The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The Second Amendment was added to the Constitution following the Revolutionary War. At the time there was a well-justified belief that the United States might again be challenged by a foreign power. Assault weapons were never conceived of by the Founding Fathers.

A brief history of the AR-15 assault Rifle follows:

In 1957, the U.S. Army contracted with Armalite, an arms manufacturer, to develop a military weapon of “high-velocity rifle, with settings for full automatic and semi automatic fire, a 20 shot magazine, 6 lbs loaded, and able to penetrate both sides of a standard Army helmet at 500 meters.”

The AR-15 entered Army service in the 1960s for use in the Vietnam War. This was, however, an automatic version of the AR-15 that was renamed the M16. The AR-15 came to refer to the rifle’s semi-automatic civilian equivalent.

From 1994 to 2004, AR-15 style rifles were subject to the now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Since then, the AR-15 rifle and other sporting rifles like it (AK-47) have become tremendously popular. The AR-15 is modular and thus easily modified. It has been called “perhaps the most flexible firearm ever developed.”

For hunting, the AR-15’s standard .223 caliber ammunition doesn’t offer much stopping power. Many hunters find the rifle controversial; with some arguing AR-15 style rifles empower “spray and pray” hunters. As one hunter put it in the comments section of an article on americanhunter.org, “I served in the military and the M16 was the weapon I used for 20 years. It is first and foremost designed as an assault weapon platform, no matter what the spin. A hunter does not need a semi-automatic rifle to hunt.”

In terms of repelling a home invasion — which is what most people mean when they talk about home defense — an AR-15-style rifle is probably less useful than a handgun. The AR-15 is a long gun, and can be difficult to maneuver in tight quarters. And when shot, it may over penetrate — sending bullets through the walls of a house.

How many assault rifles are there in the U.S.? The answer is interesting. The NSSF (National Sports Shooting Foundation) does not use the term “assault rifle” but tracks the production of “modern sporting rifles.” One of the most cited estimates of the number of assault-style rifles comes from this organization, which estimates the number in the U.S. at 17 million weapons.

As Congressional aides on both sides of the debate scramble to draw up background reports and statistics on the assault rifle issue for their bosses, they’ll run into a basic informational roadblock: No one knows how many assault rifles are in circulation.

The numbers are hazy for several reasons:

  Manufacturers have records of how many have been sold. But that information is not available to the public. “Those numbers don’t exist because there’s no national registry,” said Jan Kemp, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Because by law, we are not allowed to have a national registry.” Thus, the government doesn’t keep detailed data on the different types of firearms owned by Americans.

  The overall number of assault-style weapons in the United States is not just an academic matter: The constitutionality of gun bans rests on their historic popularity. The courts assess the popularity of the weapons when deciding whether politicians can ban them.

In terms of firearm control, we can take some cues from Japan. Japan has strict laws regarding firearms and seldom has more than 10 shooting deaths a year in a population of 127 million people. In Japan people must attend an all-day class, pass a written test, and achieve at least 95 percent accuracy during a shooting-range test. Then they have to pass a mental-health evaluation at a hospital, as well as a background check, in which the government digs into any criminal records or ties and interviews friends and family members. Finally, they can buy only shotguns and air rifles — no handguns — and must retake the class and the initial exam every three years.

There are many steps that the U.S. could take with regard to assault weapons:

1. Review ownership requirements for assault weapons.

2. Issue Executive Orders to regulate the manufacture and sale of assault rifles, extended magazines and suppressors (aka silencers).

3. Consider a buyback plan for assault weapons.

4. And of course, the oft-mentioned, stricter background checks. Background checks, sadly, are tough to administer and come with no guarantees. A gun may be purchased for someone who is prohibited by law from possessing one, or for someone who does not want his or her name associated with the transaction. A “straw purchase” is the term for this type of activity and is a Federal crime.

To summarize: There’s a reason these weapons are called assault weapons. They were developed for the battlefield — not for your average citizen.

John Brown is a resident of New Fairfield.