Assault Weapons and Gun Control

Jacob Epstein, Vietnam Era Veteran
Published December 19, 2012
Updated June 15, 2017


I have been thinking about gun control for quite a while. In the wake of the Newtown murders of children, teachers and staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have decided to pull various notes together and post them on this site.

I posted the following comments on Facebook on December 16, 2012, in response to another series of unending talking points defending weapons ownership and U.S. Constitution 2nd Amendment rights as forwarded by gun enthusiasts and gun advocacy organizations. This was just two days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in Newtown, CT.

Everyone has a right to own a gun barring legal restrictions. Every weapon must be registered and every owner must have a background check. No loopholes, And no one needs the type of weapons that I trained on during the Vietnam War. And no one outside of law enforcement and the military need hundreds if not thousands of rounds of ammunition. Listen to Mayor Bloomberg. Drug companies should not sell defective drugs that kill. Weapons manufacturers should not sell weapons and ammunition to the general public designed for killing many living things in a short amount of time instead of providing tools for sport and defense of life and property. If a gun is used to commit a crime, the owner of that gun should be liable. Having served on a Murder Trial Jury and having worked with Law Enforcement, I do not see any of these ideas as being in opposition to the Constitution. I am always amazed that so many that were never drafted nor served have so much passion and anger about tools that many of us hope we never have to use on people. Whether it  is a pistol or rifle and semi or full automatic, there is one purpose and that is to kill or maim people. This is not liberal bias. Its common sense. The last time I fired one of these weapons in question was 1969. And I hope to never have to again.

Back in 1994, there was a debate about an assault weapons ban bill in Congress. I recall driving from a customer’s location to my office with my partner and discussing assault weapons. That they are designed for killing or maiming people in a short amount of time. They are built to military combat specifications. The real danger is not in the weapon itself nor the person handling it, but in the amount and design of the ammunition that can be held in magazines and carried by the soldier in adverse conditions.

When individuals enter military service whether by volunteering or via selective service (Draft), they may be required to perform acts that defy civilized behavior.

  1.  To kill or maim another human being

  2.  To be killed or maimed by another human being.

There has been an evolution of the rules for combat engagement based on scenarios and changes in war environments. For example, artillery units receive orders and co-ordinates and then direct fire as ordered from the command post or from forward control embedded with infantry. They are removed from the point of impact of their shells. On the other hand, rules change from open field or jungle combat to urban or village warfare for soldiers working in close contact with adversaries. These have incomprehensible impact on service personnel’s  emotional, mental and physical well being. These effects are compounded as the “bad guys” embed themselves into civilian environments. The so called “Human Shields”.

I recall from ROTC training as an undergraduate in college that three pieces of information are critical to successful military operation:

  1. Where is the enemy?
  2. Where are you?
  3.  Where are your friendlies?

In Vietnam and current theaters of operation, other questions were emphasized:

  1. Who is the enemy?
  2. Who are your friendlies?

This adds a complexity and stress unprecedented in the history of warfare. World War II had much of this in Europe and the Pacific even though the war was primarily based on clear lines of distinction for combatants in uniform dress.

I entered active duty service in the Army in 1969. I was drafted but volunteered to serve for three years in order to serve within the Army Band System.

I was fortunate and served my active duty time with the 113th Army Band at Fort Knox, KY. But many of my buddies were not so lucky. There are many stories, but I guess that the most compelling is that late last year I was reunited with an Army friend who had been deployed to Vietnam. I recently learned that he passed away. His ailment was as I learned the result of complications of Agent Orange.

Here is a personal note from him with names and locations changed or deleted:

On Nov 13, 2011, at 11:45 AM:

Man this is great.  I'm emotional.
Yes I'm from Michigan.  In my current city since 1974.
I'm still playing keyboards and B3.  In a country and classic rock show band  for the past 3 years., so much fun.  Check us out on our fb page.
Married to my wife for 35 years. 2 children , Daughter 31, Son 29.
Daughter an OB GYN in the US Navy,
Son applying to med school.  His degree in jazz guitar from Roosevelt University Chicago.  He is awesome musician.
I still have a program , pictures and a tape of the Web show.
Did you see the tribute to Glen Campbell and Jim Web on the country music awards?
Let's keep in touch
This means so much to me

I keep in touch with Skip regularly .
Take care.

Sent from my iPhone.

During my time of service, army personnel were trained in techniques of war including:

  •  hand to hand
  • fixed bayonet
  • personally carried and hand launched bombs; grenades.
  • long barrel weapon (rifle)
  • short barrel (hand gun) – Optional for Officers and special needs.

I attended Basic Training from January through March 1969 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I was a member of the Company E of the 8th Battalion of the 2nd Training Brigade. We referred to this company as E-8-2.  I can’t remember my Platoon nor Squad assignments, however, I recall 4 Platoons with 25 trainees per platoon and the Company strength at 100.

We trained on the M16 which is considered an Assault Weapon. It operated in full automatic, burst and semi-automatic modes.  I believe that we were the first training units in the Army to train on the M16. We also had training and experience with the M14, however, we participated in only one or two sessions on the M14 which included firing, dis-assembly, assembly and cleaning. All other training activities including drill instruction utilized the M16 when carrying weapons was required. In Basic, we were issued our weapon when it was required for training and turned it in to the weapons locker after training each day.

“Lock and Load”, “Ready on the Right”, “Ready on the Left”, “Commence Fire”, “Cease Fire”, “No Ammo, no Brass “ are all phrases that resound in my memory from my firing range training.

