AuthorSullum, Jacob

JAMES HUBERTY, A 41-year-old survivalist who had recently lost his job as a security guard, spent the morning of July 18, 1984, at the San Diego Zoo with his wife, Etna, and their two daughters. The family ate lunch at a McDonald's restaurant in the Clairemont neighborhood before returning to their home in San Ysidro. After Etna lay down to rest, Huberty approached her and said, "I want to kiss you goodbye." When she asked him where he was going, he said he was "hunting humans."

Just before 4 p.m., Huberty drove his black Mercury Marquis sedan to a San Ysidro McDonald's, where he used three guns--a Browning 9mm pistol, a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, and an Uzi 9mm semi-automatic carbine--to shoot 40 people. Twenty-one of them died, including an 8-month-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. Seventy-eight minutes after the shooting began, a police sniper killed Huberty with a single shot to the chest.

California Assemblyman Art Agnos, a San Francisco Democrat who would later serve as that city's mayor, cited the San Ysidro massacre as an argument for his 1985 bill banning what he called "assault weapons"--semi-automatic versions of military firearms, such as the Uzi used by Huberty. Unlike the rifles that soldiers carry, which are capable of automatic or burst fire (i.e., holding down the trigger fires either a continuous stream or a short series of rounds), these civilian models fire just one round per trigger pull. But Agnos thought they should be regulated as strictly as machine guns, which ordinary civilians cannot legally possess in California without a permit that is essentially impossible to obtain.

"The only use for assault weapons is to shoot people," Agnos told the Assembly Public Safety Committee in June 1985. San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara concurred. "These are weapons of war," he said. "They are made to kill people, and they are all over California. There is no legitimate use for these. Nobody hunts deer with them."

Thus began a long-running public policy fraud that was revived once again after the attack that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14. "From Aurora to Sandy Hook, San Bernardino to Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs to Parkland, one common thread that runs through mass shootings is the use of AR-15 military-style assault weapons," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said a week after the Parkland massacre. "These weapons are designed to kill the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time, and we need to get these weapons of war off our streets."

ALTHOUGH "ASSAULT WEAPONS" fire no faster than any other semi-automatic, such as a Glock 19 pistol or a Ruger 10/22 hunting rifle, politicians routinely conflate them with machine guns, which have not been legally produced for civilians in the United States since 1986. Prohibitionists like Feinstein argue that "assault weapons" are good for nothing but mass shootings and gang warfare, despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of these guns are ever used to commit crimes. They say these firearms are "weapons of choice" for mass shooters, who are in fact much more likely to use handguns, and claim they are uniquely deadly, even though the category is defined based on features that make little or no difference in the hands of a murderer.

Josh Sugarmann, founder and executive director of the Violence Policy Center, laid out this strategy of misdirection and obfuscation in a 1988 report on "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America."...

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