Assault Weapon Bans Are All About Appearance

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s latest bill classifies firearms not by what they do but based on how they look.

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A string of high-profile mass shootings over the past few years has spawned a movement to outlaw so-called assault weapons, in particular the popular AR-15.

On January 9, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) introduced a federal bill to ban assault weapons—legislation that's been depicted as life-saving, common sense policy. But its definition of an assault weapon is totally arbitrary.

Proposals like Feinstein's latest draft bill leave shooters with plenty of equally deadly alternatives.

"An assault weapon is whatever is covered by an assault weapon ban," says Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum, author of a feature story on the topic in our June 2018 issue. "The criteria that are used to identify assault weapons are things that have little or nothing to do with how useful or how deadly an assault weapon is in the hands of a mass murderer."

The federal government banned assault weapons in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed a bill also sponsored by Sen. Feinstein. That legislation expired 10 years later. Meanwhile, seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own assault weapon bans.

There's little evidence that the 1994 legislation reduced gun deaths, in part because it was mostly a symbolic gesture.

"Unless you really delve into the specifics of what these bills do, you don't understand how utterly arbitrary they are," says Sullum.

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