Growing up, I had some limited experience on our family farm with BB, air pellet and .22 Caliber rifles. To my knowledge, we had no guns of any type on the farm, but I got some experience when friends brought weapons over or I visited their farms.

Firing the M16 was a new experience. Its was by design very light and compact. Our magazine clips held 20 rounds and we only loaded 19 which reduced potential for jamming. These were live rounds and very small. Similar in size and weight to a .22 rifle round.

Rounds traveled at very high velocity and tended to tumble in the air. When a round hit an object its effect was not always predictable. Our drill sergeants discussed how a round could enter a leg and exit high up the torso inflicting deadly internal damage along its path.

We experienced several sobering demonstrations. During one, the Drill Sargent fired at an ammunition canister. With an empty canister, the bullet entered the front and exited creating a slightly larger hole. But when a can was filled with water, the rounds exit created a much larger hole.

In a second demonstration, the Sargent shot at a watermelon. It blew it entirely apart. I leave it to you the reader to consider what would happen if rounds of this type hit small children.

So the only conclusion is that the weapon system was not designed to simply stop an adversary, it was designed to maim and kill. And we were instructed to aim for the main torso. Highest chance for a hit and maximum effect. Blow the adversary apart before they can return the favor with their AK-47s or other weaponry.

There was also another design goal that has sinister implication on current events. The ammo was small and light. So the infantryman could carry much more ammo than in the past. And in a war zone, troops obtained, experimented and carried larger magazines. The Banana Clip could hold 30 rounds. But in those days, jamming was a problem. Many troops continued to rely on the older M1 Carbine and M14 even though they had disadvantages such as weight when compared to the M16.

I must mention that during my training period, we learned about standard and tracer ammunition. Issues concerning types of rounds, rifling and changes in the design of weapons such as the AR15 and ammunition have occurred over the past 40 years. I am not up to date on these changes nor their impact on weapon operation.

There has been so much mythology associated with semi automatic verses full automatic operation. My understanding is that in single shot weapons, a manual operation is required to load a round into a chamber to arm the weapon. The trigger then is pulled that releases a mechanism  that fires the round. This can require time and some strength. In semi-automatic operation, an initial round is manually loaded, but then using a gas-controlled system, rounds are automatically loaded into the chamber and the firing mechanism cocked. Thus all the user has to do is pull the trigger. Some times hair triggers could be implemented creating the ability to fire very quickly. In automatic operation, simply pulling and holding down the trigger will fire some if not all of the rounds in the clip. Although I do not recall training on this feature, some weapons had a burst mode which fired 3 rounds at a time.

As I recall, we were advised to operate in Semi Automatic mode. This enabled us to aim and target each shot, This saved ammunition and limited ancillary damage. For example, if we were in a village, automatic operation could hit neutrals such as children as well as combatants.

As part of training, we also learned techniques with an attached bayonet for close combat. For perimeter support, we learned how to create a sweep bar. With this we could fire random shots at a specific height across a sweep area. For example, into the dark night while on lookout and other perimeter duty. Finally, we had limited experience with automatic mode, but we never trained on using this mode of operation in combat. This was covered later for those going into Advanced Infantry Training or “In Country Training” in Vietnam or other combat theaters of operation.

During training, they were very strict about rounds. We received a certain count and had to return rounds and the brass casings that were discharged from our weapons during their operation. If the returned items plus brass did not match what was issued, we then had some explaining to do. Thus the phrase “No Ammo, No Brass” meant we could not leave the training range with these in our possession. The reason brass was important is because if one of us could sneak out with brass, then it would be possible to substitute this brass on a following day and thus sneak out with live ammo due to a count error.

Moving on to the current day, I do get to speak with gun enthusiasts. They overwhelm me with facts and statistics. I often wonder if they are clearly thinking about issues and facts or are brainwashed with talking points. Are they focused on the  proliferation of weapons and ammunition or a sense that their freedoms are being challenged?

For many years I have asked, how many rounds do hunters need to kill a dear? Can they do it with two or three rounds from a hunting rifle or do they need to annihilate the animal with 5 or more quickly fired rounds like those that I observed in our training sessions. So on the other hand, a collector may want to be able train and fire their semi automatic weapons. So why can’t they go to a range, be issued ammunition and return the brass and ammo after their session. “No Ammo, No Brass”.

But when I ask these questions, the response is that they have the right to have these weapon systems. They also are very strong in the support of bans on automatic weapons until I ask why this is relevant when semi automatic weapons can be fired very rapidly and deliver so much lethal military style ammunition.

So what is an assault weapon? And should citizens have them? How would these proponents of public ownership of these systems feel if their children and loved ones got caught in the cross fire of an AR15 in a public place?

From my perspective, the term "Assault Weapon" is confusing but I leave it to our local, state and federal officials to figure that out. I do believe that citizens do not need to possess high amounts of ammunition. And that they must register all weapons that are capable of firing any ammunition capable of killing and maiming. Designed for military operation and not for sport and self defense. For the thrill of firing these weapons, then target practice and competition at government regulated and certified ranges, Active Military Service, the National Guard and Reserves, and Law Enforcement are options.

So where do I see the NRA and other gun advocacy groups fitting into our national, state and municipal dialogue? Gun safety advocacy, training for legal and sensible activities including hunting, competition, target practice and support for our military and law enforcement activities is a welcome and long time contribution to our democracy. On the other hand, legal advocacy and lobbying beyond representation for the majority of dues paying members is questionable. Long term control by a few of so many of our elected officials is dangerous, especially when lobbying and other activities targeting government programs and legislative agendas are funded by commercial interests.