On an episode of Meet the Press that aired Sunday, December 16th, two days after the Newtown shooting, Senator Dianne Feinstein announced that she would bring a new assault weapons ban to the floor in 2013. Feinstein was one of the authors of the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
The rationale behind such a ban would be to reduce access to the types of gúns that would make it easy for one person to kill many people quickly. The 1994 ban placed restrictions on firearms that had certain characteristics of military weapons—for example, rifles with bayonet lugs, flash suppressors and pistol grips. Some gun enthusiasts derided the 1994 ban as a “cosmetic ban” because it prohibited certain guns that looked dangerous, while allowing other, equally deadly weapons to remain legal.
Whether you support Senator Feinstein’s bill or not, it’s important to understand what she proposes to ban, and it would be easier to assess the relevance of such a ban if the bill logically differentiated among weapons based on their capacity to kill. Most Americans know enough about guns to have formulated at least a vague opinion about what should and shouldn’t be legal. Through popular television programs, movies and video games, even people who have never fired a gun have developed some notion about the difference between, say, an M-16 and a snub-nosed revolver. But there are a huge variety of guns sold on the civilian market in the U.S., many of which are not well understood by the general public. This overview, while not comprehensive, is designed to clarify the significant differences between various types of firearms, with an emphasis on the weapon’s potential to kill many people quickly.
Much of the recent debate about which guns to ban has emphasized differences between handguns and rifles. That distinction is more complex than it might seem. We think of handguns as smaller weapons that shoot smaller bullets1. But some pistols have the same caliber, rate of fire and capacity as military rifles. At close range, specialized handguns can be as effective as rifles, either when used for hunting or when used to inflict mass casualties. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot 49 people (32 fatally) at Virginia Tech, armed only with handguns.
Rather than focus on the size of the gun, I’d like to highlight two more relevant factors that make some guns more lethal in mass shooting scenarios than others, which are A) rate of fire and B) capacity. Any gun can be deadly, but all other things being equal, a gun that can fire rapidly for a sustained period without needing to be reloaded clearly has the potential to kill more people than a gun that can only be operated with frequent pauses.
Capacity is determined by the number of bullets that can be loaded into the magazine2, the part of a gun that holds ammunition. The actual capacity of a gun is usually one round greater than the capacity of its magazine. For example, the capacity of a handgun with a 10-round magazine is 11 rounds—ten in the magazine, and one in the chamber of the gun. With most recent semiautomatic handguns and rifles, the magazines are removable3—an empty magazine can be replaced with a full magazine in a matter of seconds. The same gun can often accept interchangeable magazines of different capacities. Here’s a Beretta Model 92 pistol with its standard 15-round magazine in place. Here’s the same model pistol with a 30-round extended-capacity magazine. This Beretta is also available with a 10-round magazine, made specifically to comply with current California law.
An AR-15 rifle like the Bushmaster Adam Lanza used in Newtown accepts a standard 30-round magazine. Lanza had several magazines pre-loaded with ammunition, so he was able to continue shooting continuously, with only short pauses at 30-round intervals. James Holmes used a nearly identical rifle in the Aurora theater shooting, equipped with a 100-round drum magazine. The same model firearm could be configured with a five-, ten-, fifteen-, twenty-, thirty-, forty-, or 100-round magazine, but it hardly matters which magazine is initially packaged with the gun. Changing magazines is about as difficult as putting your iPhone into your pocket.
You might wonder, then, why magazine capacity matters. Couldn’t a shooter just carry several lower capacity magazines instead of one high-capacity magazine, and shoot just as many bullets? The relevance of magazine capacity was sharply illustrated in the 2011 Tuscon shooting. Jared Loughner used a 9mm Glock handgun with a 30-round magazine to shoot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 other people (six of whom died). He also carried several additional magazines, but was never able to reload his weapon—when he had emptied his 30-round magazine, unarmed civilians took advantage of the momentary pause to fight and subdue him. If he had had a 10-round magazine, his shooting spree might have ended sooner.
