“Assault weapons” long have been portrayed as exceptionally powerful firearms designed for killing large numbers of people. While handguns are the overwhelming weapon of choice for mass shooters and rifles of every kind are used in only 3-4% of murders nationwide, gun-control advocates nevertheless single out “assault weapons” as uniquely deserving of prohibition. The reason, they say, is that “assault weapons” are far more dangerous than other modern firearms and thus ill-suited for lawful activities like self-defense.
Five federal circuit courts have relied on the lethality rationale in upholding “assault weapon” bans against Second Amendment challenges. They have declared that “assault weapons” have “a capability for lethality—more wounds, more serious, in more victims—far beyond that of other firearms in general, including other semiautomatic guns.” For these courts, “assault weapon” lethality is the driving factor in their constitutional interest balancing.
Are “assault weapons” more lethal or dangerous than handguns, shotguns, and non-banned rifles? Ban advocates and federal courts say they are and have offered two arguments to support their claims. The first draws an analogy to military weapons by labeling “assault weapons” as extremely dangerous weapons of war. The second uses metrics based on weapons’ rate of fire and wounding capability.
Given the magnitude of disinformation about “assault weapons,” judges must carefully assess whether there is reliable evidence to support these arguments. If “assault weapons” are not more lethal than non-banned firearms and are equally useful for self-defense, then courts must find other justifications for upholding laws that keep such firearms out of the hands of ordinary citizens.
This Article provides an evidence-based analysis of AR-15’s lethality as justifying bans on these rifles. Part I considers whether the AR-15 is like a combat weapon, and thus too lethal for civilian use. Part II examines claims that the AR-15 is exceptionally lethal because it fires much faster and causes far more serious wounds than non-banned firearms. Part III answers two related questions: first, why have mass shootings with “assault weapons” resulted in much higher casualties? And second, do the same features that make “assault weapons” useful for self-defense also make them the most deadly choice for mass shooters?