An Exercise in Calculated Hysteria

The semiautomatic rifle has been part of the American scene for nearly a century. In 1903 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company marketed the first commercially successful semiautomatic rifle. It was not designed as a military arm, and no sales were made to the US Army. The new rifle was marketed among sportsmen and touted as a great technical improvement over the lever- and bolt-action weapons that had dominated hunting since the post-Civil War period. Only in 1939 did the United States Army begin large-scale issue of a recently adopted semiautomatic rifle (the famous M-1 Garand), and it was not until the mid-1960’s that the American military adopted a selective-fire “assault rifle” (the initially problem-plagued M-16) as its new standard small arm.

Eighty-six years after the first Winchester semiautomatic rifle left the factory and entered a private citizen’s hands, the nation has been convulsed by a wave of controversy and deliberately induced hysteria over the alleged menace of the privately-owned “semiautomatic assault rifle.” The result has been massive confusion on the part of the nonshooting public, generated in large measure by the ignorance, incompetence, and poorly concealed bias of a national news media working in concert with an alliance of social activists whose ultimate goal is to deny the private citizen any right to own firearms of any description. No one should oppose the free discussion and debate of the potential need for reforms in our gun laws, but lies and willful distortions of the truth employed in the service of a hidden agenda have no legitimate part in such a process. There exists a definite need for someone to dispel some of the prevalent myths about semiautomatic firearms and the uses to which they are put by the people who own them, the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding citizens.

What is a semiautomatic rifle? What is an assault rifle? Those two terms are bandied about as synonymous by the news media and anti-gun activists, but their specific meanings elude most of the people who use them so glibly to condemn an entire class of firearms. Simply put, a semiautomatic weapon (handgun or longarm) is one that possesses the capability to fire single shots in quick succession by using the force generated by the explosion of each cartridge in its chamber to set up the next shot. Early repeating rifles utilizing lever- and bolt-action systems required the shooter to manually manipulate a mechanical loading and firing system for each shot. A semiautomatic weapon requires the shooter only to load a quantity of cartridges into its magazine before firing and then to squeeze the trigger for each successive shot. Semiautomatic weapons can be fired very rapidly, but they are not fully automatic, like the machine gun. They do not fire continuously for as long as the trigger is held back or cartridges remain in the magazine.

An assault rifle is a member of a class of weapons first developed for military use by the Germans in World War II. Assault rifles are capable of selective fire—i.e., they can be fired in both semi- and fully-automatic modes as the situation confronting the soldier demands. Assault rifles typically take intermediate-size cartridges that are shorter in length and lack the range and striking power found in the full-size cartridges used in most conventional bolt-action and semiautomatic rifles. The so-called “assault rifles” marketed in this country by both domestic and foreign manufacturers do not have the built-in capability to produce fully-automatic fire. In this they differ from their military-production counterparts. Although most semiautomatic weapons of any type can be altered to be permanently fully automatic, such procedures are strictly illegal. In reality the various “assault rifles” being sold in this country are not assault rifles, for they lack a selective-fire capability. Weapons like the improved AK-47’s are simply semiautomatic rifles chambering the same intermediate-size cartridges used by their military cousins. Likewise, the American Colt AR-15 rifle is very much like the M-16, except that the Colt lacks the machine gun-like capability to spray bullets at a single touch of the trigger.

At the end of World War II semiautomatic rifles like the M-1 Garand became readily available in large numbers to the American public via sales by surplus arms dealers. Fully automatic weapons like machine guns and submachine guns (which fire pistol cartridges) were not easily acquired by private citizens, for since the 1930’s such firearms had been subjected to severe licensing and registration requirements that made them expensive and unattractive for the casual shooter or arms collector. The semiautos remained in common possession, however, and few authorities at any level of state or national law enforcement questioned their suitability for private ownership by nonfelons.

By the mid-1960’s attitudes had begun to change. Gun control became a major issue and advocates of more restrictive laws governing the acquisition and use of firearms gained support from the public backlash against the Kennedy and King assassinations as well as such tragedies as the 1966 “Texas Tower” shooting spree staged by the brain tumor-maddened Charles Whitman in Austin. The growing revulsion against the war in Vietnam and the taint of all things martial also aided the anti-gun forces. At the same time a rising tide of social permissiveness and a legal system obsessed with observing procedural minutiae at the expense of dispensing justice contributed to a steady rise in violent crime across the nation. (Remember when Attorney General Katzenbach declared that he regarded the person who left his ignition keys in a car to be just as guilty of a crime as the worthy who stole the same vehicle?)

Despite their best efforts the hoplophobes failed to win passage of their desired restrictive and/or confiscatory gun legislation by the time the 1980’s opened. They were frustrated by a crime-weary public that remained skeptical of their aims and methods, as well as a national leader who cheerfully defended the rights of honest gun-owners while he lay recuperating from an attempt on his own life. Even the shooting and killing of a pop icon like John Lennon failed to muster new legions of supporters behind the standards of the gun-haters. By the time poor Bernie Goetz chose to defy the prevailing liberal orthodoxy by defending himself with a handgun on a New York City subway, many citizens were willing to stand up and cheer his courage.

