A Short Primer on Rifles and some Gun Law

Before I say anything else, let me say this: Don’t run away. I’m not going to be preachy and I’m going to try not to argue. I’m here to teach you about guns. You can do whatever you want with the information I give you.

The Sandy Hook shooting has brought the issue of Gun Control back to the table. Now I’ll be honest. I grew up with guns. I shoot guns. I’m comfortable with guns and I’m very interested in them. There is an AK-47 in my home — not because of any crazed paranoia or ideas of self defense, but for hobbyist purposes. That said, I’m rather neutral on gun control. When people say “Effective gun control”, they never say what that would be — seemingly because no one knows. There is a huge problem though. People suggesting solutions know absolutely nothing about guns. There are many places that talk about this, but they tend to go around conservative circles, where people already agree with them. Being one of the random “Pro Gun Liberals” out there, I’m going to try to educate the few of you who read this blog a bit.

As a note, I DO NOT CARE WHAT YOU DO WITH THIS INFORMATION. If you use it to decide ‘all guns should be banned’ or something, that’s fine with me. I will disagree with you, but I want our disagreement to be based on fact. I’d rather a law get passed that I disagree but that might be effective than a law pass that is merely inconvenient and symbolic. I’m not against gun control: I’m against BAD gun control laws. So I’ll try and keep this close to factual as I can.

Assault Weapons are a big buzzword right now. Because who would need a weapon that exists purely for ASSAULTING people? People almost always go “Well, I’m sure no one sane would disagree with an ASSAULT WEAPON BAN!” but they don’t even know what an assault weapon actually is.

Lets start with a little rifle history. The oldest ‘modern’ type of rifle we still see is the ‘bolt action’ rifle (lets use the Mosin Nagant as a visual example. These are the type of rifles most people are familiar with. They fire slowly — one bullet at a time, each shot requiring you to manually operate the bolt. Most people would associate these with hunting rifles, but they were the class of rifles used in WW1 and most of 2, while also still being used for many sniper rifles. These fire rifle cartridges, the biggest sized bullet most people ever deal with. The exact caliber varies, but that’s not important.

Next you have semi automatic rifles. We’ll used the M1 Garand for the example. These can fire roughly as fast as you can pull the trigger. Some started having detachable box magazines. They shoot the same class of round as a bolt action rifle and many hunting rifles and sniper rifles fit into this class of weapon.

Then for comparison sake, you have a sub-machinegun or ‘machine pistol’. These small guns, like the MP5 fire fully automatic — they fire as long as you hold the trigger down (unlike one pull per bullet, like a Semi-automatic rifle), but due to their size and recoil, they fire pistol ammunition which is SIGNIFICANTLY smaller than rifle cartridges.

So now we get to Assault rifles. At this point you might guess that an Assault Rifle is a fancy looking rifle that fires automatically, but that’s not quite true. They don’t fire full rifle rounds. They fire so called ‘intermediate’ rounds, like the 5.56×45 mm NATO, shown here to scale with other rounds. So why would a weapon designed to kill use a SMALLER round? Simply put, the recoil. To sustain controllable automatic fire, rounds with less kick were needed. Assault rifles are DESIGNED around the power of automatic and burst fire (sometimes JUST burst fire in some modern military weapons). Removing that functionality and retaining all the compromises made to make that functionality manageable leads to a weapon that is actually less useful than a lot of other civilian weapons.

You see, lethality is NOT the most important aspect of an assault rifle. Ease of operation, accuracy, reliability and many other factors take priority. For example, longer barrels can make a round more powerful (due to increased acceleration time) but the burden of a longer barrel is not worth the tradeoff and military rifles have over time strived to reduce their length as much as possible.

Now, no one should still be allowed buy automatic weapons, right? And you can’t. Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time and account for absurdly few crimes. Generally they are only permitted to individuals with very special licenses. This means, in effect, that every scary looking assault weapon in civilian hands, is a semi-automatic rifle (like the garand) that fires a WEAKER cartridge. The only difference is that the Assault Rifles tend to have mounting rails and other visual flairs, atop larger magazine capacities (which we will get too later). So what did that Federal Assault Weapon ban actually get rid of? Let’s quote some law.

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
Folding or telescoping stock
Pistol grip
Bayonet mount
Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device that enables launching or firing rifle grenades, though this applies only to muzzle mounted grenade launchers and not those mounted externally).

