Sunday, August 2, 2009

Understanding Assault Weapon Bans

by Ben Small

Many folks don't understand the 1994 Clinton Assault Weapons Ban, nor do they understand what are meant by the terms "Assault Weapons" or "pre-ban," nor do they understand what risks still await one who wants to add some cosmetic touches to their so-called Assault Weapon, even though the 1994 ban expired on September 13, 2004. I'll try to explain the basics here. But before I begin, please pardon the complexity and idiotic nature of these measures. Congress passed them, not me. And these laws have done just about nothing to stop crime.

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban pushed by Clinton and enacted by Congress banned specific guns made by specific manufacturers. These weapons, all semi-automatic in nature - meaning they fire one shot with one trigger pull - included the specific models and manufacturers' names, and it included a catch-all for any other weapons which carried characteristics of those weapons. So, the definition of weapons included those specifically named and any others which fit this language:

A semi-automatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of the following:

1) a folding or telescoping stock;
2) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
3) a bayonet mount;
4) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor,, and
5) a grenade launcher.

All but the grenade launcher are regarded by gunners as cosmetic issues. But having a grenade launcher itself, as long as your rifle didn't have one of the other listed cosmetic parts, was not banned.

Oh goodie! I could use a grenade launcher on my rifles, and Congress doesn't seem to think that, alone, is a bad thing...

Similarly, the ban with respect to pistols covered a semi-automatic that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of the following:

1) an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;
2) a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer. (Nevermind that silencers are regulated anyway by the National Firearms Act);
3) a shroud that is attached to, or partial or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the non-trigger hand without being burned;
4) a manufactured weight of fifty ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded,; and
5) a semi-automatic version of an automatic firearm (popularly called a "machine gun")

These definitions were taken directly from the Act. Additionally, magazines were banned if they could hold more than ten rounds, but of course, there was no limit to the number of ten-round magazines one could buy or carry.

There were also provisions covering certain kinds of shotguns, but enough is enough. You'll get the picture without adding the restrictions on shotguns.

The ban prohibited manufacture, transfer, or possession of a "semi-automatic assault weapon." But there were some exceptions to this part. It was legal to possess a weapon owned prior to the date of enactment, and it was legal to purchase a weapon made before October 1, 1993.

The legislation was largely regarded as a joke. So much notice was provided of these provisions, and the Act took so long to pass that manufacturers ramped up production of banned weapons prior to October 1, 1993 such that weapons covered by the act and manufactured before that date are still easy to find in new, unfired condition even now. Indeed, I bought a new pre-ban Bushmaster AR-15 legally in 2000. And the gun store from which I bought it had a huge collection of new, unfired pre-ban weapons for sale.

Interpretation of the Act is tricky. For instance, if you bought a kit, pre-October 1, 1993, which if assembled before that date would be a legal Semi-automatic Assault Weapon, but waited until after that date to assemble the kit into a weapon, your completed weapon assembly would violate federal law, because the law covered complete weapons, not kits or parts for them.

So, your perp or protag has a kit for an imported AK-47, or already has one and wants to add some cosmetic features. Is he going to violate federal law if he does so, now that the infamous Clinton Assault Weapons Ban has expired?

Well, gee, he'd better be damn careful, or the ATF (remember Waco?) will come knocking on his door. Why? Because of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and BATFE regulations thereunder, which make criminal the assembly of a rifle or shotgun using more than ten of the following imported parts:

(1) Frames, receivers, receiver
castings, forgings, or castings.
(2) Barrels.
(3) Barrel extensions.
(4) Mounting blocks (trunnions).
(5) Muzzle attachments.
(6) Bolts.
(7) Bolt carriers.
(8) Operating rods.
(9) Gas pistons.
(10) Trigger housings.
(11) Triggers.
(12) Hammers.
(13) Sears.
(14) Disconnectors.
(15) Buttstocks.
(16) Pistol grips.
(17) Forearms, handguards.
(18) Magazine bodies.
(19) Followers.
(20) Floor plates.

Understand, it's perfectly legal to add these parts or build a kit, as long as they're U.S.-made parts, which of course, are identical or better than the foreign parts. You just can't build or modify any semi-automatic assault weapon if doing so will mean you then have more than ten of these imported parts on your weapon. You can buy a completely assembled imported new pre-ban AK-47; you just can't build or assemble one with more than ten of these parts imported.

How much sense does this make? How would you like to do ten years in federal prison and pay an enormous fine just because you decided to replace your U.S.-made unfinished wood stock on your AK-47 with a nice laminated foreign stock? Or, as reflected in this picture, you wanted to match your fore-ends to your stock, and replaced one or the other (or maybe both) with a foreign-made part?

