes … assault-type firearms were the least of our worries,” said S.C. Helsley, who was the Assistant Director DOJ Investigation and Enforcement Branch. Part of Helsley’s job included working with state crime labs, and thus he had access to the make and model of every recovered crime gun in California, except those held in city-run labs. And though his dataset was large and compelling, he could not compel the big California cities–San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.–to participate in the study by handing over their recovered weapons roster.

“I wanted the various crime labs to start consistent reporting of confiscated crime guns,” said Helsley. “But there is a divide in crime labs.

Rural areas don’t have them and rely on state-run labs. The big cities, the ones with more violent crime and more gangs, have their own labs. Yet those cities, where calls for an ‘assault weapons’ ban came from, were not cooperating in tracking or cataloging crime guns.”

That last bit is vitally important. Gang members don’t carry assault weapons. Criminals require a certain element of surprise to be good at their jobs. They are fond of concealing their often-stolen guns on their often-doped bodies since that is the one place where their weaponry will always be readily available and portable to the scene of their crimes. Since a stubby AK-47 measures in at 870 millimeters, and the average male torso is a mere 600 vertical millimeters, hiding a common assault weapon on their person is a challenge, even when wearing large and puffy parkas during the dog days of summer, which is in vogue among modern gangsters. The situation gets worse when an unfortunate hoodlum cannot find an abbreviated AK and must jam a full-length M-16 (1,006 mm) under his arm, presumably with the muzzle jutting past his cheek and lifting his sweat jacket hood a few inches into the air like a cranial pup tent.

In short, by not reporting details of gang gun use, large California cities were keeping the small number of assault weapons used in crimes artificially high in order to help pass “assault weapons” bans. This chicanery was essential given that in the rest of the state–where rifles were common and gang bangers were not–the firearms that Roberti and Roos wished to ban were used in less than 1% of all homicides. Nationally speaking, in 1994–the year the federal assault weapon ban was passed–you were 11 times more likely to be beaten to death than to be killed by an assault weapon. This was because coast-to-coast assault weapons were used in a mere 1.4% of all crimes involving firearms and 0.25% of all violent crime.

And the situation did not change over the next few decades. In 2004, when the debate to extend the federal assault weapon ban was in full swing, the National Institute of Justice issued their review of the effectiveness of that ban in a report titled, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence.” In a somewhat apologetic tone they said “ … we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”

If the Facts Do Not Conform to the Theory, the Facts Must Be Disposed Of

Statistically speaking, assault weapons were not a problem before the gun control industry ran the term downfield, nor were they any more of a problem after two decades of experimentation.

Conveniently, facts are less important than emotions to working propagandists. Take for example this lede on the poorly named SmartGunLaws.org website, maintained by shysters employed by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence:

“Assault weapons are a class of semi-automatic firearms that are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently.”

Hyperbole is normally amusing, but not in this case. The gun control industry’s language remains designed to invoke fear. With the roaring commercial success of the AR platform and it becoming a mainstream firearm, the gun control industry has only one remaining hook on which to base public fear, namely mass public shootings by lunatics. A mere sentence later on the same web page, the LCPGV asserts “Assault weapons have been used in many high-profile shooting incidents, including the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in that state.”

The insanely over-estimated high-end of assault weapons used in mass public shootings is 25%, which interestingly means that 3/4 of mass public shootings do not involve assault weapons.
Even then the rarity of mass public shootings (using the correct and blessed criminology definition of an event with four or more fatalities, not including the assailant) drops the number significantly. In a typical year in the United States, there are about 20 mass public shootings. This means five such events per year at most involve assault weapons. Compare that to 51 dead, mainly from gang violence, in January 2017 … in Chicago.

Despite the comparatively trivial degree of assault weapon mass public shooting carnage, the gun control industry desperately ties the two together for the simple reason that such violence is random. We all know where the bad neighborhoods are and avoid them (unless you are unfortunate enough to live there). We sense when people we know might become at risk and intervene or divorce ourselves from them. In short, most gun violence is avoidable. Mass public shootings are random and thus outside of our control. Hitching assault weapons to these rare and random events connects the fear of the events to the firearms.

To raise the artificial fear level some more, the gun control industry tries to attach assault weapons to endangerment of police officers. The LCAGV page asserts that “A study analyzing FBI data shows that 20% of the law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty from 1998 to 2001 were killed with assault weapons.” This study was provided by none other than the Violence Policy Center, Josh Sugarmann’s organization who popularized the entire assault weapons canard. The FBI disagrees with Josh in two ways. First, they do not classify the weapons used with any “assault weapons” designation (which makes LCAGV’s summary completely false), and the numbers just don’t add up. When you review the FBI’s data and triangulate using the types and calibers of weapons commonly in “assault weapons” categories, the number of police killed with anything remotely resembling an assault weapon ranged between 1%-8% of all police shooting deaths.

For perspective sake, 20 times as many officers were accidentally killed on the job than were shot to death (regardless of the type of firearm), and most of those were automotive accidents.

Agitprop and Reality

Reality can only be ignored when ancient instinctive reactions are used to override logic, perspective and facts. This is why the gun control industry continues to fight the non-existent scourge of “powerful weapons of war.” Laying it on thick is all they have left.

About the Author

Guy Smith is the founder and chief researcher at the Gun Facts project (motto: We are neither pro-gun nor anti-gun. We are pro-math and anti B.S.). The Gun Facts project has been deconstructing bad gun control policy information for over 16 years. Smith has a background in quantitative management and research, as well as extracurricular excursions into constitutional law and criminology. Smith is also the author of Shooting The Bull (http://amzn.to/1KotyQ4), a guide to spotting propaganda in real-time.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N4 (May 2017)
and was posted online on March 17, 2017


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