A Long Gun Primer, assault rifles, assault weapons, connotation, D/S/Cs, denotation, dependent clauses, fully automatic, independent clauses, machineguns, second amendment, semiautomatics, Shakespeare, suppressors
I’ve often written about how much I appreciate the cogent comments of readers, and from time to time, find it helpful to respond to those comments more directly and in more depth than is possible in a brief comment reply. Such is the case with regular reader Sailorcurt, who wrote in response to A Long Gun Primer, 2020. I’ll add my responses interspersed with his comments.
First, I want to say that this is an excellent primer. If I’m not mistaken you’ve posted it before so it was probably written a while ago. It is extremely useful and I thank you for it.
With that said, there are a couple of points I want to bring up.
1) I know the whole ‘there is no such thing as an ‘assault weapon’ canard has been going around in the gun community for a long time. I used to use that argument myself…but it is actually not accurate. Many state laws have legal definitions of ‘semiautomatic assault weapon’. Additionally, they are addressed in several places in federal law and are defined in 27 CFR Section 478.11.
I would submit that if there is a legal definition in federal and many state’s laws, semi-automatic assault weapons do exist. Saying they don’t exist because there has never been a military use for them just seems to me like a semantic twist and can undermine our entire argument. We say ‘they don’t exist’ and an anti-gunner points to federal law and says ‘yes they do’. A firearm novice is going to see the anti-gunner providing evidence for their position and will consider us to be misleading them. Not a good look.
That doesn’t undermine the argument that anti-gunners simply call anything they like an “assault weapon” to try to get them banned, that the definition just basically lists off a bunch of cosmetic features that have no bearing on the lethality or function of the firearm, or that semiautomatic assault weapons are NOT weapons of war, but only cosmetically appear similar to military weapons…those arguments are all valid.
Interesting and valuable points all. As a teacher of the mother tongue, I have an appreciation for the necessity of precision in the use of that tongue. The French had the first dictionary, but the English dictionary is the largest, well over a million words and growing daily. That number of words is necessary in order to be precise.
The power to name, to label, is an important, even defining power. If we are careful people, concerned with names/labels accurately reflecting the objects named, defining them, and in so defining, excluding all others of their kind, we must be certain the name/label meets these criteria. Dogs and cats denote very different animals with clearly definable characteristics. Both have four legs, two eyes, two ears, tails (usually), hair (usually) and many other similarities, but “dog” and “cat” separate the species and serve very useful purposes. A cat cannot be a dog and a dog cannot be a cat.
In the same way, “assault weapon” is too vague to be definitive, to denote a given, clearly articulable class of firearms, though it may connote virtually any firearm Democrats/Socialists/Communists want to ban at any given moment. We might think assault weapons to connote a group of black, pseudo-military looking firearms, virtually exclusively semiautomatic, usually with detachable box magazines, but that’s about as far as we can go, and this ambiguity is purposeful. Denotation–clearly defining the weapons involved to exclude everything else–is to be avoided. Connotation–including whatever one wants–is the point.
Indeed, the term has been incorporated into law, but there’s a major problem. In law, the average citizen must be able to understand precisely what is, and what is not, illegal. Legal language must be even more precise than colloquial language, or the statutes containing it are void for vagueness. To ban a thing, we must be able to clearly define it, so there can be no question what is to be banned, and what is lawful. Therein lies the major problem.
A fundamental tenet of D/S/C belief and strategy is to control “messaging,” to define and thereby control the terms of any debate, for whosoever does that, wins by excluding any words, ideas or beliefs they disfavor, limiting possibilities. Thus do we often see D/S/C operatives complain that they need to refine their messaging when the public roundly rejects one of their candidates or policies. No D/S/C policy can possibly be wrong, so when they are, the issue must be the wrong messaging. If only they can come up with the right phraseology, the rubes can be tricked into accepting the unacceptable.
Inventing a class of firearms called “assault weapons” does not conjure it into being. There is indeed a class of military small arms known as “assault rifles,” which has the clearly defined characteristics I provided in the linked article. Those characteristics are present in all true assault rifles, therefore the term is accurately descriptive and useful. However, for the purpose of D/S/C liberty/gun banners, the term is useless, even counterproductive. Actual assault rifles are already essentially banned, because one of the primary characteristics is fully automatic fire capability. They have been stringently regulated since 1934, and essentially banned since 1986 as I explained in the linked article. Therefore, “assault rifle” is inadequate to the liberty/gun banner. The definition is too narrow, too accurately descriptive, and they know they will be unable to entirely wipe common semiautomatic firearms from existence as long as normal Americans have anything to say about it.
This is where “assault weapons” comes into play. The various definitions are so vague or all encompassing they can ban virtually anything, from pistols, to carbines, to rifles, to shotguns. Even semiautomatic “hunting” rifles often fall under their widely cast net. Particularly with federal law, the head of the ATF virtually always has the authority to torture definitions and issue rules that go even farther than the incredibly vague statutory language in the furtherance of bans. This is all on purpose; this is the liberty/gun banner’s intent. Today’s innocuous, common, legal semiautomatic firearm is tomorrow’s illegal assault weapon.
