Monday, October 2, 2017

Marketing Mass Murder: Assault-Style Weapons Are a Distinction Without a Difference


America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. Some of these weapons are now known as “the gold standard for mass murder.” Compared to other firearms, assault-style rifles make it fairly easy to kill or injure many people within a short period of time. They are being employed to do just that.

Even before the recent deadly attack in Las Vegas in which Stephen Paddock employed up to 17 firearms to kill at least 59 people and injure hundreds more, the 10 mass shootings with the highest number of casualties – killed and wounded – in the U.S. included seven that involved the use of an assault-style rifle. Agents with Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have yet to determine if Paddock modified mechanical components to a semiautomatic rifle to make it fully automatic.

Paddock also could have used a legal modification like an attachable crank to simulate automatic fire, which depresses the trigger faster than a finger and can be bought online for as little as $40.

It should be noted that some states, such as California, regulate the size of magazines used in these weapons, but Nevada – the home of Stephen Paddock – does not. A trained shooter can easily remove one magazine from the weapon, load another from a tactical vest or pocket, and continue firing within seconds.

It is true that semiautomatic guns may not be legally modified to automatic. Anyone who wants to buy an automatic weapon must undergo the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives background check and registration process.

Yet, there are plenty of automatic weapons available for sale on the Internet.

In addition, guns made before 1986 may be owned by anyone who passes a background check and registers the gun. A letter from ATF to the National Firearms Act Trade and Collectors Association last year indicated that there were 490,664 automatic weapons in ATF’s National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record system.

The ease of purchasing guns in the U.S., even ultra-powerful ones designed to kill many people in a short period of time, is a pressing problem. Of the 79 mass shootings since 1982 for which Mother Jones was able to determine purchasing information, 63 were committed with guns purchased legally. Most states don't require background checks for firearms purchased via private sales at gun shows. And, most states don't require showing ID to purchase a firearm from a private seller.

The Rage For Assault-style Arms

With the decline of the civilian firearms industry in the United States, the David Bohnett Foundation and The Joyce Foundation conducted a study in 2010. The research found the industry enjoyed “periods of temporary resurgence,” usually primed by “fear marketing” – encouraging people to buy guns by stoking fear of crime, terrorism, violent immigrants, or government control.

Therefore, selling militarized firearms to civilians – i.e., weapons in the military inventory or weapons based on military designs – has been at the point of the industry’s civilian design and marketing strategy since the 1980s. Militarized weapons such as semiautomatic assault rifles, 50 caliber anti-armor sniper rifles, and armor-piercing handguns define the U.S. civilian gun market and are far and away the “weapons of choice” for groups like organized criminals, drug traffickers, and violent extremists.

The research found this flood of militarized weapons exemplifies the firearms industry’s strategy of marketing enhanced lethality, or killing power, to stimulate sales. They now try to appeal to the “soldier within” who wants new and more lethal designs. The resulting widespread increase in killing power is reflected in the toll of gun death and injury in the United States – a relentless count that “every year takes 10 times the number of lives as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

Semiautomatic assault weapons—especially inexpensive AK-47 type imports are increasingly popular, and the lax regulation and easy access to these relatively inexpensive military-style weapons has resulted in “their being smuggled on a large scale from the U.S. to criminals throughout the Western Hemisphere – including Mexico, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America – as well as to points as far away as Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Africa.”

The gun lobby has spent three decades trying to “rebrand” civilian assault rifles as mere sporting guns. The recent studies refute the gun lobby’s recent attempt to “rebrand” semiautomatic assault weapons civilian versions of automatic military assault rifles (like the AK-47, the M-16, and FN’s high-tech P-90 and automatic military assault pistols like the UZI) – as “modern sporting rifles.”

Key Points About Assault Weapons:

* Although civilian assault weapons are not machine guns, this is a distinction without a difference in terms of killing power.

Civilian semiautomatic assault weapons incorporate all of the functional design features that make assault weapons so deadly. They are arguably more deadly than military versions, because most experts agree that semiautomatic fire is more accurate than automatic fire.

Semiautomatic weapons can also legally simulate automatic fire with “bump” modifications to the stock that reduces recoil and lets the shooter hold the weapon in a way that allows rapid fire.

As the U.S. Army’s Rifle and Carbine Training Circular notes, “Automatic or burst fires drastically decrease the probability of hit due to the rapid succession of recoil impulses and the inability of the Soldier to maintain proper sight alignment and sight picture on the target.”

* The distinctive “look” of assault weapons is not cosmetic.

It is the visual result of specific functional design decisions. Military assault weapons were designed and developed for a specific military purpose—laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone.

* Civilian assault weapons keep the specific functional design features that make this anti- personnel function easy.

These functional features also distinguish assault weapons from traditional sporting guns.

* The most significant assault weapon functional design features are: (1) ability to accept a detachable high-capacity ammunition magazine, (2) a rear pistol or thumb-hole grip, and, (3) a forward grip or barrel shroud.

Taken together, these are the design features that make possible the deadly and indiscriminate “spray-firing” for which assault weapons are designed. None of them are features of true hunting or sporting guns.

* Although the gun lobby today argues that there is no such thing as civilian assault weapons, the industry, the National Rifle Association, and gun magazines enthusiastically described these civilian versions as “assault rifles,” “assault pistols,” and “military assault” weapons to boost civilian sales throughout the 1980s.

The industry and its allies only began to use the semantic argument that a “true” assault weapon is a machine gun after civilian assault weapons turned up in large numbers in the hands of drug traffickers, criminal gangs, mass murderers, and other dangerous criminals.

Coming to Grips With Reality

The gun industry is not just a “sporting” industry. It never has been. It now generates huge profits from militarized weapons sold to the public. We must see their marketing as it really is. That marketing underwrites mass shootings as it exploits fear – racial fear, ethnic fear, and political fear. Assault-style weapons kill innocent people. They are what a mass murderer desires to commit insane national tragedies. They are far too available. Yes, the gun DOES play a role ... a most deadly one.


“Bullet Hoses—Semiautomatic Assault Weapons: What Are They? What’s So Bad About Them?” Violence Policy Center. May 2003.

Alex Horton. “The Las Vegas shooter had 17 guns. Here’s what we know about them.” The Washington Post. October 02, 2017.

Christopher Ingraham. “Assault rifles are becoming mass shooters’ weapon of choice.” The Washington Post. June 12, 2016. 

Tom Jackman. “Some automatic weapons, as possibly used in Las Vegas shooting, are legal but heavily regulated.” The Washington Post. October 02, 2017.

“Key Points About Assault Weapons.” Violence Policy Center. 2016.

“The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market.” The David Bohnett Foundation and The Joyce Foundation. Violence Policy Center. June 2011.

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