Why a Ban on Semi-auto ‘Assault’ Rifles is a Dumb Idea

Photo by brian.ch on Flickr

A slew of deadly school shootings took place this October. In response, Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, proposed a blanket ban on all semi-automatic rifles, which he labeled ‘assault’ weapons. He cited support from the ‘vast majority’ of Americans.

“Instead of people yelling at each other, we have got to come together on commonsense approaches which, in fact, the vast majority of the American people support. [… There is] widespread support to ban semiautomatic assault weapons, guns which have no other purpose but to kill people.”

Bernie Sanders

However, his logic is fundamentally flawed. Here are six concrete reasons why.

1. Is there really a “vast majority?”

First, Sanders is factually incorrect in saying that the vast majority of Americans want to ban semiautomatic guns. In fact, polls show that those who want to increase gun control actually form a minority of Americans. The majority of Americans don’t want to increase gun control at all.

2. What about the Constitution?

Constitutional challenges based on the Second Amendment will surely be posed to a blanket ban of this nature. The Second Amendment specifically states that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Will Bernie and other supporters of a semi-auto rifle ban be able to overcome those challenges? It’s unlikely that the courts will stretch the plain language of the Second Amendment that far.

3. Will a blanket ban work?

Sanders doesn’t let us know how he’ll enforce the ban. Many gun owners have publicly stated that they will use deadly force to resist confiscation of their guns, using slogans like ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ, or literally, “Come and take [them].”

In addition, the monetary cost of collecting and disposing of all of those guns would also be prohibitive. Estimating the costs is complicated by the fact that no one really has a conclusive number on exactly how many semi-automatic rifles are in our nation. This same fact will also prove a major roadblock to the enforcement of any blanket semi-auto rifle ban.

Even the liberal Slate concludes that a buy-back type program for semi-automatic ‘assault’ rifles would cost billions of dollars in a heavily gun-laden nation like the United States. That’s a prohibitive sum for a program that doesn’t even work.

4. Why are semi-auto rifles singled out?

Sanders singles out semi-automatic rifles with the comment that they are “guns which have no other purpose but to kill people.” This position is flawed.

The vast majority of guns are made with killing people in mind. In fact, the very first gun ever (which was, coincidentally, invented by the Chinese) was made as a killing weapon. It was called the “fire lance,” and it was used to spray fire (and sometimes shrapnel) at enemy soldiers.

Although it is true that semi-automatic rifles are usually created with killing in mind, they are not unique in this regard.

If the point is to ban all killing tools, it’s probably best to start with handguns, semi-automatic or otherwise, since their main purpose is killing. The US Department of Justice and the FBI both agree that handguns are used much more frequently in violent crime than other firearms. The fact that handguns are carried so often by police also bears testimony to the deadly purpose that they were designed for. In comparison to handguns, rifles and shotguns have useful application in hunting and other fields. You don’t usually see hunters carrying pistols or revolvers out to hunt deer.

We might as well ban all knives. The FBI also agrees that knives are also used in many times more murders than semi-automatic rifles.

We might as well also ban all hammers, because they’re being used in more murders than ‘assault’ rifles.

While we’re at it, we might as well ban ‘personal weapons’ (any body parts, including hands, fists, feet, etc.), because the FBI has found that they’re more than two times more likely to be used in murders than so-called ‘assault’ rifles.

There is no reason to single out semi-automatic ‘assault’ rifles from all other weapons for special demonization.

Finally, just because certain firearms are deadly does not mean that they should be eliminated. Their deadliness makes them particularly effective for war, self-defense, and the apprehension/elimination of criminals.

5. Will semi-auto rifles actually be eliminated?

It is practically impossible for a government to completely prevent people that want to acquire a firearm from obtaining one. As the old saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Even should the federal government successfully pass a blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles, overcome certain public outrage, constitutional challenges, a lack of funding, start off the ban with a successful buyback program, and enforce the ban with stiff penalties, it will still be relatively easy  for those that desire to do so to obtain semiautomatic guns illegally on the black market. Criminals have consistently demonstrated their lack of regard for gun laws.

Even in supposedly gun-free countries, criminals and even terrorists have been able to acquire and use firearms.

The terrorists that attacked Charlie Hebdo in January and Paris earlier this month were able to illegally procure AK-47-type fully-automatic assault rifles, even though France has severe restrictions on civilian ownership of automatic firearms. In fact, the Charlie Hebdo attackers were actually able to illegally obtain tear gas and sub-machine guns, in addition to heavy weapons like rocket launchers and grenades, .

Chinese criminals have also not lagged behind their French terrorist brethren. They have also found ingenious methods to obtain firearms, even though civilian ownership of guns has been almost completely banned in China.

In addition, the construction of semi-auto firearms is not extraordinarily difficult; enthusiasts and Chinese criminals have been able to improvise them from scratch and make them by hand. Advances in technology will also soon render 3D-printed firearms like ‘The Liberator’ much more reliable and complex, potentially adding semi-automatic capability in the near future.

6. Will violence actually be ended?

As noted above, a blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles (or any blanket gun bans) won’t actually solve the problem of violent crime, because criminals will still be able to obtain semi-automatic rifles illegally.

Let’s suppose a ban works, and creates a situation where criminals, terrorists, and mass shooters no longer have access to semi-auto rifles. In such a situation, they will simply turn to handguns, shotguns, single-shot rifles, and other weapons. Violent crime won’t be ended or decreased.

I wrote an op-ed on the place of guns in schools last year, and at the beginning I cited the Pearl High School shooting. In that mass shooting, the attacker was not using a semi-automatic ‘assault’ rifle. He used only a lever-action rifle that was designed for deer hunting. Nothing fancy. Yet he was still able to wreak havoc, shooting nine people.


If a ban on ‘assault’ rifles was constitutional, if it was cheap and affordable to enforce, if it was practical to implement, and most importantly, if it would have successfully decreased violence to any appreciable degree, I would support it.

Sadly, though, it doesn’t meet any of these requirements. And that’s why I’m against a blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles.

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