Some of the editorials and cartoons about the late assault-weapons ban assume that we’re talking about machine guns. These are not machine guns, which spray bullets while the shooter holds down the trigger. Machine guns have been illegal since the 1930s. These are semiautomatics, which shoot one round with each squeeze of the trigger. The ban applied only to certain semiautomatics, which were distinguished from other semiautomatics partly by name, partly by effective firepower (e.g., the size of the magazine) and partly by appearance.
Here is the definition of semiautomatic assault weapons in the law now expiring:
“(A) any of the firearms, or copies or duplicates of the firearms in any caliber, known as-- `(i) Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (all models); `(ii) Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil; `(iii) Beretta Ar70 (SC-70); `(iv) Colt AR-15; `(v) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC; `(vi) SWD M-10, M-11, M-11/9, and M-12; `(vii) Steyr AUG; `(viii) INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9 and TEC-22; and `(ix) revolving cylinder shotguns, such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12;
“(B) a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of-- `(i) a folding or telescoping stock; `(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; `(iii) a bayonet mount; `(iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and `(v) a grenade launcher;
“(C) a semiautomatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of-- `(i) an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip; `(ii) a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer; `(iii) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the nontrigger hand without being burned; `(iv) a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded; and `(v) a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm; and
“(D) a semiautomatic shotgun that has at least 2 of-- `(i) a folding or telescoping stock; `(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; `(iii) a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds; and `(iv) an ability to accept a detachable magazine.'”
The gun folks say these amount to cosmetic distinctions. Some of them are. A pistol grip is a cosmetic distinction. There is nothing about a pistol grip -- nothing that I know of -- that makes the weapon less suitable for individual ownership. The big magazine is more debatable.
The United States allows individual ownership of weapons that are deadly, but not too deadly. Where to draw the line I don’t know, but at the moment we’re not talking about machine guns.