In Part 1 I discussed the history of military service rifles and the development of the "assault rifle" during and after World War II. To briefly review (especially for those who got tired of all the technical detail and skipped most of it): A military assault rifle is a rifle with a selective fire feature (the ability to shoot in semi-automatic, burst or fully automatic mode) which fires a smaller, lower power rifle cartridge suitable for battlefield confrontations out to 300 yards. Assault rifles are so named in contrast to full size "battle rifles" which fired a larger, higher powered rifle cartridge similar to those used by most modern hunters, and also in contrast to submachine guns, hand-held fully automatic weapons (usually with some kind of stock) that fired a pistol cartridge rather than a rifle cartridge. These were accurate only at very short ranges. The assault rifle, with its compact size, selective fire and small rifle cartridge combined the best features of the battle rifle and the submachine gun and thus made a far more versatile all around military weapon.
In this post, I'm going to discuss the civilian rifles based on military assault rifles. I'll discuss how these civilian rifles are similar to their military cousins and how they differ, why they have become so popular with shooters (the AR-15, the civilian rifle based on the M16 design, is reported to be the highest selling rifle design in the country with models being produced by over a dozen gun manufacturers), and finally I'll discuss the legal definition of "assault weapons" as found in the 1994 federal assault weapon ban (now expired). I'll specifically tackle the merits of additional legal restrictions on civilian "assault weapons" in a third post.
Military to Civilian
As I described in my previous post, the military purpose of the assault rifle had two basic components: selective fire and a smaller rifle cartridge which was accurate out to 300 yards yet was easier to shoot in burst or full auto mode than a full size high power rifle cartridge. Military and civilian gun technology have always advanced hand in hand. Lever action, cartridge repeating rifles and revolvers were introduced for military use during the Civil War and proceeded to become wildly popular on the civilian market during the following 50 years. After World War One, bolt action rifles (mainly based on military designs) became the standard civilian rifles and semi-automatic pistols (many of them based on the military versions like the Colt .45 and the German 9mm Luger) became increasingly popular. After World War II, rifles from the war or based on designs used during the war (including millions of M1 Garands and M1903 Springfields sold off as military surplus for civilian use as well as German K98 Mausers which were confiscated from conquered Germany and sold on the civilian market) became popular for civilian use. However, assault rifles were, by definition, excluded from the US civilian market because the 1934 Firearms Act had banned civilian ownership of machine guns in the US. Thus, any rifle with selective fire was automatically illegal for civilian US ownership. As early assault rifles began to make their way onto the US market (either as military surplus or with civilian models of military weapons) any assault rifle intended for the US market had to be modified in order to permanently remove any burst fire or automatic fire features. This means that any gun sold legally to civilians in the US (with a few rare exceptions for collectors with very special licenses issued by the federal government) does not fit the military definition of an assault rifle, since it lacks a selective fire feature. It is simply a "military-style" rifle which shoots a lower power rifle cartridge the same as the cartridges used by real military assault rifles.
When Colt got the contract to build the M16 for the US military, it also released a civilian model, the AR-15. (AR stands for Armalite Rifle, Armalite having been the manufacturer which originally developed the design and sold it to Colt.) The AR-15 was different from its military cousin the M16 in that it did not have a selective fire feature, and several internal components of the rifle were modified in order to make it harder for enterprising owners to modify the gun in order to make it into a fully automatic machine gun. A few other manufacturers offered civilian rifles based on the M16 design (and all civilian rifles based on this design are loosely referred to by shooters as "AR" rifles, even though "AR-15" is a trademark of Colt) but these guns were not widely popular. Other civilian rifles based on modern military rifle designs (or surplus military rifles from other countries which had been modified to disable selective fire features) were also available for sale in the US, but again, sales of them were not particularly high.
Arguably, the main reason for this is that civilian rifles based on military designs fired cartridges which most hunters considered to be too light for hunting. Indeed, the .223 Remington cartridge which is fired by the AR-15 is not allowed for hunting deer and other full size game in some states, because it is believed that it is too small and low powered to kill humanely. The primary hunting use of the .223 (for which it was popular prior to its adoption by the military as the 5.56x45 NATO) was "varmint hunting" at long ranges. Ranchers used these high velocity, highly accurate but small cartridges to shoot pests like prairie dogs, coyotes and the like at long distances.
There were, of course, exceptions to this. The Civilian Marksmanship Program (originally set up in 1903 as a government program but spun off as a semi-private organization in 1996) holds national target shooting matches in which the US service rifles (the M1 Garand, and the civilian versions of the M14 and M16) are the only allowed rifles. The original purpose of the CMP was to improve the marksmanship of the general population in preparation for wartime service, thus the emphasis on military rifles. And, of course, some shooters simply enjoyed using the civilian version of the US service rifle for sport shooting.
How "Assault Weapons" Became Popular
Civilian versions of military assault rifles were available on the US market ever since the development of assault rifles, however, it wasn't until several factors came into alignment in the early 1990s that they began to become highly popular.