In the latter half of the 80’s the anti-gun crowd has had better luck gaining adherents. The “McDonald’s Massacre” in California and the string of mass shootings that followed between April 1987 and February 1989 triggered a new wave of public concern about firearms. The January 17, 1989, attack upon a California grade school by an AK-47-wielding psychotic left five children dead and 30 other people wounded in a horrifying act of madness. It also served as the rallying point for an attack upon the ownership of semiautomatic weapons. Patrick Purdy, the suicide-bent assailant in the California killings, was armed with a “street-legal” imported semiautomatic AK-47, as well as a semiautomatic pistol. That much was indisputable. Conveniently suppressed or overlooked in the media stories were the facts of Purdy’s lengthy criminal record, which included arrests for extortion, prostitution, possession of narcotics, attempted robbery, receipt of stolen property, criminal conspiracy, and two dangerous-weapons charges. This was a man who had once been arrested for shooting at trees because, he explained, “I have a duty to overthrow the suppressor.” He was subsequently described in his probation officer’s report as “a danger to himself and others.” Patrick Purdy was cast by the media as a symbol of the tragic laxity of gun laws in America. He was in reality a symbol of the tragic laxity of the criminal justice system, which left him free to walk the streets.

The system of plea bargaining and the apparent indifference of the California legal and public health authorities to Purdy’s obviously deranged state put him swiftly back in society following each arrest and left him free to legally purchase firearms. (Purdy’s reputed purchase of the AK-47 from an Oregon dealer may have been in violation of the law, although the exact circumstances concerning his acquisition are not yet clear.)

The Purdy killings prompted a spate of municipal bans against the sale of “assault rifles” in California, and a bill was introduced in the state legislature to outlaw numerous semiautomatic firearms. Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio also announced his sponsorship of a federal bill that would place semiautomatic arms in the same legal restrictive category as machine guns and submachine guns.

Obviously there is something wrong with a system that permits the Patrick Purdys of this world to run free and gain access to any sort of weapon. But does the solution to preventing such acts as his lie in outlawing a specific type of firearm and casting ridicule or suspicion upon those who wish to own them? Is the mounting incidence of violence in our society mainly attributable to the presence of semiautomatic weapons, or do other factors encourage the predisposition of certain people to violent crime? Sociologists have debated these issues for decades, without resolution.

Certain facts are quantifiable and demonstrable, however, and once demonstrated they bring the supposedly criminal and sinister qualities of semiautomatic firearms into clearer perspective. Gun-banners seem incapable (or unwilling) to make any clear distinctions between the legal semiautos like Uzis and AK-47’s on the one hand, and genuine “assault rifles” on the other. They further cloud the issue by lumping all semiautomatic weapons into the “purely weapons of war” category. The March 15, 1989, US Commerce Department ban on the importation of “AK-47 type weapons” is a case in point. What precisely is the government’s interpretation of the phrase “AK-47 type weapons”? Does it refer to all gas-operated semiautomatic rifles (à la the American M-1, Belgian FN, and Chinese SKS, among a host of others)? What about those semiautos operating on the blowback principle, like the imported Israeli Uzi carbine? Does the ban cover only those semiautomatic rifles utilizing intermediate-power rifle cartridges like the AK-47? What about (again) the popular Uzi, which chambers nine millimeter pistol ammunition?

Although police departments in certain areas where there is heavy drug traffic have testified to the rising criminal use of semiautomatics, just how wide a threat to society does the illicit possession and use of such weapons pose? University of Texas criminologist Sheldon Ekland-Olson recently estimated that “assault rifle” type firearms figured in less than 1 percent of all homicides committed in the United States, while the cheap “Saturday Night Special” handguns favored by many petty criminals were used in between 30 and 40 percent of such killings.

Leaving aside the actual frequency of their criminal usage, such vaunted and allegedly sinister weapons as the semiautomatic AK-47 and Uzi are in some respects no more lethally effective than such conventional and “lowtech” weapons as the shotgun. The AK will assuredly empty its thirty-round magazine of cartridges within 20 seconds if the shooter has a limber trigger finger and scant regard for the precise placement of his shots. By contrast, a Remington Model 1100 semiautomatic shotgun fitted with a five-round magazine for twelve-gauge cartridges can be fired empty within five seconds or less. A shotgunner using a plastic cartridge-holding tube to speed reloading can easily keep pace with an AK gunner in laying down a curtain of fire. Even an elderly double-barreled shotgun charged with buckshot loads can dispense 18 projectiles in under two seconds and be ready to fire again within five seconds. Compared to such weapons the AK’s only advantages are its superior range and accuracy if used in firing slow, aimed shots. A recent comparison test has even disclosed that in terms of accuracy and striking power the venerable Model 1894 Winchester lever-action deer rifle with its .30-30 cartridge is superior to the AK-47. (The Model 1894 Winchester was the gun used by actor Chuck Connors in The Rifleman.)