Flash Suppressors and grenades are tightly controlled not available even IF the weapon can receive them. A bayonet mount is not a practical concern. Pistol grips are a matter of preference for comforts sake. The law banned them because they were afraid of criminals wielding guns akimbo, which would.. be very silly and impractical. The folding stock could be argued to make sneaking a weapon easier, but there is the kicker. You can get away with ONE of these things. Guns with folding stocks were not banned, only if they were paired with another superficial features. In practice, this law merely banned historic weapons and cool looking guns, much in the way one might hilariously ban cars with spoilers to reduce speeding. The law had another provision, and perhaps the most defensible one: A 10 round per magazine limit. Perhaps even too high for its purpose, but the only thing on that list that has maybe EVER saved a life. This law pissed off gun owners because it achieved so little in terms of saving lives, while preventing people from collecting neat guns. People don’t want an AK-47 because it’s the best thing to hunt, kill or defend your self with, they want it because it’s interesting. Many guns that would not be categorized as assault weapons. have arguably better killing power. People get scared about weapons like an AR-15, while something like the Garand is actually far deadlier — it’s simply much more unassuming. These are not inherently the best weapons for mass murder. Remember, military weapons do NOT put lethality as their highst concern — they have to be light to carry, survive brutal conditions, be reliable, easy to service, cheap to produce and be relatively accurate.

If one wants to ban ‘assault rifles’ one would have to ban all semi automatic rifles. The only issue with this is handguns are also all pretty much universally semi automatic. Now, banning handguns (as much as I enjoy shooting them) is a reasonable position. The majority of gun crimes come from handguns. Banning handguns would save many many more lives than banning semi-automatic rifles. A handgun with many magazines could easily be as lethal an assault rifle in an in door environment. Then you have shotguns, which have extreme deadliness, but very legitimate hunting uses.

Again, I’m not trying to change anyones minds. I’ve merely seen too many people with huge misunderstandings about guns in the US. I imagine most people will probably want even STRICTER gun control after reading this and I’m okay with that. I just want them to be informed. This is just a very basic primer that might seem obvious, but many people I’ve talked too even thought you could purchase fully automatic weapons. So all I ask if that you have informed, awesome opinions as this is an important issue. If anyone has any questions, hit me up.

Anyways, here’s a little short guide to the above.

  • Assault Rifles sold to civilians are not meaningfully different from the vast majority of semiautomatic hunting rifles.
  • Assault Rifles are NOT deadlier. They shoot weaker rounds and shorter barrels than hunting rifles so they can be controllable with automatic fire. Civilian assault weapons DO NOT have automatic firing capabilities.
  • Military features of Assault rifles, for the purposes of domestic gun violence, are mostly superficial.
  • Even if they aren’t superficial, most proposed laws don’t BAN these features, they limit how many you can have.
  • Large capacity magazines can be used with ‘normal’ hunting rifles. That said, they’re probably the most meaningful thing you could restrict.
  • Rifles account for about 2% of gun crime. Handguns account for the majority of gun crime

6 thoughts on “A Short Primer on Rifles and some Gun Law

  1. so then what type of weapon did the sandy hook killer use? Is that weapon currently legal to purchase in Connecticut?

  2. The killer used a Bushmaster .223 carbine. It’s a variant on the AR-15. It’s basically the guts of an M-16. So a semi automatic rifle firing remmington .223 intermediate rounds. It’s a legal gun, but now and before the Brady ban (due to not having those superficial features).

    A friend told me his shotgun would have been banned by the Brady Ban, but I can’t find what it was, nor did he use it. The shooter also had multiple 30 round magazines. While you could get ones made before the brady ban, in theory, you would be restricted to 10 round mags. I’d (in one of the few things I’m willing to say I support) say that an even stricter limit than that would be good — even down to 5 rounds. That’s not a great solution though. That wouldn’t stop anything, merely control the damage a bit.

    Also for comparison sake, we have the Vepr Pioneer, which shoots the same rounds, can hold the same types of magazines but looks a lot more sane. In fact…

    These are basically the same rifle, which makes this a huge hassle, legality wise. These weapons are meant to kill — animal or people, it doesn’t make a difference, as long as they’re not shooting back. Basically any semi automatic weapon is unfortunately capable of mass violence like this with relatively similar amounts of ease.

    Sorry, I know I extrapolated a lot from that simple question, but I’m kinda coming up with new thoughts of my own, so I’m kinda thinking out loud.

