Why we should ban assault weapons

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In 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the Washington region for three weeks by firing bullets at innocent people in parking lots and at gas stations, ultimately killing 10 people and wounding three others. They used a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle, one many variants of America's most popular assault weapon, the AR-15.

In 2006, Kyle Aaron Huff used a Bushmaster when he opened fire at a post-rave party in Seattle, killing six before committing suicide. In 2007, Tyler Peterson used an AR-15 to kill six people at a homecoming party in Crandon, Wis. In 2012, a gunman opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Police say James Holmes used a Smith & Wesson version of the AR-15 that was equipped with a 100-round drum magazine. And in December, Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster XM-15 in his massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six adults.

In Annapolis, the House Judiciary Committee is considering changes to Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun violence legislation, including an effort to pare down the list of firearms included in a proposed assault weapons ban. Among those under consideration for removal: the AR-15.

Given that we would not be having this conversation at all if not for the Sandy Hook tragedy, the politics of banning a variety of weapons but not the one used there are certainly terrible. But the objections opponents raise — that these weapons have legitimate uses and that their inclusion on a banned list is arbitrary — warrant a response.

The governor did not pull the list of weapons he proposes to ban out of the air. Instead, he took an existing list that is currently subject to extra regulations under state law. That list was created in 1989 and is similar to the list of weapons banned by the federal government from 1994-2004. (The effort in Congress to restore that ban appears to have stalled.) The governor's bill would also ban weapons that contain two or more military-style characteristics.

Critics complain that those characteristics are cosmetic — that they make the guns look scary but don't mean they inherently fire more rapidly or more accurately than semi-automatic handguns or some kinds of hunting and sporting rifles that are not part of the proposed ban. Indeed, the kinds of weapons in question are not fully automatic; that is, a gunman would have to pull the trigger each time he wants to fire, rather than firing a burst by holding the trigger down. Automatic weapons are already highly regulated and have been since the 1930s. And in general, the limiting factor for how quickly a semi-automatic rifle can fire is the same as it is for a handgun — how fast the shooter can pull the trigger.

Yet, such weapons show up again and again in mass shootings. According to Mother Jones magazine, which has cataloged every mass shooting in the United States since 1982, about a quarter of all mass shooters had assault weapons, and more than half had assault weapons, high capacity magazines, or both. (Mr. O'Malley's proposal would also ban magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.)

What makes these weapons so deadly? They are civilian copies of military weapons designed with features that make them more lethal.

The AR-15, for example, has a pistol grip, which helps a shooter pull the trigger more quickly and to better control the recoil, allowing him to fire more rapidly with more accuracy. It also enables shooting from the hip and spraying fire from side to side — something that would be deadly when firing into a crowd but useless in a self-defense situation.

When fired rapidly, a gun's barrel can quickly become too hot to handle. A barrel shroud, common on many of the models listed in the governor's bill, enables a shooter to hold the gun with a second hand without burning himself. A forward grip, which is somewhat less common, achieves the same purpose.

A folding, detachable or telescoping stock helps make an assault weapon easier to carry and conceal. That is frequently a factor in mass shooting situations.

A threaded barrel allows the easy attachment of a silencer or a flash suppressor. The latter prevents the shooter from being temporarily blinded by the muzzle flash, particularly in low-light conditions, enabling him to fire more quickly and accurately. It also helps conceal the position of the shooter, something that may well have been a factor in the D.C. snipers' ability to evade detection.

Some of the weapons on the list have the capability of mounting a grenade launcher. Although explosive grenades are heavily regulated, the launchers can accept other kinds of projectiles, including smoke grenades.

As delegates consider amendments that would limit Mr. O'Malley's proposal on assault weapons, they should ask themselves this question: If the features common to these firearms are merely cosmetic, why has the military adopted them? They are not for hunting or target shooting or for defending one's home from an intruder. They are for killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and there is no justification for having them in civilian life.

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