As the Cold War wound to a close and the iron curtain came down, the governments of Eastern Europe found themselves pressed for cash and sitting on huge arsenals of aging military rifles, not just assault rifles but even millions of bolt action Mausers and Mosin-Nagants dating back to World War II and before. They began to sell these rifles on the international market. Western-made civilian versions of military rifles (such as the Colt SP-1, the AR-15 sold during the 70s and 80s) had been fairly expensive. These communist block guns, however, were far cheaper, and there was also dirt cheap surplus ammunition being sold for them.
At the same time, AR-15 type rifles benefited from the popularity of the Gulf War. In the 70s and 80s the M16 had been closely associated with Vietnam, and many gun owners derided it as under powered, unreliable, over priced, made of plastic, etc. The M16 (and its civilian cousins) had been gradually improved in the 25 years since its adoption by the military and so Gulf War era M16s were genuinely higher quality than their Vietnam era ancestors. At the same time, the M16 had arguably been unfairly derided in the wake of an unpopular war and the low military morale that followed it. After the Gulf War, respect for the military was far higher and respect for its standard rifle rose as well.
Sport shooting culture was changing during this period as well. Rather than being solely devoted to hunting, an increasing number of shooters were interested primarily in sport shooting at gun ranges and being prepared for potential self defense use of guns. For those who shot almost exclusively at gun ranges, the fact that the cartridges fired by civilian versions of military assault rifles were fairly light for hunting game didn't matter, and the fact that cheap military surplus ammunition was available made civilian versions of military rifles much cheaper to shoot than standard hunting rifles. Further, for gun owners concerned about self defense, military style rifles offered intimidating looks more likely to cause an assailant to flee while also being compact and light. The lower power cartridges fired by military style rifles also made them more suitable for home defense than a full size hunting rifle.
Arguably the biggest boost to the popularity of military style rifles, however, were the attempts to ban them. Little regulatory attention had been paid to military style rifles until the Stockton Shooting in 1989, in which an alcoholic drifter and frequent criminal named Patrick Purdy bought an AK-47, decorated it and his tactical jacket with legends such as "Freedom", "Victory", "Hezbollah", "PLO", and "death to the Great Satin"[sic] and opened fire on elementary school children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, CA, which he had himself attended sixteen years before. Five children were killed and twenty-nine wounded before Purdy took his own life. California passed a ban on military style rifles which it termed "assault weapons" later that year, and President George H. W. Bush signed an executive order restricting the importation of military style rifles from outside the country. These efforts culminated in the passing of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, which banned the import or manufacture of rifles which certain military style features.
Gun rights organizations pointed out (rightly) that the features banned by the AWB were in the main cosmetic. The controversy focused huge amounts of attention on military style rifles. Shooters who had never thought about trying a military style rifle before tried them, and often found they enjoyed them. And anyone who had vaguely thought of buying one at some point snapped one up before the ban was put in effect. As the passage of the ban (which only banned the manufacture and importation of new guns with certain features but did not seek to restrict those which were already made prior to the ban) loomed, sales of the rifles it would ban skyrocketed. Once the ban did pass, many of the less expensive foreign competitors to the American-made AR-15 models became much harder to get while makers of AR-15s quickly modified their designs to be compliant with the ban and continued selling rifles. Thus, due to publicity and the proudly contrarian tendencies of shooters, sales of military style rifles actually went up rather than down after the Assault Weapon Ban. When the ban expired in 2004, sales expanded even more rapidly as the "evil" features became legal again on new rifles. The AR-15 platform is now the best selling type of rifle in the US with so many models available on the market that Field & Stream ran an article back in 2009 listing the "25 Best AR-Style Rifles".
The Legal Definition of "Assault Weapons"
When legislators sought to ban military style rifles, they faced a problem: Since military assault rifle designs already had to be modified in order to remove selective fire features in order to be sold in the US civilian market, there was not actually a functional different between the military style rifles which gun control advocates sought to ban and "normal" sporting rifles. The result was a checklist of what gun rights advocates jestingly referred to as "evil" features. Any rifle that had two or more of these features was legally defined as an "assault weapon".
However, since these were minor cosmetic features (with the exception of the pistol grip which does have superior ergonomics to the more traditional stock comb grip) the solution was simply to remove the other offending features. Thus, while the above AR-15 could not have been manufactured under the AWB, the one below would not:
As the re-design of the rifles during the ban made clear, the features banned were in no way essential to the operation of the rifle. A flash suppressor may be useful for Navy SEALS conducting a night attack, but it makes no difference one way or another on the gun range or in committing a crime. A folding stock may make a carbine slightly more compact, but it certainly doesn't make it small enough to stuff down one's pants when going to hold up a liquor store. And the last time there was a deadly bayonet attack on US soil was probably during the Civil War. The only element of the law (one which applied to all guns, not just to "assault weapons") which might arguably make a gun "less deadly" was the ban on detachable magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. Though as crimes such as Columbine show, it's still quite possible to have a deadly mass shooting in which high capacity magazines play no part. Regardless of what one may think about the need to ban or regulate military style rifles, the 1994 ban clearly achieved virtually nothing.
In the final post in this series, I'll look in more depth at the arguments for gun control laws banning or limiting "assault weapons".