Not surprisingly, the increasing number and subsequent misuse of assault weapons has resulted in a growing debate over their place in American society. The battle lines mirror those drawn over other such “gun control” issues as waiting periods for handgun purchases, bans on armor-piercing bullets, and restrictions on the sale of “plastic” firearms. On one side of the debate is America’s gun lobby. The other side consists of handgun restriction advocates and various police organizations.
America’s gun lobby—comprised of pro-gun organizations, manufacturers, and various publications—staunchly opposes any restrictions on the sale or availability of assault weapons. The leading voice of dissent belongs to the NRA. With 2.7 million members and a budget of more than $71 million, the NRA is America’s largest and most powerful pro-gun organization. In 1987 the organization published a pamphlet entitled Semi-Auto Firearms—The Citizen’s Choice. A year later the organization published Semi-Auto Rifles: Data and Comment, a collection of articles on semi-automatics that had appeared in the NRA’s magazine, The American Rifleman.
In both the pamphlet and the book, the NRA presents the controversy over assault weapons as a broader attack on all semi-automatic firearms, including hunting rifles with semi-automatic mechanisms. By framing the debate as one concerning all semi-autos, as opposed to a specific category of semi-auto, the NRA is able to present efforts to restrict assault weapons as a threat to hunters. The NRA recognizes the fact that it is far easier to mobilize its membership and non-NRA outdoorsmen with images of banning their trusted hunting rifles as opposed to UZIs or TEC-9s.
The cover of Semi-Auto Firearms—The Citizen’s Choice features a duck hunter, duck call in mouth, silhouetted against a bright orange sunrise. In his hand he appears to hold a shotgun. On the first page of the pamphlet, the NRA offers its view of the debate: “The national media and organized ‘gun control’ groups have advanced from demanding prohibitions on certain handguns and ammunition, to calls for banning semi-automatic firearms. The pattern is obvious, and the strategy has long been clear—isolate certain types of firearms, label them as inherently ‘evil’ or ‘crime prone,’ and then try to segregate and drive a wedge between firearms owners… Fully automatic and high-tech firearms often seen on television programs, and in popular yet violent movies, perpetuate the myth that ‘semi-autos’ are frequently used for criminal purposes… Even to experts, admittedly, semi-automatic target or sporting rifles such as the AR15 and M1A look like the full-automatic military M16s and M14s. Why not? A civilian jeep looks like a military jeep, a civilian tent looks like a military tent and a civilian shooter at the national Matches at Camp Perry looks very much like his military counterpart.”
(The NRA’s stand on assault weapons is not surprising considering the fact that it has labeled repeal of the 1986 federal ban on the future production of machine guns for civilian use a “high priority.” In outlining its position on machine guns, the organization states, “Sporting events involving automatic firearms are similar to those events such as silhouette shooting and other target-related endeavors and deserve the same respect and support.” The NRA promises that it “will take all necessary steps to educate the public on the sporting uses of automatic firearms” and explains that “The Second Amendment is not limited by its language to the type of arms that the people have the right to own.” The organization supports “the right of any law abiding individuals to own any firearms, including automatic firearms.”) (Although the NRA was asked to answer questions regarding its stand on assault firearms, the appropriateness of Soldier of Fortune publisher Robert K. Brown being on its board of directors, paramilitary accessories, and paramilitary training camps, a spokesman, after reviewing the questions, stated that the NRA was “declining to provide information for this report.”)
While the NRA struggles to turn the assault weapons debate into a semi-auto debate for public relations purposes, legislators and members of the press have been making it into one inadvertently. Neither of America’s national handgun restriction organizations has come out in favor of restricting or banning all semi-autos, and have only recently begun dealing with long guns (there is no national organization calling for restrictions on all guns). Yet in discussions of assault firearms, those urging restrictions on these weapons have used the terms assault, paramilitary, and semi-automatic weapon interchangeably. This misusage apparently stems from an unfamiliarity with weapons terminology and a lack of understanding of the wide range of weapons covered by the term semi-automatic. As the result of this lack of knowledge, and the difficulties in defining assault weapons in legal terms, laws have been proposed on the state level that would place waiting periods on all semi-auto weapons. In August 1988, The New York Times ran two editorials in favor of such a law on the federal level, as well as urging a ban on the sale of assault weapons.
According to John Hosford, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA), a 500,000 member pro-gun organization located in Bellevue, Washington, the issue of paramilitary weapons will be addressed at the organization’s board meeting in September 1988. Says Hosford, “It would be safe to say that we will take an aggressive position in support of these.” Founded in 1971, the CCRKBA favors a repeal of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and has lobbied against gun control ordinances on the local, state, and federal level.
The 100,000 plus-member Gun Owners of America (GOA), located in Springfield, Virginia, views the assault weapons debate as part of a long-range plan by handgun restriction advocates to disarm America. Says GOA Director of Government Affairs Craig Markva, “The goal was to target the machine guns first, then the semi-autos, and right along with the handguns. The whole premise [of handgun restriction organizations] has been based upon the fact that the Second Amendment is a hunting right.” But Markva argues, “The whole idea of the Second Amendment is self-defense. The goal of the anti-gunner is to isolate different categories of firearms for control or banning, and then move on. The slippery slope is alive and well and continues rolling on.”
America’s handgun restriction movement has been cautious in its response to the assault weapons debate. Their reticence is understandable. By moving against a category of firearm that is not only a long gun, but difficult to define, they run the risk of appearing to prove the gun lobby right: that is, that handgun restrictions are merely the first step down the aforementioned slippery slope.
