Vital Signs

Guns and the Press

Brrrrrrrrrrrrt! Brrrrrrrrrrrrt! As the shooter sprayed his target, his gun ejected a steady stream of shiny spent brass cartridges. Millions of Americans watched this impressive demonstration on their TV screens, while the NBC reporter informed them that the legislation soon to be voted on by the House or Senate would ban "assault weapons." In a slightly different version of the scenario, a prominent gun-control activist would state that the guns covered by the ban, presumably guns like the one being demonstrated, were of no value to hunters or sportsmen. So what?

So this: The gun being demonstrated was a semi-automatic, a machine gun, that fires as long as the trigger is held back. The guns covered by the legislation were semi-automatics, which—however much they may look like machine guns—fire only one shot per trigger pull. Legal machine gun possession by Americans has, rightly or wrongly, been strictly regulated by the federal government since 1934, and many states ban civilians from owning such guns. Semi-automatics have been used by Americans for sport and other legitimate purposes since the turn of the century (before the military started using them), and after World War II, the federal government sold surplus semi-automatic rifles, carbines, and pistols to the public at bargain prices. In the five years that followed the 1989 Stockton, California, schoolyard shooting which involved the use of a semiautomatic...

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