Amid all the frantic posturing and wild claims emanating from both sides of the gun debate, we find ourselves locked in another endless, circular argument around "assault rifles". What are they good for? Why do we 'need' them? What makes them assault rifles, what makes them desirable, what makes them unacceptable and what would make them acceptable? In all the shouting and flecks of spittle, it's easy to forget that we have been all through this before. Not just the arguments over the original assault weapons ban of the Clinton years - although that event does serve as a kind of a coda to this story - but well before, going back to the years of great firearms innovations from 1960 to 1980.
In this period we saw the rise of a new kind of weapon, a submachine gun the size and form factor of a pistol, characterized by cheap, stamped metal construction, high rates of fire and corresponding large capacity magazines and representing a level of portable, concealable firepower that had simply never been available before. In the end there were dozens of different manufacturers and models, but the family tree has three branches, and at the top of each branch is an icon, a shining star in the firmament of global bloodshed in the latter half of the 20th century.
What was required to kick off this mini arms race was an engineering breakthrough. The challenge is the bolt - it has to have enough mass to operate with the right timing to cycle the weapon. Conventional wisdom had always been that the bolt was behind the barrel, and never the twain shall meet. Slowly, the firearms design community began to think about another option. What if, they wondered, we could extend some of the mass of the bolt over or around the barrel in front of the chamber? You could then envision a system that would use a ten inch barrel and would only be fourteen inches overall. Then, if you put the grip under the chamber and loaded the magazine in the grip, as in a typical automatic pistol, you might just be able to build something that had never been seen before.
In the beginning, there was Uzi
|Where the HELL did he get that thing?|
The world noticed, an icon was born, and weapons design would never be the same. The concept was irresistible - a small, concealable, high capacity automatic weapon was a game changer. Its time had come.
Shortly after the success of the Uzi came the MAC 10
|Miami Vice had their finger on the pulse of|
American firearms in the '80s. And white
The MAC 10 spawned lots of imitators, primarily because the companies that made it kept going out of business. But it became ubiquitous in the '80s - I had one of the Cobrays in 9mm that my fiance bought for my birthday. As crude and cheap as they were, they were so simple that they were utterly dependable, and you could push 30 rounds downrange in the blink of an eye. With the very short barrel, loose tolerances and the tendency to load cheap 9mm realoads - if you are loading a bunch of 30 round magazines, cost starts to become a consideration - accuracy was not great. Although it was hard to hold and aim, so it was an ongoing debate as to the inherent accuracy of the gun - but it was designed to put a LOT of lead downrange, and it did that very well.
But now we were getting into the late '80s, street violence was off the charts, crack wars were raging in Florida and gangs were exploding along with the growth of crack cocaine. And that leads us to the final straw.
As street crime and the drug wars heated up in the '70s and '80s, the US market responded with the TEC9
|He seems to have anger issues|
Now, there is a reason why, out of 12,253 murders in the US in 2013, only 285 were committed with rifles. They are big, expensive and impossible to carry or conceal. So it is these very small, high capacity weapons that use the ammunition and form factor of the handgun and build onto it the firepower of an assault rifle that are probably a more realistic concern. But of course, the real danger is the availability of the plain vanilla, run-of-the-mill handgun, any old thing you can stuff in your pocket or in your belt and reach for when you're angry, frightened or drunk.
But trying to legislate against certain kinds of rifles due to a few very bloody, high-profile incidents is not productive. Whether you want it to be true or not, rifles like the AK-47 and AR-15 do have many legitimate uses - the argument "why would you NEED one of those?" simply doesn't hold water. But guns like the three little pigs? These are street guns, concealable killing machines, and while they are ridiculously fun to shoot (full disclosure: I had a MAC-11 for a number of years in the '80s), they really don't have much purpose beyond putting a lot of lead downrange in a very short period of time from concealment.