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Washington State’s Rationale for Outlawing ‘Assault Weapons’ Doesn’t Stand Up to Even the Most Basic Scrutiny

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While the satisfaction of sticking it to “the gun industry” is a matter of perspective, the promise that [Washington State’s] new laws will measurably improve public safety seems highly dubious, especially when it comes to the semi-automatic rifles that [Governor Jay] Inslee and the Democrat-controlled Washington State Legislature have deemed intolerable. H.B. 1240, which makes Washington the 10th state to prohibit the production, sale, and possession of “assault weapons” (counting Hawaii, whose ban is limited to pistols), takes the familiar approach of targeting specific models and other firearms that meet a set of arbitrary criteria. Like the other bans, it exempts currently owned guns.

In addition to a list of models that includes the AK-47 “in all its forms” and the AR-15 “in all its forms,” H.B. 1240 applies to any “semiautomatic, center fire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine” and any of nine features. The prohibited features include pistol grips, folding or telescoping stocks, flash suppressors, muzzle breaks, barrel shrouds, and threaded barrels.

Here is how The New York Times explains the logic of this definition: “AR-15-style rifles have been a particular point of concern among gun control proponents as they have often been the weapon of choice in mass shootings. The high-capacity firearms can fire rounds at a greater velocity than a handgun, resulting in more severe injuries.”

Contrary to what the Times says, “AR-15-style rifles” are not the “the weapon of choice” in mass shootings. “Handguns are the most common weapon type used in mass shootings in the United States, with a total of 161 different handguns being used in 111 incidents between 1982 and April 2023,” Statistica Research reports. “These figures are calculated from a total of 142 reported cases over this period, meaning handguns are involved in about 78 percent of mass shootings.”

That jibes with a 2022 National Institute of Justice report on public mass shootings from 1966 through 2019, which found that 77 percent of the perpetrators used handguns. About a quarter of the killers used weapons that would be covered by legislation like H.B. 1240.

Several of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history—including the 2007 Virginia Tech attack, which killed 32 people, and the 1991 Luby’s massacre, which killed 23—involved ordinary handguns. It seems clear that even eliminating all “assault weapons,” which H.B 1240 does not purport to do, would not prevent such crimes.

Mass shootings, of course, account for a tiny share of all gun homicides. In the broader picture, the role of what the Times calls “military-style semiautomatic weapons” is even smaller. In 2021, according to FBI data, rifles of any kind, only a subset of which would qualify as “assault weapons,” were used in 6.5 percent of gun homicides where the type of firearm was specified. The share for handguns was 87 percent.

— Jacob Sullum in Washington Is Now the 10th State With a Logically and Constitutionally Dubious ‘Assault Weapon’ Ban

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