A firearm’s rate of fire is determined mainly by the “action” of the gun (the mechanism by which a bullet is moved into the chamber, where it is ready to fire). Early revolvers (called “single-action” revolvers) required the shooter to cock the hammer, then pull the trigger for each shot. Revolvers evolved to combine both steps (cocking and firing) into a simple pull of the trigger—these “double-action” revolvers will fire every time you pull the trigger, with no additional step between shots. A double-action revolver will fire about as quickly as a semiautomatic pistol, but with an important distinction—when the revolver has exhausted its capacity, usually no more than eight rounds, new bullets must be reloaded into an integral part of the gun itself. A revolver can be reloaded quickly, but only by someone who has lots of practice.
There are many guns still in use that require some manual operation to load a bullet into the chamber between each shot, resulting in a slower rate of fire. Some rifles and shotguns4 are “pump action”—these guns require the shooter to “pump” a round into the chamber before firing. Other guns require the shooter to manually operate a bolt or lever mechanism between every shot. Semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns will fire every time the shooter pulls the trigger (until the magazine is empty), with no manual cocking required between shots. (Fully automatic weapons, which are restricted in the U.S., will continue to fire rapidly while the shooter holds the trigger down.)
If you think you know what an “assault weapon” looks like, the .308 caliber Browning BAR White Gold Medallion might give you reason to re-evaluate your definition. This is technically a hunting rifle, but it’s a semiautomatic with interchangeable magazines, and has a rate of fire not much different than an AR-15 or AK-47. (The major difference being that the Browning shoots a larger, more powerful bullet, and is sold with a lower-capacity magazine. The 4-round magazine in this gun, though, is a removable part that can be quickly exchanged with a 20-round magazine available separately.) This Browning rifle would not have been prohibited under the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Other manufacturers, including Winchester and Merkel, make similar semiautomatic hunting rifles, which would require only a new magazine to transform them into weapons at least as deadly as an AK-47.
In discussions of guns and possible gun bans, I believe it is more logical to categorize weapons by their capacity and rate-of-fire, rather than by less relevant factors such as their ability to accept a bayonet (or not), whether they have a pistol grip (or not), or whether they have a flash suppressor (or not). I suggest that we avoid the term “assault weapon” and use more precise and relevant language, such as “semiautomatic firearms with interchangeable magazines.”
This article was written by Matt Valentine, with input from several other members of Parents Against Gun Violence.
1 Caliber is a measurement of the physical size of the bullet, which will affect it’s lethality (as will its velocity, shape, and composition). A single round of ammunition for a modern rifle or pistol should properly be called a “cartridge.” The “bullet” is technically only a part of the cartridge—the projectile. However, since most people understand the word “bullet” to mean a single round of ammunition, I have casually used that word in this article in place of the word “cartridge.” (A single round of shotgun ammunition is properly called a “shotshell” or “shell.”)
2 Don’t call a magazine a “clip.” Technically a clip (aka “stripper clip”) is a thin strip of metal that holds several bullets, making it easy to load them into the internal box magazines of certain (antiquated) rifles. A clip looks like this.
3 Not all magazines are removable: pump-action shotguns and lever-action rifles have tubular magazines under the barrel. Tubular magazines are not interchangeable—once you empty the magazine, you have to refill it, one bullet at a time. Many hunting rifles have internal box magazines, which likewise must be reloaded when empty, one round at a time.
4 A shotgun is usually a long gun, similar in size to a rifle, but with a smoothbore barrel (as opposed to a rifled barrel, which is lined with grooves that impart a twist on the projectile, stabilizing it for a longer, faster trajectory.). A single shotgun shell usually contains several small projectiles, which range in size depending on the type of game to be hunted—birdshot, for example, consists of small lead or steel pellets, whereas buckshot consists of much larger pellets. Shotgun shells can also be loaded with a single, heavy projectile, called a slug. Shotguns can be extremely deadly weapons, but most have tubular magazines with relatively low capacity. There are exceptions, however, such as the semiautomatic Saiga shotgun, which functions much like an AK-47 rifle and has a similar removable magazine.