President Obama is backing a revival of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, perhaps the leading legal scholar on the Second Amendment, argues that bans on assault weapons are useless -- as pointless as trying to stop drunk driving by "banning whiskey." This is because "assault weapons" is just a label applied by gun-control legislation to certain semi-automatic guns that are not unusually deadly, so banning those particular guns just leaves other equally deadly semi-automatics on the market.
Semi-automatic guns, including "assault weapons," are not machine guns. They do not fire more than one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, unlike a machine gun. The sale of machine guns and fully automatic weapons has long been banned. By contrast, much of America’s guns are “semi-automatic." Indeed, so many guns in this country are semi-automatic -- the way most cars run on gasoline -- that The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney says that "semiauto is the norm. As Al Tompkins at [the] Poynter [Institute] puts it: 'The use of the phrase semi-automatic when talking about guns is like using the phrase 'gasoline cars.'" As Carney notes, New York Times reporters who write about gun violence do not even understand what a semi-automatic gun is, erroneously assuming it has something to do with whether a bullet from the gun can pierce a bullet-resistant "vest" (it doesn't) when in fact the word "semi-automatic" merely describes the gun's "loading mechanism."
Congress and the president may pass an “assault weapons” ban to make themselves feel good, but I won’t expect much in the way of results for public safety if they do. As Professor Volokh notes,
So-called “assault weapons” are no deadlier than other weapons. To begin with, note that assault weapons are not fully automatic weapons (which is to say machine guns). Fully automatic weapons have long been heavily regulated, and lawfully owned fully automatics are very rare, very expensive, and almost never used in crimes. Rather, assault weapons are a subset of semiautomatic weapons, generally semiautomatic handguns and rifles. Semiautomatic handguns and rifles — of which there are probably at least about 100 million in the country, and likely more — are undoubtedly extremely deadly; but the subset that is labeled “assault weapons” is not materially deadlier than the others. One way of recognizing that is looking at the definition in the 1994-2004 federal assault weapons ban; the ban lists several types of guns by name, and then provides these generic definitions:
(B) a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of–
(i) a folding or telescoping stock;
(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
(iii) a bayonet mount . . . .[see additional examples at Volokh's web site]
Guns that fit these categories may look more dangerous; but they aren’t more dangerous. . . .
Banning assault weapons thus has basically no effect on the lethality of gun crime, or of mass shootings more specifically.
Although Volokh says that assault weapons bans would be useless, he also says that they would likely be constitutional, since "such bans leave law-abiding citizens with ample access to other guns that are equally effective, and therefore don’t substantially burden the constitutional right" to keep and bear arms.
Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred, has an assault weapons ban in force. The Hartford Courant, and Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine, say that the gun used in the massacre is not an "assault weapon" under Connecticut's law, which was modeled on the federal assault weapons ban that was enacted in 1994 and expired in 2004. Robert VerBruggen discusses that gun here, arguing that it is not a particularly powerful gun compared to many others that are on the market.