Every time there is another mass shooting, calls begin anew for a ban on private ownership of semiautomatic rifles. But, sadly, the time has passed when such an approach would make a decisive difference in the United States.
In an era of declining hunting, firearms manufacturers have increasingly transformed their product lines to feed gun buyers’ desires for military-style weaponry. Even if Congress could agree to pass a new law banning semiautomatic rifles – a big if in today’s polarized climate – a wide range of combat weapons would still be legally available, along with accessories to make them deadlier.
Shotguns, for example, may not have the 300-yard range of semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15, but many are lethal at 30 yards, and over the last 20 years, have steadily become more so. It used to be that shotguns held only five shells at most, carried in a tubular magazine under the barrel, but manufacturers have slowly increased shell capacity up to nine in some models.
After all its shells have been fired, by either a pump or semiautomatic action, a tube-fed shotgun must be reloaded one shell at a time, a slow process. In 2017, combat shotgun firepower jumped when firearms manufacturers Remington and Mossberg began offering shotguns with detachable magazines that hold six to 20 shells. An empty magazine can be removed and a new one inserted in just two seconds. For hunting, many states restrict shotgun capacity to three shells.
In Connecticut, the families of the 2012 Sandy Hook victims are taking a path worth watching.
Shorter shotguns that are more concealable and maneuverable inside cars and rooms have also become more widely available in recent years. The 1934 National Firearms Act, passed in an era when people were eager to rein in a spate of gangster killings, required shotguns to be at minimum 26 inches long. Any shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches long, as well as rifles with barrels under 16 inches long and all machine guns and silencers, had to be registered. They were taxed $200 — the equivalent of $3,800 in today’s dollars. The law effectively dried up the market for such weapons.
Today, the tax remains at $200, a price that is no longer prohibitive. As a result, for years, tens of thousands of people have purchased shorter weapons or had gunsmiths shorten the barrels of their shotguns to below 18 inches and simply paid the tax.
In 2018 manufacturers began offering consumers a way to avoid the tax altogether. According to a new interpretation of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives rules, if a short-barreled shotgun does not have a stock, then it is not legally a shotgun. Both Mossberg and Remington now manufacture weapons featuring detachable magazines with 14-15 inch barrels and no stocks. Despite their short barrels, they are legal, non-taxable guns.
The gun industry also has begun marketing weapons capable of making accurate 1,000-yard shots. Back in the 1980s, when I researched and wrote a book about paramilitary culture, and how it was influenced by mass media (such as “Rambo” movies), sniper rifles were not a big part of the scene. Such rifles and scopes then cost many thousands of dollars and were not widely sold. But in 2013 Remington won a U.S. Army contract to produce 5,000 sniper rifles at $15,000 apiece. Soon after, it released a civilian version for $1,200, and other major manufacturers did as well. These rifles are generally not used by hunters.
Suppressors — commonly called silencers — have also seen a surge in popularity in recent years. In 2016, the total number of suppressors registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was just over 900,000. By 2018, that number had risen to nearly 1.5 million. Silencers aren’t, in general, being used by hunters, who don’t consider muffled shots at animals ethical, because they don’t alert animals in the vicinity that shots are being fired. Nevertheless, the gun industry increasingly markets rifles and pistols with threaded barrels on which a suppressor could easily be attached.
Forty-two states allow suppressors, which can be purchased for well under $1,000. The gun industry and shooting media market the devices as a way to prevent hearing loss from gunfire, although earplugs and muffs already do this effectively.
The real appeal of suppressors comes from the promise of making silent kills. When suppressors are used on rifles and pistols firing commonly available low-velocity, subsonic ammunition, then shots are not always readily identifiable. As the recent Virginia Beach, Va., shootings made clear, the muffled pop-pop-pop of a suppressor-equipped weapon does not immediately alert people nearby to an active shooter. One ad for the Sidewinder model shows a suppressor-equipped pistol in a dark room amid shattered glass. Another company’s logo reads, “Make Love Loudly, Make War Silently.”
Only a handful of the people who buy combat shotguns or sniper rifles or suppressor-equipped weapons use them to commit mass murder, of course. But it’s also true that buyers find the power of combat weapons seductive. Paramilitary consumers crave adrenaline, and the weapons are designed and advertised to appeal to warrior fantasies.
So, what might work to limit the easy availability of combat weapons? In Connecticut, the families of the 2012 Sandy Hook victims are taking a path worth watching. The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that their lawsuit can proceed against Remington, manufacturer of the gun used there to kill 26 children and staff members at the elementary school. The suit alleges that marketing and advertising of the gun used by the killer violated Connecticut consumer protection law by promoting criminal conduct.
Legislators, too, have a role to play. Even if it’s difficult to pass meaningful legislation, congressional committees and state legislative committees could subpoena firearm manufacturers and ask them to explain their marketing, advertising and possible promotion of crime. If nothing else, the grilling could help inform the public about the kind of deadly games being played by gun manufacturers here in war-zone America.
James William Gibson is the author of “Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America” (1994).