How did we get here? Once again, a mass shooting has reactivated what passes for a gun debate in the United States. This time the event occurred at a high school in Florida and seventeen people died, but those details, as with the details of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the Mandalay Bay shooting, seem to be almost irrelevant as the two sides once again talk past each other. In the dueling statements there are also many misconceptions expressed about weapons, especially the weapons most commonly involved in such events; the ones commonly referred to as “assault weapons”. So I’ll start here with a little history.
Throughout most of the first World War there were three basic types of weapons. There were short-barrel semiautomatic pistols, but those were largely reserved for officers. Most infantrymen were assigned rifles. These were long-barreled guns with wooden stocks. They were bolt-action reloaders; essentially single-shot weapons despite the use of a variety of magazines or clips. A trained soldier could fire as many as ten to twelve rounds a minute. Their primary purpose was long-distance accuracy. The third type of gun, the one that decimated so many of those rifle-toting infantrymen in the no-man’s land between the trenches, was the long-barreled automatis machine gun, a stationary device because of its size and weight. All of these weapons had their own functions out in the open crater-filled fields. In the potentially crowded short-distance fighting inside a trench the machine gun was too bulky to be useful and the slow-firing rifles quickly became little more than extensions for the use of barrel-mounted bayonets.
In 1918, the last year of the war, a number of smaller guns were developed for battles inside trenches. Most were shorter rifle-type carbines that were capable of fully automatic fire. Improved straight recoil mechanisms reduced the tendency of the barrel to climb when fired, and a variety of magazine designs allowed expending twenty or thirty bullets without reloading. These early carbines, however, did not employ one of the most distinctive innovations that allowed more effective control at high rates of fire. That would be the pistol-grip popularized with the Thompson submachine gun. The tommy-gun was developed too late to have an effect on the first world war, but it became popular as a tool for both law enforcement and organized crime during the inter-war period. It’s appeal was enhanced by repeated appearances in movies and newsreels. Despite excessive weight and reliability problems it remained in common use throughout World War II and Korea, in part because of the stopping power of its large .45-caliber bullets.
In the 1920s the Germans developed the first modern assault rifle, the StG44. Modern assault weapons follow its basic pattern today, including such variants as the AK-47 Kalashnikov and the AR-15. They all have pistol grips to better control the gun as it fires rapidly. They all are chambered for lower-powered narrow calibers of ammunition, in the .22- to .30-caliber range, that help enable the weapon to be held steady at higher rates of fire. These relatively long, narrow rounds also are known for a tendency to wobble, ricochet, and/or fragment inside a body, causing significantly more damage than bullets that maintain a stable path. The guns all accept high capacity magazines that can be exchanged rapidly. None of these features is necessary in a hunting, sport, or home defense weapon; some, in fact, are counterproductive. These characteristics were designed for warfare, and have made the weapons ideal for mass murder.
The popularity of the Thompson submachine gun led to the passage of the 1934 National Firearms Act. This law, perhaps the only lasting example of sanity in U.S. national firearms policy, required registration of all fully automatic firearms and placed restrictions on ownership, transport, and transfer of such weapons. It is in large part because of this law that the two students who perpetrated the 1999 Columbine High School massacre were not able to purchase the .50-caliber fully automatic machine gun that they wanted to use. Unfortunately 1934 was the high point in federal gun control efforts in the United States.
After World War II there were a number of significant advances in the speed and variety of assault-style weapons. In the 1950s the compact Uzi design was developed. The 1960s saw the first of the AR-15 models. Both were capable of fully automatic fire and both became widely used by military units. As the 1970s ended, however, the manufacturers of these weapons began to see reduced sales because of increased competition from newer models, and they responded by moving into the civilian market, providing semiautomatic versions for sale throughout the United States. Of course, these were still weapons designed for rapid killing in relatively short-range situations. They were still capable of firing almost one round every second. The characteristics that allow a shooter to remain in control of the weapon in rapid-fire mode, to dominate a firefight, to expend a magazine of thirty or fifty rounds before reloading, and to reload in seconds; all of these entirely military functions remained.
Civilian sales of these did not take off immediately. At the same time, however, on the big screen there were a large number of popular movies in which fully automatic Uzi carbines were used by a variety of characters, from gangsters to terrorists to commandos. The Uzi became well-known. Then, in 1982, Sylvester Stallone became Rambo. In this case there was a single hero and the fully automatic AR-15 was often featured in extended scenes in which Rambo moved through a landscape firing while enemy soldiers haplessly ran out into the line of fire, destined to be cut down by a withering hail of bullets.
In 1983 a TV show called the A-team premiered. One of the regular features of this show was a sequence in which the actors used AR-15 carbines; actually semiautomatics but with sound effects and visuals implying that they were fully automatic. They would spray the area surrounding them with what sounded like hundreds of bullets, but somehow nobody got hurt and few vehicles were damaged. It must have been a low-budget show. The A-team was popular, regularly watched by one-fifth to one-fourth of the TV audience.
The next year (July 1984) a depressed man walked into a McDonalds in San Isidro, CA, with an Uzi semiauto carbine and killed 21 people and injured 19. This was the first modern mass shooting of more than twenty people by an individual civilian shooter. It was also the first in which a gun that is now considered an “assault weapon” was used. In the past 40 years, mass killings have steadily increased in frequency and destructiveness. Not all mass killings have used assault weapons; a few, in fact, have not involved guns at all. But the events with the highest death tolls have almost all involved versions of the AR-15. This is a weapon that has no reasonable purpose outside of the military, one that should be banned for use by civilians.
So we currently have available four general types of guns. The semiautomatic pistols are still with us, vastly improved, and arguably still have a role in self-defense. Long rifles, both single-shot and semiautomatic, still have a useful purpose in hunting and marksmanship. The remaining two types of weapons, the fully automatic long guns and the semiautomatic versions commonly called “assault weapons”, have legitimate functions in the military, but they have no real civilian applications that can’t be accomplished better with a pistol or rifle. Their primary purpose is rapid killing of humans. Unfortunately, only the fully automatic versions of these military weapons are either restricted or regulated in the United States. This makes large-scale mass murder significantly easier in our country, and the results are what we have repeatedly seen in many different locations, and with a wide variety of shooters.