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Written by Clyde H. Spencer - Copyright 1999

Historically, the military has defined assault rifles as firearms used in teams to 'assault' a defended position. They have universally been capable of fully-automatic firing, selective firing of bursts of two or three rounds, and single shots.

Commonly, they have used cartridges of moderate size so that the individual soldier could carry more ammunition than was typical during the First World War or Second World War. Another consideration was that if an enemy were killed, only one soldier was put out of commission. If an enemy were wounded, then three or more were put out of commission as the wounded person was cared for. So, full-metal jacket bullets with moderate kinetic energy (except notably the US M-16) are typical of a true assault weapon designed to wound instead of to kill.

A muzzle-brake to reduce recoil and upward barrel movement (especially in full-automatic mode) is typical. Usually, the muzzle-brake also incidentally served to reduce the flash during night firing. However, a device that functions only as a flash suppressor would disperse the incandescent gases uniformly, unlike a muzzle brake.

Other accouterments that the military finds necessary, such as a lug for mounting a bayonet or attaching a grenade launcher, are typical of most military weapons, not just assault rifles. However, it would be ludicrous to attempt to use a bayonet on many of the smaller assault pistols.

Variations on the basic design may include the use of a folding stock for paratroopers or tank personnel.

One of the first true "assault rifles" was the Russian AK-47, first made in 1947. Although, one might consider the US M-1 Carbine (WWII) a prototype assault rifle because of its size, caliber, and magazine capacity.

It should be no great surprise that when society requires large numbers of young men to learn to use (and consequently come to respect) modern firearms in defending the interests of their country, they often want to own something similar to what they used in the military. Money-making movies like Rambo also glorify the use of modern firearms and create consumer demand.

However, since the possession of automatic weapons has been strictly regulated and taxed by the federal government for decades, and outright banned by some states such as California, the firearms industry has reacted in a good capitalistic way by providing firearms that appear similar to the true assault rifles and pistols used by the military.

Some military look-alikes make fine hunting guns. Many of the qualities required of a firearm under combat conditions translate well to hunting conditions. For example, one wants a rifle that will function reliably whether it is hot, snowing, raining, or it has just been dropped in the mud. It must maintain its point of impact despite harsh treatment, and if hunting in heavy brush, a short-barreled rifle is easier to point quickly. The gas-actuated semiautomatic action, along with the common muzzle brake, reduces the punishing recoil considerably, making it more useable for older men, and women and men of small stature. The typically smaller caliber (than what was used in trench warfare) can be quite effective on animals such as deer with the proper choice of bullet weight and construction. One of the most popular deer rifles for decades has been a lever-action 30-30 carbine. Contrary to popular belief, the AK-47 has ballistics almost identical to it.

Some people just enjoy 'plinking' or target practice with weapons they have used in the military or have seen their movie heroes use. Surely people who do not have a criminal record should be trusted to use their firearms responsibly. To not do so is a loss of freedom-of-choice through prior restraint.

There never was any compelling evidence that the so-called (and then as yet legally undefined) 'assault weapons' were any particular problem other than in some extraordinary instances such as the Stockton school yard shootings. In fact, a study done by the California Department of Justice was suppressed until after the passage of the original assault weapons law because it did not support the extravagant claims made by those pushing for the law.

The California legislature decided to legally define an "assault weapon" in 1989 as something different from the military usage. They selected a group of military firearms look-alikes that had many of the above mentioned military features, which were difficult to politically defend for any socially redeeming purpose, except perhaps self-defense. Some of the military look-alike rifles that were used more commonly for hunting and competitive shooting events were purposely excluded. The courts have repeatedly opined that the original law was ill-conceived and poorly written though.

A decade later, as the proportion of young males who commit most crimes of violence declined along with the homicide rate, some legislators and a governor who campaigned on a non-issue, decided it was time to correct some flaws in the original poorly written, unconstitutional law.