How's that for Buy America enforcement?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Wow, Ben. Are you sure you weren't a gunsmith in a former life. I'm printing your article for future reference.

Ben Small said...

No, Jean, and if you saw my shop skills, you'd have enough to laugh about for the rest of the year. In high school shop class, I built a lamp, but it canted at a 40 degree angle. I was so ashamed and my parents so proud, but it really was laughable. I have friends who build weapons kits, but I would never attempt one. The damn thing might shoot backwards. :<)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Ben, I've owned guns since I was a kid and fully support the right to bear arms, but I'll never understand the logic behind owning assault weapons. I doubt I'll be popular for saying this, but assault weapons are different from deer rifles or target pistols for their only purpose is to kill people -- preferably in mass numbers. The assault on Columbine High School still stings as it was not far away from where we live, and the numerous copy-cat mass murders that have followed around the world are a testiment to the dangers of assault weapons. Mrs. Winchester went mad because of the guilt over her husband's weapons development and her Winchester House in San Jose is a testiment to her madness. Sadly, these weapons will probably remain in the private sector.

Ben Small said...

Actually, Mark, that's not true. They shoot one bullet at a time, just without the need to jack the bolt. In fact, they're now as popular for hunting as true hunting rifles, because so many returning veterans are used to them. And most are used for putting holes in paper, the way I use them. There really were no statistics to support the Clinton ban, and it failed miserably.

You may remember Charles Whitman in the Texas Tower. He used hunting rifles and an M1 Carbine, a WWII rifle.

Believe it or not, I've seen videos on Guns and Ammo television, where a shooter was shooting a WWII Mauser, a bolt action rifle almost as fast as an AR-15, a semi-auto, using stripper clips, which have been used for a hundred years. And of course, the first semi-auto, the M-1 Garand won WWII. The argument that the only purpose of a semi-auto is to kill people is a myth, disproved by stats and activities. Go ahead and believe it, if you want, but there are lots of uses for them that have nothing to do with killing people. I shoot one almost every two weeks, and I haven't killed anybody, except in books.

Believe it or not, but during Revolutionary War times, every household was required to own a gun. That's why we won the war. And the law is still that way in Switzerland. That's why Switzerland was not invaded during WWII.

The first thing the Nazis did when they came to power was take away the people's guns. If they hadn't done that, WWII may never have started.

If you Google Clinton Assault Weapons Ban, you'll find that the statistics existing at the time of the ban pointed to them not being much of a threat.

Yes, Columbine was a tragedy. But it would still have been a tragedy is they'd used hunting rifles and pistols instead.

Most AR-15s are used for varmint rifles, coyotes, rabbits, and prairie dogs, among others or for shooting holes in paper. By far, most so-called "Assault Rifles" shoot the .223 round, also known as the .556 (in metric). That round is accurate but not powerful. It will bounce off windshields and won't penetrate body amour. That's why the military doesn't like it.

The Obamans like to say 90% of the weapons seized in Mexico from drug lords were smuggled from the U.S. That's not true, either. In fact, that only relates to those few weapons the Mexican government bothers to trace and report to the U.S., which is a very small percentage of the actual weapons seized in Mexico. And of course, it doesn't include the machine guns and grenades the drug lords are using.

If you go to a ahooting range, you will find most rifles being shot are semi-automatic.

ARs are also popular for hunting because they have shorter barrels, which means you have less problems getting through brush than with a longer barreled traditional hunting rifle.

The guy at Va Tech used a Glock. As you know, it's not a rifle.

Anonymous said...

"...during Revolutionary War times, every household was required to own a gun. That's why we won the war. And the law is still that way in Switzerland. That's why Switzerland was not invaded during WWII."

Ben, I have to disagree about guns being the reason Switzerland was not invaded during the war. It was purely political. For one thing, Switzerland's banking laws were perfect for stolen goods.

But mainly, in every war,there has to be a neutral country or open city. Opposing powers need a neutral zone where they can go to spy, plot and plan. You still have to watch your back but in theory, at least, they are open places.

In WW2,that was Switzerland, although Lisbon, Portugual was an open city. Sweden was also a neutral country in stealthy ways.

Several years ago I popped off to a Swede about Sweden not being neutral during the war and he said very quietly, "What makes you think we weren't?"

Some countries simply had to work behind the scenes, doing the best they could to thwart the Nazi machine.

Norway was one. Read John Steinbeck's "The Moon Is Down" sometime for the skinny on Norway. It's a novella, and meant as propaganda, but still true to Norway.

Pat Browning

Ben Small said...

