2. Firearm Violence

2.6 "Good" Verus "Bad" Guns - The "Assault Weapon" Controversy

The United States Department of Defense defines "assault" firearms (primarily rifles) as short, compact, select-fire (capable of both full-automatic and semiautomatic operation) weapons firing a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun (pistol) and rifle cartridges [79]. In actual fact, semiautomatic firearms describes as "military assault weapons" in prohibitionist literature are not used by any military anywhere in the world [80].

Definitions of semiautomatic "military assault weapons" typically provided by firearm prohibitionists are deliberately misleading and calculated to exploit the non-gunowning public's general ignorance of firearm technology. Most firearms, no matter what their current uses, derive directly or indirectly from guns designed for the military; consequently, the phrase may describe virtually all semiautomatic, single shot, and bolt action rifles, shotguns, and handguns that meet a completely subjective criteria for "military" features. The reference often made by prohibitionists that "military assault weapons" are "...designed to be spray fired from the hip" is a characteristic more accurately applied to a garden hose than military small arms. Like a "four wheel tricycle", a "semiautomatic assault firearm" is a logical impossibility.

The only difference between a "sporting" gun and semiautomatic "military style" firearms legally available to Canadians is the material and style of its stock. "Military-style" firearms usually use composite plastic or fibreglass stocking materials to reduce weight.

True "assault" firearms, being select-fire weapons, are not legally available in Canada. Use of this term by prohibitionists and the media is a very popular, and incorrect, misnomer now routinely applied to virtually every weapon including knives (similar to "Saturday Night Special", an old and much-abused American media phrase for "cheap" handguns). As a result of overuse it no longer has any meaning.

Application of this term by firearm prohibitionists to the Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic sporting rifle used by Marc Lepine in the murders at the University of Montreal in 1989, is not only completely incorrect but shifts the public's focus from the fact that Mr. Lepine was a product of a long period of parental physical and mental abuse and was given a Firearm Acquisition Certificate by a firearms registrar who failed to conduct the proper background checks required by Canadian law.

Firearm prohibitionists neglect to mention that the coroner's report on the incident indentified the poor response time of the police (they did not enter the building until eight minutes after Lepine had taken his own life and some thirty minutes after he began his rampage) as directly responsible for the high death toll, and that under the circumstances a standard "hunting" rifle or double-barreled shotgun would have had similar results [81].

Firearm prohibitionists assume, incorrectly, that something associated with military use, even by appearance only, must be more dangerous than something associated with only sporting uses. Many hunting firearms are designed to humanely kill animals weighing more than 1000kg with a single shot from over 500m away. While military rifles may look ominous, they are in fact far less lethal than standard hunting rifles. Wounds from hunting bullets are far more severe than wounds from military-type bullets [82].

Professsor Gary Kleck offers the following observation on "assault" guns in crime:

"It was commonplace for news sources in the late 1980's to refer to 'assault rifles' as the 'favoured' weapon of criminals, or more specifically, of drug dealers and youth gangs (eg. New York Times 2-21-89; Newsweek 10-14-85, p.48). There is no hard evidence to support such a claim, either for criminals in general or for these specific types of criminals. Analysis of samples of guns seized by police from criminals indicate that only a small fraction can be describes as 'assault weapons'." [83].

"Procontrol propagandists sometimes avoid making a meaningful assessment of the seriousness of a particular gun-related problem if the effort would not yield a supportive result.... when targeting assault rifles or machine guns are silent on how many crimes are committed with these weapons, and do not cite any meaningful standard by which one could judge criminal use of these guns to constitute a serious problem." [84].

"...'assault rifles' and 'assault weapons' are rarely used by criminals in general or by drug dealers or juvenile gang members in particular, are almost never used to kill police officers, are generally less lethal than ordinary hunting rifles, and are not easily converted to fully automatic fire. They offer a rate of fire somewhat higher than other gun types and can be used with magazines holding large numbers of cartridges, but there is at present little reason to believe either attribute is relevant to the outcome of any significant number of gun crimes." [85].

The debate over "good" versus "bad" guns is ultimately pointless. The specific weapon type under discussion changes from year to year depending on the political climate. Most often these firearms and their alleged involvement in crime aren't new, they've only received an unwarranted share of media attention. The slogan often encountered in "...this type of gun is good for only one purpose: killing people".

The technical characteristics of a firearm that allegedly make it useful for criminal purposes also make them suitable for a variety of legal purposes as well, including collecting, target shooting, hunting, and self defense. If the firearm proposed to be regulated is relatively rare among legal owners, it's usually rare among criminals as well and therefore, not often involved in crime. Regulating "bad" versus "good" guns also affects the availability of certain types of guns to criminals, ultimately forcing them to substitute other more lethal firearms such as sawed-off shotguns and rifles [86].