It now appears that at least one of the firearms used by the Las Vegas shooter was fully-automatic or modified to simulate such fire.
This has caused an outcry from politicians and media figures who mistakenly believe that such weapons are widespread and/or easy to attain.
But they aren’t. In fact, legally owned fully-automatic weapons have only been used in three crimes since 1934.
The reason that fully-automatic firearms are so rare is the result of two major pieces of legislation. First, the National Firearms Act all but banned fully-automatic weapons in 1935. Fully-automatic weapons were heavily restricted and thoroughly tracked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Although the NFA heavily regulated the ownership of these firearms, new models were still available for purchase. The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 ended that by prohibiting the purchase of fully-automatic weapons, except for pre-existing firearms grandfathered in by the legislation.
Today, pre-1986 fully-automatic weapons are still available for purchase, but only for tens of thousands of dollars. Some weapons cost more than $100,000. As a result, most privately owned fully-automatic weapons are owned by shooting ranges that rent them out. The rest are owned by police departments and law enforcement around the country.
Due to their rarity, legally-owned fully-automatic firearms are almost never used in crimes
There are an estimated 300 million guns in the United States. That’s nearly one for every man, woman, and child in this country. Fully-automatic weapons make up less than 0.08 percent of the total firearms in America. It’s easy to see why their use in crimes is such a freak occurrence. Guncite recounts these statistics, which is reprinted in the narrative below, with minor formatting changes:
In 1995 there were over 240,000 machine guns registered with the ATF, according to Mariane Zawitz of the Bureau of Justice Statistics publication “Guns Used In Crimes.”
About half of those guns are owned by civilians and the other half by police departments and other governmental agencies, according to Gary Kleck in “Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control,” published by Walter de Gruyter, Inc., in 1997.
Since 1934, there appear to have been at least two homicides committed with legally-owned automatic weapons. One was a murder committed by a law enforcement officer, and not a civilian. On September 15th, 1988, a 13-year veteran of the Dayton, Ohio, police department, Patrolman Roger Waller, then 32, used his fully automatic MAC-11 .380 caliber submachine gun to kill a police informant, 52-year-old Lawrence Hileman. Patrolman Waller pleaded guilty in 1990, and he and an accomplice were sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The 1986 ban on the sales of new machine guns does not apply to purchases by law enforcement or government agencies.
The other homicide possibly involving a legally owned machine gun occurred on September 14, 1992, also in Ohio.
In Targeting Guns, Kleck cites the director of ATF testifying before Congress that he knew of less than ten crimes that were committed with legally owned machine guns. Nno time period was specified in his testimony. Kleck said these crimes could have been nothing more than violations of gun regulations such as failure to notify ATF after moving a registered gun between states.
A third crime was referenced as having been committed since 1934, but was not identified.
If fully-automatic guns are used in crimes, they are almost always modified semi-automatics
There have been other crimes committed with what appeared to be fully-automatic weapons. Just as with ownership of fully-automatic weapons, it is illegal across the nation to modify a semi-automatic firearm’s internal structure to make it fully-automatic.
In some states, however, it is legal to install external bump-fire stocks that simulate the results of fully-automatic fire. With that said, the use of these modified fully-automatic weapons in mass shootings or other crimes is still extremely rare.
It’s not yet known whether the Las Vegas shooter’s weapons were legally purchased or modified from existing semi-automatic firearms. Nonetheless, this case is an extreme outlier that should not be used to justify further regulation of firearms; fully-automatic or otherwise.
(Photo of fully-automatic weapons at gun range in Las Vegas by Cory Doctorow.)