Monday, October 2, 2017

Machine Guns in Las Vegas?

Update 10-3-17 in red text below.

Update 10-4-17:  in blue text below.

Update 10-6-17:  in purple text below.

Under federal law,  a “machine gun” is a firearm that shoots more than one bullet per trigger pull.  The synonym for this is “fully-automatic”.  A “semi-automatic” weapon is one that sends one bullet per trigger pull,  loading the next round automatically.  If it doesn’t load the next round automatically,  that means the user must operate some sort of manual bolt or other mechanism to load the next round.  Bolt-action rifles,  pump or breakdown shotguns,  and ordinary revolver handguns fall into that last category. 

The M-16 used by US armed forces is indeed a machine gun,  a fully-automatic weapon,  although it can be operated as a semi-automatic single-shot weapon as well.  The same is true of the Russian-developed Kalashnikov AK-47.  These are true “assault weapons” for military use precisely because they really can be machine guns.  A military unit not so armed is at a lethally-distinct firepower disadvantage when confronted by such weapons. 

The AR-15 (and most modern hunting and sport guns) is a semi-automatic weapon,  not a machine gun / fully-automatic weapon.  The fact that an AR-15 looks exactly like an M-16,  has absolutely nothing to do with its rate of fire.   Calling it an “assault weapon” is wrong,  because no military unit today would ever go into combat with the AR-15.  They would be totally outgunned by any group with fully-automatic weapons.  It’s not about what the gun looks like,  it is entirely about what the gun can actually do.  Simple common sense.

Civilians in this country currently can indeed own or possess machine guns,  but what devices they can own,  and what they can do with them,  is very,  very,  very severely restricted.  This began with the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934.  That law came about because the mafia was causing mass death in the streets with the venerable old “Tommy gun”,  which really was a machine gun.  It severely restricted civilian ownership of fully automatic weapons,  short-barrel rifles and shotguns,  and certain explosives.  It was amended in 1968 and again in 1986.

The 1986 amendment restricted civilian ownership of fully automatic weapons to only those made before 1986,  only with payment of a $200 tax along with an enormous and very invasive application,  and only with a very,  very thorough ATF background investigation,  plus requirements for notification of the ATF any time the owner traveled with any of those devices. 

Such devices could not be updated or repaired with modern parts.  Parts for such devices are largely out-of-reach of all but the richest today.  There are no exceptions to allow for the ownership of anything newer than 1986.  There are no exceptions to any of the other requirements.

This status was superseded for a while in 1994 to disallow entirely the civilian ownership of those pre-1986 machine guns,  short-barrel guns,  and devices,  but that restriction expired in 2004.  So,  we are still under the 1986 version of the law today.

In all 50 states,  it may indeed be legal to own machine guns,  but only in accordance with the federal law!  If the possession or use is not in accord with federal law,  then such possession or use is presumed illegal under state law,  period!  Some states impose further restrictions,  some do not.  And that federal law is exactly the 1986 update of the 1934 NFA law.  Period.  No exceptions.

Modifying a semi-automatic weapon into a full-automatic weapon is indeed possible,  but it is generally not very easy to do.  It requires appropriate tools and knowledge and experience.  It also requires testing.  This is already illegal under any circumstances,  no exceptions. 

Update 10-4-17 Two new technologies for increasing firing rate have come to light.  These are the "bump stock" and the "gat-crank".  These act to increase the firing rate of a semi-automatic weapon to that of a fully-automatic weapon,  without modifying the loading mechanism inside the weapon.  These are therefore technically legal,  but they definitely do violate the intent of the 1986 prohibition on all but grandfathered machine guns.  In my opinion,  this is cheating,  and should not be allowed.  

What the shooter in Las Vegas did,  and what motivated him,  are still the subjects of investigation.  Nothing is yet known with any certainty,  and such certainty is unlikely for quite a while yet. Update 10-6-17:  information in news reports keeps surfacing that point to mental illness of some kind in this shooter.  He got his guns legally,  because no judge ever had him committed.  If you look at the earlier article cited below,  that "leak" of guns into the hands of crazies is the most common cause of these mass shooting incidents!  

The best speculations are (1) he sneaked some 10 (weapon count has been climbing in subsequent reports,  both in the hotel and at his home) long-barrel weapons into his hotel room overlooking the outdoor concert venue,  (2) at least some of those weapons were machine guns based on the high rates of fire evident from the audio recordings of the event,  and (3) he fired into a dense crowd that could not move quickly,  so that without aiming,  he was certain to hit lots of people. 

Item 3 means that fully-automatic weapons are not required to exact a huge death toll,  but they do considerably raise it.  Not even semi-automatic weapons are needed.  A considerable death toll could still be expected with just single-shot,  bolt-action rifles.  So,  it’s not really about the gun,  it’s much more about the situation:  a densely-packed,  immobile crowd as the target from a nearby high place. 

Every time there is such a mass shooting event,  there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction:  a call for tighter gun control.  Always the same things are proposed,  and almost none of them would have prevented any of these events,  including this one!  The exceptions are (1) selling weapons too easily to crazy folks,  and (2) loopholes to the required background checks we already have. 

The problem here really isn’t so much the guns,  it is what motivates people to want to kill their neighbors.  What causes that?  I have never heard a good answer to that question.  Maybe it is past time to go find out. 

Update 10-3-17:  To find out what the gun violence is really trying to tell us,  go see my analysis of excerpts from the Mother Jones gun violence database.  It is not what you think!  This analysis is in the article titled "What the Gun Violence Data Really Say" dated 6-21-2016 on this website.  It has a list of titles and dates for other articles I have also written on this subject.  The navigation tool on the left gets you there most easily.  Click on the year,  then on the month,  then on the title. 

For those unwilling to go to the cited article and examine the data for themselves,  here is the short form of the message:  (1) we have a major "leak" of guns legally sold to people who are mentally ill,  but have never been so ruled by a court,  (2) we have a major problem with inadequately-defended (or entirely-undefended) gun-free zones,  which also invite terrorist attack,  and (3) the "usual" gun control proposals of "assault" weapons bans,  clip size limits,  and the like,  have already been tried and were already found to be ineffective.  

It's both that simple and that ugly.  Fix those two items properly,  and it looks to me like most of this problem goes away.  Item 3 tells you what not to do.  Update 10-4-17 I also recommend outlawing "bump stocks" and "gat-cranks".  That won't prevent the incidents,  but it will reduce the death tolls.  


  1. People have been killing each other for millions of years. Making it easy for them to do so-- is not a good idea.

    And most rational nations don't allow this which is why the rate of gun deaths in the US is astronomical relative to the rest of the Western world.

    1. That's the price we pay to make the threat of armed revolution credible, so that government behaves better. -- GW