“Assault rifle,” which is narrowly drawn, entirely accurate and which would allow any citizen to know what is and is not legal, won’t work. “Assault weapon” allows all manner of mischief, including obtaining unlawful warrants to search based on virtually any interpretation of a vague statute. No one can know what is and is not illegal at any given minute, so anyone owning anything an anti-liberty/gun bureaucrat decides is illegal at any moment might find the full weight of the government thrown at them. And oh yes, gentle readers, this has indeed happened. Bureaucratic whim determines the parameters of a crime, a bayonet lug today, a flash hider tomorrow, a standard magazine the next day.
Those seeking to take liberty will use any ploy useful to them. In most cases, they know nothing about the firearms they seek to ban, and those that do cynically manipulate language to help them deprive the law abiding of their lawful possessions and unalienable rights. If they can ban any given class of firearm, they know they have a size 20 foot in the door toward banning them all. If that “class” encompasses virtually any semiautomatic firearm, so much the better, but for the time being, they dare not try to ban all semiautos, so they do the next best thing and ban “assault weapons.” It’s a lie. Always, and it goes far beyond mere semantics.
2) I’m going to play Devil’s advocate here…’federal regulation of machineguns is one of the greatest crime-prevention success stories of all time…In order to own a machine gun, suppressor (there is no such thing as a ‘silencer’), even a rifle or shotgun with a barrel shorter than 16″, one must be fingerprinted, undergo local, state and federal record checks, meet all legal criteria, receive the OK from a local sheriff or police chief, pay a $200.00, non-transferrable tax, and submit to a wide variety of federal regulations relating to storage and transportation. Machine guns are not misused because those willing to undergo such an onerous procedure are surely among the most honest, honorable and law-abiding Americans.’
The quoted statement was somewhat satirical, but the point that people willing to undergo such arduous vetting, and pay a premium for scarce firearms tend to be among the most law abiding is plain.
So…if that is so effective for machine guns, why wouldn’t similar restrictions be effective for all guns? We could virtually eliminate gun crimes if we restricted all gun ownership to that level.
To save time, I’m going to respond in advance to the two most likely replies you’re going to give:
‘There are so many guns in circulation right now that these restrictions would be ineffective’
Sure…in the short term…but over time through seizures during arrests, breakage, and crime guns being disposed of to hide evidence, the numbers of guns in criminal hands would go down and down…just like the stocks of machine guns have since 1986. Your own article proves that it can work over time. Even if it takes 100 years or more for it to make an appreciable difference, at least we can rest easier knowing that our great great grandkids will live in a safer society can’t we?
This is not an argument for the same kind of vetting for all arms. The point is most gun owners are very safety conscious, and do not use their guns in crimes. Criminals do that, and they are not bound by the law, being criminals. They will always have guns, even if they have to make them, which with minimal tools of the proper kind is easy. The argument is that this kind of vetting is generally unnecessary and violates unalienable rights.
‘Such restrictions would be unconstitutional’
But if they’d be unconstitutional for handguns, shotguns and hunting rifles, why aren’t they unconstitutional for machine guns? The clearly stated purpose in the prefatory clause of the 2nd Amendment was to protect the militia…the primary military force of 18th century America. That means military arms were the intended objects of that protection. The Miller decision back in the ’30’s even made that clear…that the ban on short barrelled shotguns was not unconstitutional because the court had not been made aware of any military use for them, hence they were not protected by the 2nd Amendment. So, if specifically military use weapons (machine guns) can be restricted in that way, it follows that weapons that are NOT specifically for use by the military can be similarly restricted without violating the 2nd Amendment. I mean…they’re not BANNED, there are just admittedly effective restrictions on their ownership, right?
The prefatory clause of the Second Amendment is a dependent clause. It does not define or carry the meaning of the sentence. The second clause, the independent clause about the right of the individual to keep and bear arms, is the independent clause, which does carry the meaning of the sentence. The Second Amendment is not about the preservation of a militia, but about the unalienable, natural right to arms of every man, as the Supreme Court finally held in Heller (2008). The Miller decision did not, in any way, touch on the fundamental, inalienable right and has always been essentially a nullity.
There is an old argument in Second Amendment circles that any restriction of automatic weapons is unconstitutional. While I agree in theory, we must remember we’re dealing with politics in a representative republic. Even when Republicans held both houses of Congress and the presidency, they didn’t so much as try to overturn the 1986 machinegun ban, or deregulate suppressors, the latter being very much a public health issue. Oh, there was some talk, but the leadership wouldn’t allow it to proceed beyond talk.
Part of this particular argument is that if we allow unrestricted access to any weapon, we get into explosives, hand grenades, ManPADS, ballistic missiles, even nuclear weapons. Imagine Microsoft with it’s own nuclear arsenal, perhaps Planned Parenthood, or any number of well heeled, less than entirely sane, individuals of any political persuasion.
The point is for the sake of practicality, for the sake of what is possible and reasonable, we end up accepting—not necessarily agreeing with—some restrictions, which in an absolute way are probably unconstitutional. Actually, the Constitution doesn’t bestow an unalienable right, nor can laws take it away, but you get the point, I’m sure, gentle readers.
So no, the kinds of commonly understood issues about which we speak are not arguments for more, and more intolerable, restrictions, which are clearly not effective vehicles for greater public safety. Are there any grounds for depriving free men and women of the most common, usual and effective arms? Never, not in a society that values liberty, and should anyone try, they should at least be able to clearly, unmistakably define that which they seek to ban so everyone can understand the terms of the debate.
A rose by any other name, to badly paraphrase Shakespeare, might be an assault weapon.