The author of the recently passed California law (SB 23), Don Perata, has zealously pursued the eradication of so-called assault weapons for over a decade. When he was an Alameda County supervisor, he used his office and staff to distribute Handgun Control Incorporated (HCI) literature in support of the then pending state assault weapons law. This was discovered accidentally by myself and independently confirmed by a friend, Leroy Pyle. Perata can not even make the claim that he didn't know what he was doing was illegal, because he and his secretary went to the extent of lying to a Channel 7 reporter when she called to verify my revelation. So what kind of a man (who used to be a teacher) would knowingly break the law to promote his personal crusade? Should we be concerned that a man who has little respect for the law should be in the position of writing laws? At the very least, it appears he is the kind of a man who believes the end justifies the means, and acts accordingly.

With little of the preliminary notoriety that accompanied the passage of the first law, SB 23 was recently quietly passed. Governor Davis, however, used the opportunity of the signing into law of SB 23 on July 19th, 1999, to let the public know he had kept his campaign promise of "getting assault weapons off the streets." The law has been promoted as closing the loopholes in the original law. The media has dutifully been reporting it as such. However, I suspect that none of the reporters have read the law, of if they did, did not understand it.

What the law has potentially accomplished is to add to the list of originally banned firearms, firearms that have been manufactured with different names and features -- commonly called copycat weapons. I say "potentially," because all one has to do is remove the feature(s) from the firearm that were used to broaden the definition. The law has also potentially added the rifles that were originally specifically excluded. Again, at the cost of reducing their value and perhaps affecting their utility as hunting or competitive target rifles, one can avoid having the firearm registered as an 'assault weapon' by removing the largely cosmetic features used to newly define an assault weapon. Therefore, what Senator Perata, Governor Davis, and their supporters in the legislature have really accomplished is a de facto banning of the cosmetic features such as a "conspicuously protruding" (undefined) pistolgrip, a flash suppressor (undefined), and a grenade or flare launcher (usually a separate device attached to the bayonet lug). It is clear that we don't elect our best and brightest to public office. Maybe this is what the electorate really wants. Really bright people with that much power would be dangerous. As Mark Twain observed, no one is safe while the legislature is in session. In any event, for those with only a casual or passing interest in the subject, it would appear that our 'leaders' have made the state safer for everyone, and guaranteed their re-election.

However, it seems unlikely that any gang member who owns a firearm with any of the features newly defining it as an assault weapon will be overly concerned about violating the registration when he may well use it to kill someone. There may even be some cachet in retaining the banned features. In any event, with or without the military-like cosmetic features, it is still a firearm with all the attendant dangers and potential for improper use.

What the legislature has accomplished though, is to create ill will among those, like myself, who will be inconvenienced by this miscarriage of the legislation process. They will keep the courts busy for years dealing with questions of prior restraint, taking of property, infringement of Second Amendment rights, whether a muzzle brake is a "flash suppressor," whether a folding bipod is a "second handgrip," and what "conspicuously protruding" means. (While May West might have provided some insight on that last topic, it would have no legal standing.) If there is an adjustable buttplate to accommodate shooters with different length arms, is it a telescoping stock? These are all questions that beg to be answered since the legislature did not address them.

People will find themselves arrested because they will unknowingly violate the law when they otherwise legitimately use firearms they have owned and used for years. Bench-rest target shooters and varmint hunters using thumbhole stocks on semiautomatic actions should be particularly upset with this new law.

We have been saddled with yet another ill-conceived, ineffective law by zealots who think with their hormones instead of their heads. It is poorly crafted legislation addressing a relatively minor social problem.

In summary, I would define a civilian assault weapon as anything that is used to assault another human being. That could be a baseball bat (currently in favor among gangs), an automobile, a kitchen knife, or a zip gun. What it looks like is not important. What is important is how it is used. We have had laws dating to biblical times prohibiting murder and robbery. We need the courage to enforce the fundamental laws against harming another human being and not try to sidestep the problem with laws of prohibition of objects. They just create additional problems and create a new class of criminal.  

Written by Clyde H. Spencer - Copyright 1999

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