The time of day when the newsfeed on my computer screen announced the Oct. 1 shootings in Las Vegas escapes me. Rarely do my setters allow me to sleep beyond 5 a.m., so it was sometime around then — too early to be sick to one's stomach.
None of the people killed or wounded and none of the first responders faced with the aftermath were known to me. So my silent thoughts went out to them.
The media couldn't remain silent and allow the families, friends, co-workers and folks who just care about others a moment. The political subdivisions representing the pro-gun and anti-gun crowd had the right to just shut up for a moment, but they didn't have the ability.
My life has revolved around guns. From a lifetime of hunting to a career in law enforcement, firearms have been a part of my life. I've spent a good many days as an instructor, and now I write about guns. Thus, because I feel a certain responsibility, I'll write about automatic weapons, and I won't like it much.
The rhetoric spewed by both sides, the continuous bombardment of incorrect information and the lip service from lawmakers who know nothing of the subject isn't helpful. But then extremism rarely is.
The general public, including the majority of gun owners in this country, doesn't know much about automatic weapons. Why would it? In 1934, the National Firearms Act (NFA) targeted firearms capable of firing multiple shots with the single press of the trigger, which in a nutshell is what an automatic weapon is.
Prior to 1934, anyone could own an automatic weapon, and some folks did. Gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s — people like John Dillinger, George "Bugs" Moran and Al Capone — made automatic firearms famous. Their use of the Thompson submachine gun brought the issue of automatic weapons into the limelight.
The NFA does not prohibit the private ownership of automatic weapons. A law-abiding citizen willing to go through an arduous process of registration, background checks and securance of approval from the head of a local law enforcement agency or a sitting judge can legally obtain a firearm capable of automatic fire.
If there is a documented case of a legally owned automatic weapon being used for criminal behavior since the passage of the NFA, I haven't been able to find it. The NFA is a reasonable method of controlling something that needed to be controlled. It has not infringed on the ability of Americans to protect themselves.
For most of my years in law enforcement, I was part of a Special Emergency Response Team. I sometimes carried automatic weapons. Their usefulness in the law-enforcement arena is specific to certain special circumstances, and they only come into the arena in those circumstances.
Military use of shoulder-fired automatic weapons is a bit broader. They are used rarely for specific engagement of an enemy soldier. Mostly they are used to saturate areas with prolific gunfire to keep the enemy's heads down during advance and retreat. Any casualties inflicted during the process are bonuses. To put it in perspective, during the Vietnam conflict, 58,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition (mostly 5.56×45, the military designation for the .223) were fired for every enemy casualty.
One needs to understand the basic realities of these guns to understand their limited usefulness. I'll try to explain using the AR-15, chambered for the .223 cartridge, capable of automatic fire, as an example. These guns fire at a rate of 700 to 900 rounds per minute, depending on the configuration. Taking the median number, that equates to about 13 rounds per second — nowhere near the 3,000 rounds per second suggested in some media reports. Numbers like that would be reserved for the fantasy world of motion pictures.
With the gun selected to automatic fire, aim at a human-sized target 10 yards away and press the trigger. Under the assumption you had a correct sight picture and didn't jerk the trigger, the first shot will hit the target where you aimed. The second shot might hit the target, but the hit won't be anywhere close to your original aiming point. The third shot is just about guaranteed not to hit the target at all.
Even though the recoil impulse of the .223 is light, it does exist, and no normal human can contain this recoil in a light, shoulder-fired weapon. As the gun continues to fire, the recoil moves the gun and the subsequent shots spread out. An expert in the use of these types of guns can consistently put two shots on the target. Step back to 20 yards, and even the best aren't going to get two hits.
If we can all agree that no sane person is going to park an automatic weapon in their bedroom or by their front door for home defense, the question is, why have one?
Beyond the historical significance for collectors, the answer for most is simple: They are just plain fun to shoot. Used responsibly in the controlled environment of a shooting range, these guns will bring a smile of delight to most anyone who gives them a try. They are sort of like a top-fuel dragster — expensive to own, expensive to feed and not particularly useful, but many would like to drive one, just once. It's the same with automatic weapons.
And thus, you have the "bump stock," the most recent in a long line of accessories designed to circumvent the law regarding automatic weapons. It is reported that the bump stock was used by the lunatic in Las Vegas, although when listening to the tape of gunfire it is understandable why some speculated there were real automatic weapons involved as well. It's a very distinct sound.
The bump stock was approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because by the strict letter of the law, the gun on which it is employed still requires one press of the trigger for each shot. It does not make an AR-15 an automatic weapon, but it does provide a means for putting a lot of rounds downrange fast. It also provides a means for someone to place a lot of rounds into a crowd of people.
If asked for an opinion on the proposed bump-stock ban, I say ban them. That's my opinion. It has nothing to do with fixing the problem of mass shootings. That is a societal issue lost in the hateful banter that now passes for social discourse.
I think they should be banned because as an individual who routinely praises the law-abiding, responsible behavior of gun owners, these circumventions of, if not the letter of the law, then certainly the spirit of a law, passed to control firearms that do not belong in the general concept of self-protection, seems disingenuous. If you want an automatic weapon, go through the process to legally own one.
The argument that you need a bump stock to have more equal footing should the government decide to do whatever it is your imagination thinks it will do doesn't pencil out. People who believe they are going to defeat a trained military or law enforcement force with automatic weapons and a stock of ammunition are expressing a belief, not a reasonable argument. That is not to say the citizenry could not prevail in such an event. But not by engaging in a pitched battle with your AR-15.
Maybe more important is that if this country ever comes to that, we will have failed so miserably at every level that it will no longer matter.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and hunting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.