In the 2022 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature has introduced SB 5217 and its companion bill HB 1229, which seek to ban so-called “assault weapons”. Both of these bills are in committee at the time of this paper’s writing, before potentially being sent to the chamber floors for a vote. Legislators support these bills under the guise of public safety with the claims that these bills are “common sense” actions to reduce gun violence in general, and specifically mass shootings, in Washington. Our position is that these bills will place undue burdens on gun owners, will not discernibly reduce gun violence, and are not constitutional.
Supporters of these bills claim that banning “assault weapons” will reduce gun violence. (Note: “assault weapon” is not a standardized definition. These bills have a lengthy definition that includes most well-known semi-automatic rifle patterns, some submachine guns, and some long-range precision rifles. This bill even encompasses basic .22 caliber rifles that many young shooters hone their skill on.) However, the overwhelming majority of gun crime is committed with handguns. Even in the specific context of mass shootings, numerous examples have occurred in which perpetrators used types of firearms other than semi-automatic rifles. Mass shootings, regardless of the firearms used, and despite the media coverage they receive, are in fact are extremely rare in the overall context of gun violence. Another facet of mass shootings is that the perpetrators are frequently known to have mental health issues beforehand but law enforcement or family members fail to intervene, such as in the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School (1) in Florida and the recent shooting at Oxford High School (2) in Michigan. To that end, these bills will not reduce the potential for mass shootings to occur, and only serve to disarm law-abiding citizens.
Indeed, legislators have not considered that these bills will place an undue burden on law-abiding gun owners. Despite claims that semi-automatic rifles are “weapons of war” and “have no place in our communities”, they are far and away the most common type of rifle in civilian hands. The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America with at least 15 million (3) in circulation. Civilians of all walks of life use semi-automatic rifles for home- and self-defense, competition shooting, general target shooting, and hunting. To quote a ruling from Justice Roger Benitez in Miller v. Bonta (more on that case later), “This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes ” (4). The CDC estimates half a million to three million defensive gun uses occur annually (5). Even if we take the low end of that estimate, and then assume only 1% of those situations involved rifles, we have 5,000 defensive rifle uses compared to approximately 200-400 (6) murders committed with rifles. To be clear, law-abiding civilians are far more likely to use a semi-automatic rifle in defense than in any crime. Additionally, though the bills do include a grandfather clause, the fact remains that moving forward this is in fact a blanket ban for anyone not in possession of a semi-automatic rifle at the time of enactment, including all future generations of gun owners. Legislators claim that these grandfather clauses respect the rights of gun owners; however, a gradual erosion of rights carries the same weight as an immediate denial of those rights.
Furthermore, despite the above hardships imposed on law-abiding citizens, these bills will not even discernibly reduce gun violence. In murders where the type of firearm was known, handguns were used 90% of the time, while rifles of all types, not just semi-automatic rifles, were used 4% of the time (7). Shotguns were used in a comparable number of murders as rifles, yet the reputation of rifles, and specifically semi-automatic rifles, is much more maligned. Knives, blunt objects, and fists each were used to commit more murders than all types of rifles, yet no legislators are pushing for bans of knives or clubs. With regards to mass shootings, some of the deadliest mass shootings were not committed using semi-automatic rifles (8) (9). Here in Washington, the Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in a work group studying how to mitigate mass shootings, did not recommend a ban on semi-automatic rifles, or any other firearm legislation (10). These experts concluded that mass shootings are largely caused by lapses in our mental health system, bullying, and lack of outreach and support networks. Further research by the RAND Corporation has not found conclusive evidence that banning semi-automatic rifles has an effect on gun violence or mass shootings (11). In studying the 1994-2004 federal ban on semi-automatic rifles, the US Department of Justice concluded “should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement” (12). We cannot make it any more clear – bans on semi-automatic rifles unequivocally, undeniably do not work.
Finally, these bills are unconstitutional and will certainly be met with a judicial challenge should they become law. The Supreme Court reiterated in 2006 that the Second Amendment protects the individual’s right to bear arms, and applies to arms (including firearms themselves, ammunition, and magazines) “in common use at the time” (13). As stated earlier, there are tens of millions of semi-automatic rifles in the United States, and they are legal in 44 states (14). For comparison, the Supreme Court found in Caetano v. Massachusetts that stun guns, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are protected by the Second Amendment (15) (though there is more to this ruling than just the number in circulation). Additionally, Miller v. Bonta, challenging California’s ban on semi-automatic rifles, is currently pending in the US District Court for the Southern District of California (16). Should a case on semi-automatic rifle bans be heard by the Supreme Court, it is entirely possible the existing bans at state levels would be overturned.
We strongly oppose these bills. Though the intent is admirable, these bans are clumsy and ineffective instruments that will only disarm law-abiding Washingtonians from all walks of life. Mountains of data support that these bills will do nothing to solve the issue at hand. For the above reasons, we find the notion that these bans are “common sense” legislation to be absurd. These bills are yet another example of gun control legislation written by people unfamiliar with gun usage, for people unfamiliar with gun usage. If our elected officials are to be consistent in “sticking to the science” (17) to drive policy, they must stand in opposition to SB 5217 and HB 1229.