Ban Semi-Automatic Weapons? No — License Them Like Fully Automatic Weapons

Many gun control advocates want to ban semi-automatic weapons, like the AR-15. I say don’t ban them, license them. Why? Because the Supreme Court has allowed gun control laws, but banning guns is another story. And licensing a weapon is more acceptable than banning one.

Semi-Automatic Weapons are Basically Automatic Weapons – Let’s classify Them as Such

The U.S. has dangerous fully automatic weapons that the citizenry can own: “Title II” firearms. A machine gun is one—a fully automatic rifle. To own a Type II firearm, though, you must be federally licensed, meaning you must prove you are responsible enough—and not “dangerous.” If we want to get dangerous semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 out of the hands of “dangerous” people, we can classify them as Title II firearms, which allows those who are not dangerous to own them. Like the machine gun, applicants to own one of these weapons must prove to the public that they aren’t dangerous. Considering how many innocent people have been killed by semi-automatics like the AR-15, I want good and thorough proof—the kind of proof that is required to own a machine gun. Licensing could solve the AR-15 problem.

Image of An AR-15 semi-automatic rfile
The semi-automatic AR-15

To own a fully automatic weapon, like a machine gun, members of the general public must qualify (police departments, not being the general public, can purchase them*). Rules on ownership, licensing, and registration were first established 88 years ago with the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 (other weapons and devices, besides the machine gun were included).  Some of the rules for ownership vary by state, but there are certain Federal rules that apply everywhere, since you need be Federally licensed. There are several restrictions on who does qualify, plus it’s a lengthy process—it can take several months (or more)—and there is a transfer fee.* Qualifying is a high standard, but I rarely hear complaints from the NRA or anti-gun control people about not being able to easily get a machine gun. And I never hear the NRA complain that the 1934 law was the first step in taking their guns away (although I am sure, some did complain). The government did not ban fully automatic weapons, they licensed them.

Several other acts have since passed that amended the 1934 act and brought us to our current situation. These laws include the Gun Control Act in 1968, and the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA), The latter was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and it stated that no new machine guns can be sold to the general public, but existing ones manufactured before that date can be—but still under licensing rules already established. Currently, machine guns (and other devices, like silencers and sawed-off shotguns) are labeled as Title II firearms and are under the control of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In 2016, further changes were made to the National Firearms Act, but the requirements for ownership are basically still the same. In general, all applicants must prove they are a “responsible person.” An application must be submitted and fingerprints taken, along with other identifying information. Both seller and the buyer must get approval before the weapon changes hands.** (For the sake of simplicity, this discussion will only cover the fully automatic weapons, like the machine gun, and not the other Type II weapons.)

What is an Automatic Weapon?

A machine gun is a fully automatic weapon that continues to fire by just holding down the trigger. The difference between a fully automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon is that you must keep pulling the trigger on the semi-automatic for it to fire. Both types auto-load the next round when you fire a round, so both types reload automatically without any extra action on the part of the shooter. The AK-47—the weapon of choice for many—has a “fully automatic setting,” but that model is not allowed to be sold in the U.S. to the general public. Only the model with the semi-automatic capability can be sold to the public.

A fully automatic weapon can fire about 400 rounds per minute and a semi-automatic can fire 60-120 rounds per minute (1-2 per second). The Highland Park shooter on the 4th of July 2022 used an AR15-like rifle, a semi-automatic weapon. He fired 70 rounds. Anyone who listens to the tape of the shooting  will quickly realize that the shots sound continuous—as fast as you can imagine what it sounds like with one shot immediately following another; it sounds like an “automatic” series of shots. In other words, from the point of view of people being shot in a crowd, there is no major difference. In other words, both are extremely dangerous. To say that one is dangerous and the other is not, is plain stupid; they are both extremely dangerous.

How many of these “used” machine guns are out there in the U.S.? According to the 2015 report by the ATF, there are 543,073. that’s about one machine gun for every 600 people. Estimates for the number of AR-15s is around 20 million (as of 2020). That’s about one for every 16 people.

The Supreme Court Second Amendment Ruling in 2008

protestors supporting gun laws in front of the supreme court
Protestors in front of the Supreme Court promote gun control

So, why doesn’t the NRA and the anti-gun control crowd complain that licensing of Type II firearms—like the AR-15—is infringing on their constitutional rights? This is partially because, in 2008, in the first major decision by the court on the 2nd Amendment in almost 70 years, Justice Scalia, in writing for the majority, wrote: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

In the decision the Court gave examples of what they considered lawful control:

  • Prohibiting dangerous people from possessing firearms
  • Prohibiting firearms in “sensitive” places, like government buildings and schools
  • Laws that impose conditions on the commercial sale of firearms.

I imagine there were many diehard gun control opponents who broke down and cried like babies when they heard about the above acceptable legal controls on guns that the Supreme Court declared. (But then again, those who cried like babies, while owning these weapons, should not have guns of any type.)

Essentially, what that means is that the government has the right to control guns. How much control is allowed will be decided in future court decisions, but it currently allows gun control. In other words, we don’t have to ban semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15, we can license them—or just reclassify them as Type II weapons.