Pat, The History Channel was running a Hitler series a month or so ago, and they talked about his war strategy, gleaned from old videos of members of his staff and his secretary, and from documents. They said Hitler wanted to invade Switzerland, because he wanted control of the banks, but he was afraid the combination of terrain and guns in every household would be an obstacle his juggernaut couldn't conquer. And he feared defeat there might have an impact elsewhere.

Anonymous said...


The History Channel notwithstanding, everyone knew that Hitler was a major nutcase. Switzerland is a small country and airplanes changed the conduct of war. He could have bombed it into submission the same way he bombed Holland -- admittedly a non-armed country.

And his bombing failed in Yugoslavia, where the people simply took to the hills. When I was traveling in Yugoslavia during the late '70s and early '80s, there were statues of the Partisans
in prominent places.

In Switzerland, the mountains were probably one deterrent. Since the Spanish Civil War was considered a practice run for World War2, Hitler may have learned from Spain's experience with the Basques -- those mountains are a planet of their own, and the Basques still haven't given up.

But Switzerland had one thing nobody else had -- its banking system. Even Hitler must have thought twice about putting it in peril.

Fascinating stuff -- the history of that war. Much of the history was plowed under with the millions who died.

And there are still people who think the Holocaust was a fake!

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Ben, there is a big difference between semi-automatic weapons (of which I own two) and weapons that have been modified to fire automatically -- AKA machine guns. We both know they're out there, and that's what I was referring to when I said they don't belong in the hands of civilians. Hope that clears up my position.

Ben Small said...

Mark, it does clear it up. Automatic firearms (machine guns) are governed by a different Act, the National Firearms Act, which requires a Class III license to obtain, which means an extensive background check much different from the NCIS background check, payment of a $200 tax, and requires one's local sheriff to sign off. Same with SBRs, Short Barrel Rifles, those with less than an 18 inch barrel. These are tightly regulated. And they're not particularly accurate. The machine guns spray bullets, where one pulls the trigger once and fires many shots. These weapons were not covered by the Assault Weapons Ban, as they have been covered since the 1930s or so by the NFA. The only machine guns I've ever seen or heard were with Border Patrol trainees practicing at the range. I wouldn't have one of these weapons because a machine gun burst will rise as the muzzle rises, affecting accuracy dramatically.

In addition to the difficulties associated with purchasing a machine gun, these guns are quite expensive, often requiring payment of $15,000-20,000. And these are not the guns that the Mexican government is tracking back to the U.S.

The real problem with assault rifles of any type is the straw purchaser, the person who purchases a weapon for someone not able by law to legally possess or purchase one. We have always had laws on the books, covered by the NFA, to prohibit these false purchases. It's okay to buy a gun and then later decide to give it or sell it to someone else who is entitled by law to own such a weapon, but it is illegal to purchase it with the intent to give it away, a big difference. I trade guns all the time, but my intent at the time I bought each gun was to own it. If I decide later I don't like the weapon and want something my friend has, I can trade it, or I can sell it. The key is the intent at the time of purchase, and to whom the gun is transferred later. If transferred to one known not to be able to own or possess any firearm due to commission of a felony or a domestic abuse misdemeanor, federal law is broken and both transforor and transferee are subject to a ten year prison term and a large fine. That's what's wrong with the attempt to ban guns sold through gun shows, the so-called "gun show loophole." There really is no loophole. An individual may sell any weapon he owns to another as long as he doesn't have knowledge that the person is unable to purchase or possess such a weapon or any firearm at all. Dealers at guns shows must still call in the BATF clearance for the typical background check. But private sales between individuals are not subject to this requirement. To ban these sales would mean you could not give or sell your gun to your son or daughter, or a cousin or a next door neighbor, even if the person was legally entitled to buy a gun. It would require all sales to go through a licensed dealer.

It's also a federal crime to ask someone how to convert a semi-auto into an automatic. Just asking the question is regarded as an attempt, and is a federal crime. Most gun shows have BATF agents crawling all over them, asking this question, testing people's responses. Ask the question to the wrong person, you go to jail. Most gun dealers will refuse any service to someone asking that question, even if the reason behind the question was research, not for real intent to make such a conversion. A very good book for anyone interested in this law or application of these laws to various circumstances, should read UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES, by John Ross, a sort of legendary book and required reading by anyone who considers him or herself a gun expert or enthusiast.

Finally, let's say you were convicted at a young age of a domestic abuse misdemeanor and later on, you get the conviction expunged from your record. The BATF will not accept the expungement, and possession or purchase by you of a firearm is forever prohibited.

Hopefully now, everybody's on the same page.