[Eugene Volokh] The new target for gun bans: All semiautomatic weapons?

Back in the 1970s, talk was of banning Saturday Night Specials cheap, generally low-caliber handguns that were supposedly favored by criminals. Actually, criminals, like other people, preferred better, more powerful guns. And to the extent the bans pushed criminals away from the cheap, low-caliber guns and to slightly more expensive, high-caliber substitutes, they might have increased gun deaths, precisely because the high-caliber substitutes were deadlier. (A gun is a criminals tool of the trade; a few would-be gun criminals might be put off by having to pay some more for a gun, but many others would pay the extra money if they had to.)

Then talk shifted to so-called assault weapons particular kinds of semiautomatic weapons partly because these too were seen as unusual and not generally owned by law-abiding people. Quite a few states and cities have indeed banned sales of such weapons, as did the federal government (for newly manufactured) weapons from 1994 to 2004. Of course, especially now, such assault weapons are actually pretty common, but bans on them are still being proposed.

And of course now things have moved on: Now were hearing calls for bans on sale or home possession of semiautomatic weapons generally. Consider, for instance, Thomas Friedmans column in the New York Times this week; Damon Linkers article for The Week this week, though apparently limited to semiautomatic rifles; the Media Matters article hopefully noting a poll of Latinos that showed support for a ban on semi-automatic and assault weapons (the polling organization itself characterized the position as ban semi-automatic weapons).

These proposals arent entirely new; President Obama, when he was a candidate for the Illinois legislature in 1998, said hed support a ban on semiautomatic weapons. But Ive been hearing them more and more often even though semiautomatic guns likely represent close to half of the guns out there in the country. These arent calls for restricting supposedly narrow categories of guns that are allegedly used predominantly by criminals. These are calls for banning the sorts of guns that tens of millions of law-abiding Americans have in their homes.

Now if people think that wed be safer with a ban on semiautomatic weapons, they should of course feel free to argue in favor of such a ban. But, as I suggested in this post earlier today, its hard to view gun rights supporters as paranoid for worrying that supposedly modest restrictions will lead to broad gun bans, when they see how supposedly narrower past restrictions are indeed being followed by calls for much broader gun bans today.