“Dangerous” People and “Dangerous” Weapons

Prohibiting dangerous people means licensing people by means of checking to ensure gun buyers are not dangerous people. That is exactly what the laws that restrict the ownership of fully automatic weapons do. And the fact that these laws exist for weapons like machine guns is testimonial to the fact that how dangerous a weapon is can be used to determine if someone can own one based on the weapon alone. 

The Supreme Court has not ruled that the 1934 law that requires the licensing of machine guns is illegal. The mere fact that the law puts machine guns in the category of weapons not allowed to be easily acquired without extensive licensing verifies that how dangerous a weapon is can be the determining factor in limiting the ownership of certain firearms because they are dangerous. In other words, you could say that lawful gun control “prohibits dangerous people from possessing dangerous firearms.” It’s really the same as saying that the Supreme Court says that it is acceptable to control the ownership of dangerous firearms.

Empty chairs after the Highland Park, Illinois, shooting on July 4th, 2022 when seven people were killed and 30 injured.
A dangerous weapon in the hands of a dangerous person; Empty chairs on main street after the Highland Park, Illinois, shooting on July 4th, 2022. Seven people were killed and 30 injured. The shooter was using an AR15-like rifle.

So, the big question becomes obvious: Is a semi-automatic weapon, like the AR-15, a dangerous weapon? The answer is a simple yes, although I guarantee you will find people who will say no, just so they can affirm that the AR-15, and all semi-automatic weapons, are not dangerous enough to fall in the same category as a machine gun, a fully automatic weapon, and therefore should not be classified as a Title II Firearm.  Calling a semi-automatic weapon like the AR-15 not as dangerous as an automatic weapon like a machine gun is like saying an atomic bomb is not as dangerous as a hydrogen bomb (technically, the latter is more dangerous). In other words, they are both extremely dangerous. They are both nuclear weapons.

Semi-Automatic weapons are dangerous enough, and the fact that they have killed hundreds of innocent civilians in America in mass shootings easily proves this fact, and we should classify them as a Title II Firearm. When that happens, the country will have solved the current two problems of semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15: We stop them from getting into the wrong hands, and a citizen can still own one—after they prove they are responsible enough to have one.

Licensing and Registration

Controlling semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 is certainly more acceptable than banning them. But to change their classification to a Type II firearm will still be an uphill battle. There are a few big problems to overcome. Gun owners have been fighting gun registration for a long time, and licensing and registering these semi-automatic weapons will be difficult—but not impossible. Registration is already partially there for fully automatic weapons; there’s just a few more steps to make it happen for semi-automatics like the AR-15. Most likely, this will not be a major hurdle. This is because the public wants it. A minority doesn’t. Plus, the Supreme Court supports laws that control dangerous weapons.

The higher hurdle is registering existing weapons and making that universal for all guns is unrealistic. But our main goal here is about registering all dangerous weapons, like the automatic and semi-automatic weapons. You cannot own or buy a machine gun that is not registered or manufactured before 1986. (Machine guns are not available for sale to the public if they are manufactured after 1986. An interesting note is that no legally owned machine gun has been used in a crime since 1934). But we might be able to create some conditions that will overcome this current ownership problem.

For example, some ideas:

It’s not as simple as just gun control vs gun rights. Gun rights are not that everyone gets to have any gun they want whenever they want.
  • Make it easy to register, but not mandatory if certain requirements are met. For future purchase of semi-automatic weapons, the Federal Government should create a more expanded or new section of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—for registration of both existing weapons and new purchases—to manage applications, speeding up the ownership and registration process. Plus, the goal should also be to license every existing semi-automatic weapon like the AR-15. The goal should be to do so over a lengthy period, meaning years. This will be a tough sell, but rules could be set that give current owners sufficient time to be approved for ownership—or to not register at all. The big problem is that there’s about 20 million AR-15s and AR15-like weapons out there.
  • Laws can get creative to help protect gun owners and the public. The law could state that those who do not register their weapons will be punished if their unregistered weapon is stolen, they do not report it “immediately”—and if it is used in a crime. If used in a crime and its theft was not reported, they could be banned from owning any weapons for a period of time. And if their stolen, unregistered weapon is used to kill someone, they will be banned for life from owning any weapons. Of course, gun owners are still responsible for any negligent action. Existing, responsible gun owners would then not be forced to register their weapons. Rules would also have to be set that require registration and approval if the weapon is sold or inherited.

All of this would be a hard sell, but it’s far more palatable to license these dangerous semi-automatic weapons than to ban them. And perhaps a state should try classifying all semi-automatic weapons in their state as Type II firearms and see how far they get. It could be the beginning of a movement.



*Private security companies can purchase new machine guns for certain situations. Most that do so can only use them outside of the U.S. An example would be a private security firm hired to protect embassies and embassy personnel in other countries. I have also heard that private security firms protecting nuclear power plants can also purchase them.

** Click here for a good description (by a private organization) of the licensing process . Click here for the government-written rules with all the details.