Dick’s Sporting Goods Drops ‘Assault-Style Rifles,’ Because Loss and Grief

Today Dick's Sporting Goods announced that it will no longer sell "assault-style rifles, also referred to as modern sporting rifles," in its Field & Stream hunting and outdoor recreation stores. The company had already stopped carrying such guns in its flagship chain of stores, following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. Dick's CEO Edward Stack said the company was expanding the policy in response to the February 14 attack in which a 19-year-old gunman used a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle to kill 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

"Based on what's happened and looking at those kids and those parents, it moved us all unimaginably," Stack said on ABC's Good Morning America this morning. "To think about the loss and the grief that those kids and those parents had, we said, 'We need to do something.'" Well, this is indeed something. Whether it is something that makes logical sense (as opposed to emotional, P.R., or symbolic sense) is another matter.

In a company statement posted this morning, Stack notes that Nikolas Cruz, the former student charged with carrying out the Parkland massacre, legally purchased a shotgun from a Dick's store in 2017. "It was not the gun, nor type of gun, he used in the shooting," he says. "But it could have been." If Cruz had used a shotgun in the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, would Dick's have stopped selling shotguns? Probably not. So what distinguishes the guns that Dick's not only has stopped selling but wants Congress to ban?

Here we immediately get into murky territory, made murkier by confused and confusing press coverage. The New York Times story about the Dick's decision, which as I write is running at the top of the paper's website, says the new policy applies to "all AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles." It adds that "Dick's is not the first retailer to stop selling the semiautomatic guns." That makes it sound as if the selection of rifles at the company's stores will be limited to single-shot models from now on.

If so, that would probably please New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal, who (like his colleague Gail Collins) favors "banning the possession of semiautomatic weapons by civilians." Such a policy would prohibit the most popular guns for self-defense, weapons the Supreme Court has unambiguously said Americans have a constitutional right to possess, along with many popular hunting rifles, leaving mere civilians a choice of revolvers or single-shot firearms.

The selection at Dick's, of course, will be much broader than that, because "modern sporting rifles," known to their detractors as "assault weapons," are just one category of semiautomatic rifles, albeit a popular one. The problem with these guns, C.J. Chivers and two other Times reporters explain in a sidebar, is that they allow mass shooters to "attack with the rifle firepower typically used by infantry troops." What does that mean? Chivers note that AR-15-style rifles are "fed with box magazines" that "can be swapped out quickly, allowing a gunman to fire more than a hundred rounds in minutes."

But neither the ability to accept a detachable magazine nor rate of fire is a distinguishing characteristic of "assault weapons," which are defined by legislators based on features such as folding stocks, threaded barrels, and barrel shrouds. Those features do not increase "rifle firepower."

Chivers et al., in any event, cannot seem to make up their minds about whether a faster rate of fire makes a gun more deadly. They concede that AR-15-style rifles, unlike military weapons, fire just once per trigger pull, but they minimize the significance of that distinction:

For decades the American military has trained its conventional troops to fire their M4s and M16s in the semiautomatic mode—one bullet per trigger pull—instead of on "burst" or automatic in almost all shooting situations. The weapons are more accurate this way, and thus more lethal.

The National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups highlight the fully automatic feature in military M4s and M16s. But the American military, after a long experience with fully automatic M16s reaching back to Vietnam, decided by the 1980s to issue M16s, and later M4s, to most conventional troops without the fully automatic function, and to train them to fire in a more controlled fashion.

If reducing the rate of fire allows better control, increasing accuracy and therefore lethality, why do Chivers et al. emphasize that detachable magazines (which, again, are not unique to "assault weapons") enable a shooter to fire "more than a hundred rounds in minutes"? Why do they think it's important to note that Cruz "fired his AR-15 as quickly as one-and-a-half rounds per second"?

By contrast, Chivers et al. say, "the military trains soldiers to fire at a sustained rate of 12 to 15 rounds per minute, or a round every four or five seconds." The implication is that Cruz could have killed more people if he had fired more slowly and carefully. That observation makes a hash of the obsession with counting rounds fired per minute during mass shootings as evidence to support the case for new gun restrictions—including the case for banning bump stocks, which embody the tradeoff between speed and accuracy that the Times says makes shooters less rather than more deadly.

Regardless of how important rate of fire is, it has nothing to do with the debate about a new federal ban on so-called assault weapons, which fire no faster than guns that do not qualify for that label. Even if a mass shooter can no longer buy a "modern sporting rifle" at Dick's Sporting Goods or a Field & Stream store, he will have plenty of equally deadly options from which to choose. Likewise if Congress follows the company's recommendation by imposing its policy on the whole country.