I have a confession to make. I own an assault weapon.
Don’t jump to conclusions. I’m not about to cover myself in ballistic armor and shoot up a packed theater. I don’t even shoot animals with it. (I’m a hopeless softie about any living thing – the kind of guy who traps house spiders and releases them outside – as my wife laughs at me.)
What I do with the gun is shoot pieces of paper. Why? Because I’ve done it since I was a kid and because it’s a relaxing refuge from a stressful world. The intense focus required drives all other cares out of your mind.
My carbine qualifies as an “assault weapon” in media usage because – as The Associated Press puts it – it is “similar in appearance to a fully automatic firearm or military weapon.” Mine looks like a shrunken version of an obsolete military rifle, the M-14.
It’s not the weapon that a gunman used to shoot up a theater in Aurora, Colo. But it is similar in that it shoots .223 caliber bullets, has a military provenance and is semi-automatic (i.e., it reloads itself). Neither gun sprays bullets as true military rifles do, but you can – as the Aurora gunman did – click a monster magazine into one of these weapons and pull the trigger a lot of times.
I bring up my rifle because of the misinformation about firearms that surfaces every time the subject of gun control comes up. I’m trying to clarify the conversation. Gun opponents often know little about firearms – understandable, as they tend not to own them – and often sound unintentionally ridiculous when they talk about them.
For starters, let’s talk destructive power.
In reality, the standard .223 “assault weapon” is not formidable compared to most hunting rifles. The bullet itself is imperceptibly wider than the .22 many of us used to plink at pop cans once upon a time, but it has far more propellant behind it, hence more velocity and kinetic energy.
The U.S. military adopted the .223 in the 1960s for various reasons. One was its lightness, as compared with the heavier rounds used in the 1940s and ’50s-vintage M-1 and M-14 rifles. Soldiers could carry more of them and were less likely to run out of ammunition in a tough spot.
One of the compromises was less lethality. Contrary to general impression, the standard bullets used in “assault weapons” are less likely to kill someone than, say, a deer-hunter’s 30.06. In some states – including Washington – it is illegal to hunt big game with .223 rifles because of the higher likelihood that animals will be left wounded and suffering. Wild animals can’t go to trauma centers.
Another misconception is that people buy .223 rifles solely to kill people.
Not remotely true. A .223 is well-suited for target shooting because the bullet’s trajectory is flat and because its ammunition is relatively cheap. Big-gun ammunition can cost three times as much. And big guns tend to kick like horses, which isn’t a delight.
Also, people really do hunt with “assault weapons,” and not because they want to shred game animals into little bits (another bizarre claim). Because of their lower power, .223 rifles are considered small-game guns. Ranchers use them to shoot coyotes, for example.
Veterans tend to like these rifles because they trained on their military versions. Criminals tend not to like them; the statistics show that they much prefer handguns or shotguns.
As for enormous, 100-round magazines, I can’t fathom the appeal. Maybe they do hold an inordinate attraction for people with murderous fantasies. That’s an area for reasonable debate. Same goes for tighter restrictions on firearm possession by people with severe psychiatric disorders.
But we miss the target if we focus on the style of the rifle. If a weapon’s military appearance encouraged criminal intent, you’d expect Switzerland – where men of military age are required to keep fully automatic rifles in their homes – to be rife with murders. In fact, its murder rate is a small fraction of America’s.
The difference is the mentality behind the gun. At bottom, our real problem is our violence-prone culture. We’ve been settling scores with firearms for 400 years. It’s sick, and I’d love to see it change. I wish I could say I’m optimistic.Email Patrick O’Callahan at patrick.ocallahan@ thenewstribune.com.