Paul Muschick: Pittsburgh gun control plan raises question: Are AR-15s assault weapons?
The reaction to my recent column supporting Pittsburgh’s proposed ban on assault weapons, and calling for a similar ban statewide, was predictable.
There was a passionate and often vile backlash from gun owners who cited the Constitution’s Second Amendment and argued it forbids government from interfering with their right to own firearms.
Don’t I know anything about the Constitution, I was asked? How dare I suggest such a thing!
Now, not all of the critics were so foul and nasty. Some argued just as passionately, but politely, for their position. I respect that.
A few people agreed with the column. One woman wrote in an email, “I honestly don’t understand why anyone would be against banning assault weapons.” I suspect more people think that way, too. Critics of a point of view on any topic, whether it’s guns, tax hikes or taxpayers bailing out General Motors, are more likely to speak out than supporters.
Several readers said an AR-15 does not meet the definition of an assault rifle, and that any weapon could be an assault weapon.
They raised a point worth a deeper look. There’s no question that any gun, and countless household objects ranging from knives to hammers, can be used to commit assault. So is it fair and accurate to use the term “assault weapon”? Just what does that mean?
Well, as you’d expect on a topic as touchy as firearms, there are multiple definitions. How expansive the definition is, and whether it includes an AR-15, depends on who is doing the defining.
I used the term because the proposed ordinance in Pittsburgh uses it, and that’s what I was writing about.
The legislation proposed in Pittsburgh defines an assault weapon as: “A selective-fire firearm capable of fully automatic, semiautomatic or burst fire at the option of the user or a firearm that has the ability to accept a large capacity magazine.”
It also includes semiautomatic rifles that can use a detachable magazine and has two of these capabilities — folding or telescoping stock; pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; bayonet mount; flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; grenade launcher. There are similar descriptions of semiautomatic pistols and semiautomatic shotguns that would be considered assault weapons.
You can find the complete definition in the proposed ordinance on Pittsburgh’s website, pittsburghpa.gov. Look under “city info” and then “press releases” for the one titled, “Leaders Forward Package of Common Sense Gun Safety Measures.”
The National Rifle Association defines an assault rifle as: “By U.S. Army definition, a selective-fire rifle chambered for a cartridge of intermediate power. If applied to any semi-automatic firearm regardless of its cosmetic similarity to a true assault rifle, the term is incorrect.”
The NRA defines an “assault weapon” as “any weapon used in an assault.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation says “AR-15-style rifles are not ‘assault weapons’ or ‘assault rifles.’ An assault rifle is fully automatic — a machine gun. Automatic firearms have been severely restricted from civilian ownership since 1934.”
The language in Pittsburgh’s ordinance is similar to language in laws in other states that already ban assault weapons.
Yes, that’s right. Other states have banned assault weapons.
But the Second Amendment forbids that, I repeatedly was lectured after my recent column. Well, so far, those laws have withstood legal challenges.
And yes, the term “assault weapon” is used in those laws.
California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have bans, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. With the exception of Hawaii, where the law covers pistols only, the states define AR-15s as assault weapons.
Those state laws grandfather weapons that were owned prior to the laws taking effect, so people didn’t have to give up guns (though some of those states require them to be registered and prohibit them from being transferred).
In April, a federal judge upheld Massachusetts’ law, ruling that assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not protected by the Second Amendment.
“The AR-15 and its analogs, along with large capacity magazines, are simply not weapons within the original meaning of the individual constitutional right to ‘bear arms,’” U.S. District Judge William Young said in his opinion, according to the Associated Press.
As I said in last week’s column, bans won’t prevent all mass shootings, but they could make them harder to commit and minimize the damage.
I can live with being called a traitor, a hack and a parasite for suggesting that.
Paul Muschick’s columns are published Monday through Friday at themorningcall.com and Sunday, Wednesday and Friday in The Morning Call. Follow me on Facebook at PaulMuschickColumns, Twitter @mcwatchdog and themorningcall.com/muschick.