Since 1996, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they support a ban on "assault weapons." Gallup has never explained what "assault weapons" are, and there's a good reason for that: The category is defined by politicians, so its meaning is arbitrary, mutable and illogical.
Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the federal "assault weapon" ban that was enacted in 1994 and expired in 2004, introduced her latest attempt to reinstate and expand it. Her bill bans "205 military-style assault weapons" by name, along with any rifle that "accepts a detachable ammunition magazine and has one or more military characteristics," such as "a pistol grip, a forward grip, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel or a folding or telescoping stock."
The 1994 definition required two "military characteristics" instead of just one, and the list was different. Back then, Feinstein said nothing about barrel shrouds, but she was worried about bayonet mounts, which she is now willing to allow.
Now, as then, however, features that do not make a gun any more deadly in the hands of a mass shooter or an ordinary criminal, such as a folding stock or a threaded barrel, nevertheless transform it into an intolerable "assault weapon." Compounding the craziness, Feinstein's new bill also targets products that reverse this magic by removing the features that offend her.
The California company Thordsen Customs, for example, sells a kit that replaces an adjustable stock and pistol grip on a rifle that would otherwise qualify as a prohibited "assault weapon" in some states. Feinstein claims "Thordsen-type grips and stocks" are "designed to evade a ban on assault weapons," which is a bizarre way of looking at it.
"We are complying with the ban," says Alan Thordsen, the founder and CEO of Thordsen Customs. "If there's a feature that is banned, we change the feature. That's not evading. That's not skirting the law or violating the spirit of the law. We are conforming with the law and creating products that enable law-abiding people to keep their legal firearms in a legal configuration so that they are not criminals."
By Feinstein's logic, smooth rifle barrels should be banned because they can replace threaded barrels, changing a prohibited "assault weapon" into a legal gun. The problem here is not sneaky entrepreneurs like Thordsen, but irrational legislators like Feinstein. Thordsen's real offense, one suspects, is highlighting the silliness of legislation like Feinstein's.
An "assault weapon" ban that just took effect in Boulder, Colorado, cuts Feinstein's list of "military characteristics" in half, focusing on pistol grips, adjustable stocks and "any protruding grip or other device" that "allow(s) the weapon to be stabilized with the non-trigger hand." Unlike Feinstein, it seems, Boulder's gun controllers are not afraid of barrels with shrouds or threads.
A ballot initiative that took effect this month in Washington goes in a different direction. While the state's ban applies only to adults younger than 21, it defines "semiautomatic assault rifles" so broadly that the category includes all semi-automatic rifles.
The seven states with general bans on "assault weapons" define them more narrowly than Washington, but the criteria vary. New York, like Feinstein circa 1994, cannot abide bayonet mounts, for example, but California, which enacted the nation's first "assault weapon" ban in 1989, is OK with them.
Once you realize that "assault weapons" are in the eye of the beholder, it's hard to take seriously the extravagant promises of legislators who want to ban them. Feinstein claims her bill would "put a stop to mass shootings." Yet, even if it eliminated the millions of "assault weapons" that Americans already own (something it does not even purport to do), would-be mass shooters would still have plenty of equally lethal alternatives.
After three decades of this nonsense, Americans may be starting to wise up. According to Gallup, support for legislation like Feinstein's fell from a peak of 59 percent in 2000 to 40 percent last year.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.