In the United States, politicians, journalists, and gun control activists who talk about “assault rifles” often treat the term as interchangeable with “assault weapons,” an arbitrary categorydefined by law. While the criteria vary from one jurisdiction to another, “assault weapons” in the United States are similar to New Zealand’s original definition of MSSAs in the sense that the category includes guns with “military-style” features, such as folding stocks, bayonet lugs, and flash suppressors, that do not make the weapons any more deadly in the hands of a mass shooter.
By contrast, New Zealand’s new definition of military-style semi-automatics, which will now be not just restricted but banned, hinges on a functionally significant distinction: the ability to accept detachable magazines. At the same time, that criterion is so broad that it renders the term military-style meaningless and sweeps in a wide range of firearms used for lawful purposes. In the United States—which, unlike New Zealand, has a constitution that guarantees the right to armed self-defense—such a sweeping ban would be inconsistent with Supreme Court rulings rejecting bans on semi-automatic handguns. Yet it is more logical than American-style “assault weapon” bans, which focus on looks rather than lethality.
The “military-style semi-automatic weapons” New Zealand plans to ban (which may or may not be synonymous with the “assault rifles” Ardern “also” wants to ban) include many guns that never fell into that category before and do not necessarily have anything to do with the military. It is therefore more than a little confusing to continue using the same term for them, especially for Americans who imagine that the category is equivalent to what U.S. politicians have in mind when they refer to “assault weapons.”
Since the rationale for such laws is that they make it harder to obtain guns that are especially suitable for mass murder, the details matter. “Assault weapon” bans tend to draw distinctions that make no sense in light of that goal. New Zealand’s government is implicitly acknowledging that problem by focusing on function instead of appearance. But that also means imposing a much bigger burden on law-abiding gun owners, who now will be required to give up detachable magazines and the guns that accept them, which are surely more widely useful than bayonet lugs or flash suppressors. In that tradeoff, there is a lesson that American gun controllers should take to heart.
[Jacob Sullum, “New Zealand’s Sweeping New Gun Ban Would Be Unconstitutional in the U.S.” Reason, March 21]