  3. Thanks for posting this, it was pretty informative. I find most of the other information on guns hard to uh… swallow… because of the rhetoric, so it’s nice to see it broken down in a more digestible way.

  4. Thanks. There is a TON of rhetoric. I’ve had a few people on forums newjerk accuse me of spreading propaganda simply because thats the status quo. I can’t blame them, either! The pro-gun lobby is afraid to give any ground, which leads to them just saying things which are wholely ridiculous. Fortunately I think a lot of young gun owners are a bit more reasonable about this stuff, but that might be too small a demographic to matter.

  5. Kayin,

    Sorry for necro’ing this, but I just stumbled onto your blog via your review of Metroid map design (I’m on a Metroid kick right now) and started gobbling up blog posts; this particular blog entry struck a chord.

    I agree with everything you have said so far, and I have said as much to others before reading this blog post, but I would like to add my own two cents. As a disclaimer: I didn’t grow up around guns, but I have fired semiautomatic pistols and rifles; I have cleaned them and know a few things about them (including many of the things you outlined in your blog post).

    My two cents are as follows:

    I do not see guns as practical defensive weapons. To me, guns are useful primarily for preemptive strikes. If someone draws a gun on you, and you have a firearm of your own that is not drawn, chances are that you’re dead or wounded. This means that guns are useful defensively only in a situation in which walking around with weapons near to hand is the norm (like, say, the Old West); by contrast, guns strike me as less effective as defensive weapons in situations in which walking around armed is atypical and socially frowned upon.

    It seems to me that the only way to use a firearm, rifle or otherwise, as a defensive weapon, is preemptively — to shoot a “suspicious person” before they shoot you.

    To my mind, that bears too much similarity to the Trayvon Martin incident.

    Likewise, I do not see guns being much of a benefit during a shooting. During the Gabby Giffords shooting, a civilian at the scene was armed, but he did not use his weapon. I have heard multiple accounts of his reasoning, which are as follows:
    * He did not want to be mistaken for the shooter, either by other people in the area or by the police
    * He was not sure where the shooter was
    * He did not want to risk friendly fire

    Consequently, the folks there ended up TACKLING the shooter when he stopped to reload.

    I realize that it is not always realistic to tackle a shooter, or even to run away — if someone draws a gun in your vicinity, there is an extent to which you might be already screwed. That said, I am not sure Moar Guns is the appropriate response to remedy this perceived lack of agency.

    At the same time, I’m not trying to make any particular point about gun control. Sandy Hook took place with legal guns that were bought legally. Even if they weren’t legal, even if we cracked down so hard that every gun had DNA locks and was GPS-tracked and cross-referenced with a database record indicating where it was supposed to be at any given time (with armed folks in malevolent-looking black helicopters waiting to drop in on the owner of any gun that strayed from its appointed place), someone driven enough and crazy enough will get their fix, eventually. It’s impossible to plug all the leaks and impractical to try — Patton was right when he said that anything made by man can be destroyed by man.

    Awful as it sounds to say so, I theorize that there is an extent to which mass shootings like Sandy Hook are effectively “normal accidents” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_accident) that take place when people, who are the elementary components of the incomprehensibly vast and complicated machine that is society, break down. By comparison, I see crime-related shootings as a symptom of the system itself failing.

    If this is true, then the best way to prevent shootings, be they mass shootings or crime-related shootings, has nothing to do with guns and gun control; rather, the optimal solution would seem to be improving our support mechanism for individuals who are breaking down and remedying those flaws in the system that lead to crime-related shootings.

  6. Hey thanks for leaving such a big comment! I actually agree a lot — we have piss poor mental health support in this country. America as a whole kinda takes the whole evil/bad person approach to crime, which can be seen by our sentence times and incarceration rates. Also lines up with wanting to have guns to defend your self, even if, likeina lot of cases, that actually becomes impractical (I guess you could say they’re good for stopping home invasions but that also often ends up with a lot of ‘shoot the drunk homeless person’). Guns to tend to serve more of a safety blanket most of the time. Anyways thanks for the long thought out comment. I didn’t know about the thing with the Gifford shooting, which makes a lot of sense. There are some exceptions (The Charles Whitman tower shooting had many civilians deliver suppression fire to the tower and help storm it, but that happend in Texas, and Texas is a weird alternative reality soooo), but all those reasons make a lot of sense.

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