Given such indisputable technical realities, why do the anti-gun activists have such a zealous hatred for paramilitary-style semiautomatic rifles? It is a matter of popular psychology. Such weapons have a lean, functional look of lethal efficiency that gives them a sinister aspect. Such an appearance plays right into the hands of the hoplophobes. “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semiautomatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons,” boasts a recent publication by the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence.

The anti-gunners and their media allies have no desire to confuse the public with facts. The anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment message is pervasive in both mass-media entertainment and journalism. During the week of March 13-17, 1989, the CBS television network provided repeated grist for the gun-banners’ mill. The popular Monday night situation comedy Designing Women featured a distortion of fact that could only have stemmed from either blatant ignorance or a willful intent to deceive on the part of writer-producer Linda Bloodworth Thompson. In this episode one of the ditzy female characters on the show legally purchased a Colt AR-15 rifle following a series of threats against her and her pet pig. When her friends from work made a surprise midnight call upon her, the nervous Atlanta belle opened up with what was obviously a barrage of fully-automatic fire. Actress Dixie Carter then self-righteously delivered a homily on the evils of such weapons and the malign “gun lobby.”

CBS followed this with its evening newscast of March 15. Commentator Dan Rather announced the news of the government ban on importation of “AK-47 type weapons” and then held forth in a prerecorded segment in which he appeared at a police gun range somewhere in New Jersey to interview two alleged experts on the evils of such weapons. The demonstrated expertise of the first “expert” whom Rather interviewed was less than impressive. The government agent proceeded to display an Uzi whose barrel length was plainly below the legally mandated minimum for the semiautomatic versions of the weapon imported into this country from Israel. The’ audience, of course, was led to believe that they were seeing a weapon that was already in common circulation among the citizenry. He then referred to it as a “rifle,” and identified its detachable magazine as a “clip.” These were mistakes in technical nomenclature that no truly knowledgeable person would have made. Another law enforcement officer featured in the broadcast referred to those who might wish to use semiautomatic weapons for hunting purposes as “weird.” So much for the ethical and objective standards of broadcast journalism.

The Rather broadcast touched upon another distorted issue that constantly surfaces in the debate over semiautomatic arms. Opponents claim that no genuine sportsman would seek to blast Bambi with a thirty-round barrage from a weapon like the AK-47. This ignores the fact that such weapons are legal for hunting purposes in 48 of the 50 states, although in many instances semiautomatics must have their magazines blocked so that they will accept no more than five rounds of ammunition, which is the same number of cartridges carried in most bolt-action sporting rifles. Once again, the opposition ignores reality in its drive to “prove” that semiautomatics are not suitable for sporting purposes and serve only the function of killing people.

If the banners truly want to eliminate all guns capable of rapid-fire or the discharge of multiple projectiles in quick succession, then they will ultimately have to move against all revolvers, all shotguns, and all lever- and bolt-action magazine-fed rifles. (In 1914 advancing German troops were decimated by smaller units of British Tommies armed with a bolt-action rifle whose basic design dated back to the late 1880’s. Trained in rapid and accurate delivery of long-range fire, the British troops proved so effective that the Germans complained that each enemy soldier must have been armed with a machine gun.) The end result of this, campaign for public safety would likely be the prohibition of all firearms except muzzleloaders and single-shot breechloading hand and shoulder guns. A ban on all metallic cartridge fixed ammunition might logically follow, since elimination of it would render inoperable any illicit semiautomatic weapons still retained by the rightwing-redneck-diehard element of the population.

At its core the crusade against semiautomatic rifles (and by implication all other firearms) reflects a deep split in values between those who honor the traditional warrior virtues and skills as vital necessities for a nation’s survival and those who deplore them as being proof of a willing reversion to the bestial. Many Americans love firearms for the same reason that they love automobiles. Both are perceived as guarantors of individual freedom. Both can impart a sense of power to their possessors which, serves as a healthy tonic against the myriad petty oppressions of life in a modern mass society. They instinctively know that to be disarmed is to risk subjection to the worst excesses that can be wreaked upon men by the state. They cherish skill with arms for both the intrinsic joy that stems from mastering a powerful instrument and for the assurance it brings that they can still give pause to all Hitlers and Stalins (foreign or domestic). The gun-haters cannot fathom such a people and their feelings. “Our female-dominated, spastic society has been working overtime for a generation to discredit manhood,” Bill R. Davidson asserted in To Keep and Bear Arms. “People who still like to kill their own snakes bother political leaders in our time. The politicians don’t understand and thus vaguely distrust these last traces of self-reliance and do-it-yourself assuredness.”

The anti-gun lobby will never realize that an Alvin York will always be more vitally important to the survival of the race than a Dan Rather. For that reason they must not be allowed to prevail, for the triumph of their views will eventually deprive this nation of the essential ability to define its mortal enemies and to unite in arms and oppose them.