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Guess what's in the news these days? The "assault rifle". Never has a more badly-named piece of equipment caused more legal ruckus and confusion than the civilian "assault rifle". Especially since there is an actual definition for the term "assault rifle", and it has nothing to do with the police/legal definition of "assault".

The 2nd Amendment has been dragged into the spotlight, as well, with a lot of back-and-forth about what that means and who should be allowed to access weapons. The biggest point of discontent is over civilian access to so-called "assault rifles" and their "clips", or more properly, "magazines". A lot of confusion stems from Hollywood use of these terms, and from the news media use of the terms, which is frequently erroneous either out of a deliberate attempt to dramatize-through-confusion, or sheer ignorance.

For those who are curious, I'll explain what an "assault rifle" really is, and give my spin on what can be done about this sort of thing in the future. More below the fold:

An "assault rifle" by definition is a rifle used in an assault-- which sounds kinda like a head-smacker at first, but bear in mind that an "assault" is a particular term used for a particular tactical situation. It is different from, say, a "defense", or trench warfare, obviously.

To qualify as an "assault rifle" a rifle has to fit certain criteria: first, it is a small, light caliber because a small, light caliber allows you to carry a lot of bullets, both in size/volume and weight. Secondly, it is capable of firing full-auto fire, and doing so with some reasonable degree of accuracy & controllability. The smaller caliber bullet makes recoil less of a problem, and it is easier to retain control on full-auto. The problem is, civilian "assault rifles" are not capable of firing full-auto without extensive and very dangerous modifications. More later. First, let's define why full-auto is there.

Now, what do we use full-auto for? To mindlessly hose down the enemy? No. It is to spray so many bullets in the enemy's direction, that he takes cover and doesn't get up. It's to pin him in a position while the riflemen maneuver on him and pick him off with well-placed shots.

With actual, proper military assault rifles, when you are in an assault on a fixed position ("fixed" meaning "permanent, dug-in, reinforced with concrete" and such), you want to keep your enemy pinned down. After all, your enemy is in a fortified position. If he has the chance to get up and fire from his well-prepared defenses, he will perforate the bejeezus out of you, and your assault will fail. So part of the "assault" is a close-in confrontation with a prepared enemy, and you need to keep putting a lot of rounds towards his face to keep him from fighting back effectively. (This is also why you need, at minimum, a 3-to-1 advantage when conducting an assault, so there's always a volume of fire on him from somewhere even if some of your troops need to reload. When assault a well-fortified position, you need a ratio more like six-to-one, or six attackers for every one defender).

So, for an "assault rifle", you want a whole lot of small, fast bullets. The M-16 family, and the Russian AK-74 family (5.45 mm) fits this bill very well.

Here's the problem:

An assault rifle is a bullet hose, almost by definition. But, soldiers are trained to engage targets and fire with a "one-shot/one-kill" standard. In other words, they are trained to treat their assault rifles like... battle rifles.

Battle rifles?

A battle rifle is a larger, heavier rifle, typically firing a cartridge in the 7.XX category. Like the rifle, this cartridge is larger, heavier, had a lot of kinetic energy and knockdown power, and is not easily deflected like a smaller bullet might be. Because the bullets are bigger and heavier, you carry less of them, but, you're expected to make each one count, and they reach out to much longer ranges. Take a look at the FN-FAL (or L1A1 as it is also known. Google it.) and you will see the ultimate battle rifle: a 7.62x51 rifle with a long-ass barrel, meant to dominate a battle field with irresistible force at great distance. It would also suck balls in an assault, because you can't control that bucking bronco on full-auto, kicking out 7.62, and trying to swing that long-ass barrel around in time to engage close targets. Heavier bullets with heavier powder loads make a greater "kick", or recoil. Makes sense? Physics.

This is why I think both the Russians and the Americans, for a long time, were equally screwed up: for years, the Russians used the AK-47, a 7.62x39 weapon. It was a battle rifle cartridge, but they trained to use it in spray-and-burst mode... like an assault rifle.

Meanwhile, the Americans had an assault rifle, the M-16, but trained their troops to use it as one-shot/one-kill, like a battle rifle. So both countries were arming and training with weapons that were being used improperly, IMO. They should have either traded weapons or traded doctrine!

So. Those are actual military-grade, proper "assault rifles" that actually fir the proper, dictionary definition. What does that mean for civilian owned "assault rifles"? I'll explain:

Years ago, ordinary semi-automatic firearms were sold that looked like military "assault rifles". Since the term "assault rifle" isn't copyrighted or trademarked, civilian manufacturers sold look-alike rifles under the name "assault rifle" since they figured it would sound neat/cool/tough, etc. It was 100% marketing, and had nothing to do with the actual firing capability of the rifle in question.

It was the worst possible marketing move they could have made, because the military already used real "assault rifles" and so there existed in the eyes of many people, who were not gun-savvy, the idea that fully-automatic, military-grade assault rifles were freely available on the market. As in, "rat-a-tat-tat" Chicago gangster tommyguns. This is not true and has not been true since the 1934 Gun Control Act. An ordinary citizen absolutely, positively, cannot walk into a gun store and buy a "machine gun" --I guarantee it. Go to any actual, local reputable licensed gun dealer near you and ask. (BTW, a "machine gun" is a completely different animal from an "assault rifle". This is not anal-retentive nitpickery or pro-gun obfuscation, this is a defined fact based on the people who need to use and classify weapons for a living, ie, the military).