In the past, the “gun control” debate was easily defined. “Good” guns were long guns that were used for hunting and sporting purposes, while “bad” guns were easily concealable handguns that had limited sporting use and were prone to misuse. Previously the standard for restricting weapons involved concealabililty and a cost/benefit analysis: Is the harm done by a given category of firearm outweighed by any possible benefit? Yet, although assault weapons are frequently misused and many are more concealable that standard long guns, a new standard is emerging: For what purpose was this weapon designed? The first application of this standard came in 1986, when Congress voted to outlaw the future production of machine guns for civilian use. The number of criminal incidents involving legally owned machine guns prior to the ban had been few. Yet, Congress saw no reason for this category of weapon to remain in civilian hands.
Handgun Control Inc. (HCI), based in Washington, D.C., is America’s leading handgun restriction organization. The organization has more than 180,000 dues-paying members and an annual budget of more than $4 million. Its vice-chair is Sarah Brady, wife of White House press secretary James Brady, who was injured in the March 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. In its organization brochure, HCI calls for the “restriction on the sale of UZI-type assault weapons, the weapons of war like that used in the 1983 McDonald’s massacre in California.” The organization adopted this stand in 1983. Recently, HCI has run newspaper ads calling for unspecified restrictions on assault weapons, labeling them “drug guns.” In addition, HCI came out in favor of banning the Striker-12 from import. In addition to its stand on “UZI-type assault weapons,” the organization favors a waiting period with background check for all handgun purchases, a ban on the sale of snub-nosed handguns, and a ban on the production and sale of plastic handguns.
The National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH), based in Washington, D.C., is a coalition of 31 national religious, professional, educational, and public health organizations that favors banning the sale and private possession of handguns in America. Exceptions to this would include possession by police, military personnel on active duty, target shooters who keep and use their handguns at bona fide shooting clubs, and federally licensed collectors. NCBH has approximately 20,000 members and an annual budget of $400,000. Prior to 1985, the organization dealt only with handguns. But in May of that year, its board voted to work to ban the sale and private possession of machine guns. Currently, its board is considering whether to endorse banning the sale and private possession of assault weapons. It is scheduled to reach a decision at its November 1988 meeting.
The Law Enforcement Steering Committee is the leading voice of law enforcement on the gun control issue. The Committee consists of: the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association; the International Association of Chiefs of Police; the Fraternal Order of Police; the International Brotherhood of Police Officers; the National Association of Police Organizations; the Police Executive Research Forum; the Police Management Association; the Police Foundation; the Major Cities Chief Administrators; the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; and the National Troopers Coalition. As of September 1988, none of the members of the Committee have adopted an official stand on assault weapons, although the topic is scheduled to be discussed in the future.
On the federal level, no bills dealing with assault weapons have yet been introduced in Congress. It is expected that such a bill will be introduced sometime during 1989.
On the state level, the first proposed law restricting the availability of assault weapons was introduced by California State Representative Art Agnos (Dem., San Francisco) in 1985. (Agnos was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1987.) The law, which would have banned the sale and possession of specific assault weapons—such as the UZI, MAC, and AR-15—failed to pass. In 1988, Assemblyman Michael Roos (Dem., Los Angeles) introduced a measure that also would have banned specific assault weapons. The bill was later amended to require instead a 15-day waiting period with background check for all semi-automatic weapons. The amended version of the bill failed to pass. Roos expects to file a bill next year that would place a waiting period on specific assault weapons.
In addition, product liability lawsuits have been filed against manufacturers of assault weapons. Such suits are based on the legal theory that the manufacturers of these weapons know that their products are inherently dangerous and prone to criminal misuse. Therefore, they should be held responsible for the resulting death and injury. One of the first product liability suits dealing with an assault weapon was filed on April 22, 1987, against Intratec USA, manufacturers of the TEC-9. The suit was filed by the estate of David L. Bengston of Connecticut. Bengston, a high school janitor, was fatally shot by an eighth grader on December 10, 1985, with a TEC-9 that belonged to the student’s father. The student later held a classroom of children hostage until his father came and convinced him to turn over the weapon. In their complaint, attorneys for Bengston argued that the TEC-9 is in fact a super Saturday Night Special. The case is currently awaiting trial.
The first victory for proponents of the legal theory that some handguns are inherently defective because of specific design characteristics occurred on October 3, 1985, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in Kelley v. R.G. Industries that manufacturers of Saturday Night Specials could be held liable for their criminal misuse. The case stemmed from a March 1981 robbery in which the plaintiff, Olen J. Kelley, was shot in the chest with a Rohm handgun.  (As part of the law outlawing the sale of Saturday Night Specials passed in Maryland in 1988, the Maryland legislature—as part of a compromise with the gun lobby—added a component what would in effect nullify the Kelley decision.)
The signs are increasing of a growing awareness that America has an assault weapons “problem.” At the end of its July 1988 documentary on handgun violence in America, “Guns, Guns, Guns,” NBC reporter Connie Chung notes the increasing misuse of assault weapons like the UZI. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson states of drug dealers, “They say, ‘We don’t have Saturday Night Specials anymore.’ They say, ‘We buy AK-47s and UZIs, the latest lethal weapons. We buy them across the counter on Long Beach Boulevard.’ You cannot fight a war on drugs unless and until you are going to challenge the bankers and the gun sellers….”
Back to Table of Contents