So, now that we got that out of the way.

The modern civilian military-style rifle ("assault" rifle) is semi-automatic only. It fires one bullet per trigger squeeze. That's it. If you hold the rigger down, you will never get more than the first shot out of it. Much ink has been spilled about how you can "modify" a semi-automatic rifle to fire fully-automatic ("rat-a-tat-tat") but that was true only for the first couple generations of civilian semi-autos. Since then, civilian semi-autos are manufacture din such a way that ful-auto fire would heat up the barrel too much and cause it to crystallize and eventually shatter from the stress. It has something to do with the metallurgy and forging, the scientific details of which I am unfamiliar with.

So, then, one may ask, why is this important? A "military look-alike" weapons that fires one shot at a time is like an actual military assault weapon that soldiers are trained to shoot one-shot-at-a-time, right?

Not entirely. A soldier or trained to shoot carefully, with patient aiming and a proper target alignment. It does not matter of you're being attacked by a mass enemy, because you have other soldiers near you, also shooting properly. The typical spree killer isn't "aiming" (or if he is, he's doing it hastily), he's "spray-and-praying" as fast as he can with one shot at a time. Almost every one of these spree killer sin recent years has exhibited prior mental/emotional/social disorder behavior, and they should never, ever have had access to a firearm.

Magazines and "clips". This is a "clip" and a "magazine". Call it a minor nitpick if you want, but in actual military weapons, a "clip" is used to load a weapon that, more of ten than not, is not capable of firing full-automatic fire. A handful of "clip-loaded" weapons were able to fire fully-automatic (the C-96 Schnellfeuer, for one; Google it-- it's from the 1920's) but that is one of the exceptions to the rule. Hollywood uses the term "clip" since it is quick and fast, instead of the more proper "magazine".

Why is it important? Because proper, actual, legally-defined terms are important in a discussion where rights and the law is being discussed, and emotional hyperbole and misunderstandings make bad law.

And so, on the sale of "assault" rifles --actually just look-alikes-- to civilians:

As to the sale of military look-alike (so-called "assault" rifles) to the civilian populace, we are in a bit of a bind. The Second Amendment states that people are allowed access to firearms (backed up by DC vs. Heller) provided they do not fall into certain categories of "prohibited" owners (felons, the mentally unbalanced). The problem is, mental health records and in some cases prison records aren't shared through the instant national background check. They should be.

In the case of US vs. Miller, "Miller" was charged with having a sawed-off shotgun, which was illegal. He said he had a right to own it due to the 2nd Amendment. The courts came back and said that the 2nd Amendment protected militia activity, not criminal possession of a prohibited firearm that served no militia purpose, and a sawed-off shotgun was considered to have "no militia purpose". The take-away from that was that firearms must serve a "militia purpose" to be protected. So talk about "hunting" and "no hunter needs a--" are not the point of the 2nd Amendment. It is obfuscation.

DC vs. Heller determined that the 2nd Amendment protects the rights of citizens to have access to firearms.

In US vs. Miller, those firearms must serve a "militia purpose".

In City of Chicago vs. MacDonald, it was determined that arbitrary restrictions on firearms are counter-productive to the maintenance of the 2nd Amendment, ie, that people could not reasonably be expected to carry out "militia" functions if firearms access is restricted.

So: military-style weapons that fire semi-automatic are protected since they serve a "militia purpose". The "militia" (as understood Back In The Day) was "any able-bodied male between the ages of 17 and 45" which would probably be understood today as "any able-bodied citizen between the ages of 18-65". So it was not the "National Guard" (which wasn't formally established until 1917 anyway, long after the Constitution was written).

Therefore, the crux of the matter really comes down to "what is the modern militia" and what weapons will they have access to?

This part is my opinion:

I like the notion that a "militia" should be defined as any group of three or more people that trains regularly, can demonstrate knowledge of firearms, and can demonstrate comprehension of legal civilian laws and applicable international treaties such as the Geneva and Hague Conventions about use of force in recognized conflict. A "militia" member would have to go through training, demonstrate competence, and get licensed and maintain membership in a regular militia that is available for any number of civil support needs, including fighting wildfires, disaster relief, sandbagging flood areas, as well as missions that would require more traditional firearms-related use (tracking dangerous criminal fugitives under the supervision of law enforcement, etc).  

That means that ordinary citizens would have the ability to join a militia if they want to have firearms. They'd have to demonstrate competency from time to time to maintain that. They'd be trained and licensed. The training would not be priced so high that people would not be "priced out" of the market. It may even be free, since it would be a sort of public service. People with criminal records and emotional problems would not be able to participate. Yes, people would have their firearms at home with them, locked in a safe. An exception for one firearm per militia member may be granted to protect from home invaders, as spelled out in DC vs. Heller.

So that's that. "Assault" rifles, their capabilities, military look-alikes, clips vs. magazines, and the "well-regulated militia". I'd love to hear reasonable discussion.

Originally posted to Weighing the Feather of Truth on Sun Jul 22, 2012 at 03:08 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

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