Understanding the Smith & Wesson M&P15 Semiautomatic Assault Rifle Used In the LAX Shooting

Tags: Smith & Wesson, assault rifles, assault rifle, National Rifle Association, semiautomatic assault weapons, Paladin Press, Mini-14 Tactical, Fair Disclosure, tactical rifles, military assault, design features, Mike Golden, Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation, assault weapon, Assault Weapons, civilian versions, military assault weapons, California, military assault rifles, civilian market, military combat, National Shooting Sports Foundation, military function, submachine gun, automatic weapon, machine guns, gun industry, net sales, sporting rifles, Modern Sporting Rifles, Mini-14 Tactical Rifle, Chuck Taylor, tactical rifle, assault weapons ban, James Holmes, Paul Anthony Ciancia, Earnings Conference, NRA
Content: Understanding the Smith & Wesson M&P15 Semiautomatic Assault Rifle Used In the LAX Shooting Violence Policy Center November 2013
This report discusses the history and profit motive behind Smith & Wesson's introduction into the civilian market of its M&P15 semiautomatic assault rifles in 2006. It then details how Smith & Wesson (which in May 2013 was honored by the National Rifle Association at its annual meeting for donating at least a million dollars to the organization), like other assault weapon manufacturers, has worked to undermine California's assault weapons ban through the sale of factory-made "bullet button" assault rifles. It then explains the history, distinguishing features, and lethal capabilities of assault rifles like the M&P15.
"The entire M&P product line has been a tremendous success. These products were designed to across [sic] multiple markets including military, law enforcement, and consumer, and they're hitting - they're hitting their mark in a big way." Mike Golden, President and CEO, Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation, June 12, 2008.1 On the morning of Friday, November 1, Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, entered Terminal 3 of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Armed with a 5.56mm/.223 caliber Smith & Wesson M&P15 assault rifle (an AR-15 assault rifle variant), five ammunition magazines, and wearing body armor, Ciancia opened fire. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent Gerardo Hernandez, 39, was hit at point-blank range, and fell onto the floor. Ciancia then shot Hernandez again, killing him. In the 10-minute shooting spree that followed, Ciancia wounded two more TSA agents and injured at least one bystander. Ciancia was eventually shot and apprehended by police near a food court in the terminal. The LAX attack was only the most recent to involve Smith & Wesson's AR-style assault rifle. On July 20, 2012, James Holmes, 24, also wearing body armor, walked into a midnight showing at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado armed with a personal arsenal that included an M&P15 equipped with a 100-round drum ammunition magazine. Holmes opened fire on the theater's patrons and within minutes, 12 people were killed and 58 wounded. Several of the wounded were grievously injured.2 Ciancia's use of Smith & Wesson's M&P15 assault rifle, like Holmes before him, demonstrates the clear and present danger of a gun designed for war and ruthlessly marketed for profit to civilians. 1
Smith & Wesson introduced its M&P15 rifle in 2006, the first of a highly profitable line of semiautomatic assault rifles that the company aggressively markets to civilians 2
Smith & Wesson's Target: Profit In early 2006, Smith & Wesson announced that it had begun shipping the first of its M&P15 rifles. The M&P (Military & Police) "tactical rifle" was the first long gun produced by a company that had been long known as a handgun manufacturer.3 According to Shooting Industry, the new rifle was "specifically engineered to meet the needs of global military and police personnel, as well as sporting shooters."4 The handgun company's turn to assault rifles was a stark example of the gun industry's relentless militarization of the civilian market. By 2006, military-style semiautomatic assault rifles had become one of the mainstays of the civilian gun market. Smith & Wesson did not make rifles. But it had successfully marketed a line of M&P semiautomatic handguns to military, police, and civilian customers. Its executives decided to introduce their own line of Military & Police assault rifles. Based on the AR-15/M-16 design, these "tactical rifles" would be heavily pitched to civilians. "We believe the features of these tactical rifles make them strong contenders in the military and law enforcement markets," said then-Smith & Wesson president and CEO Michael F. Golden. "We also believe that our M&P rifle series fills a tremendous gap in the marketplace by delivering high-quality, feature-rich tactical rifles that will be readily available in commercial channels." 5 Smith & Wesson's 2013 product catalog features a variety of M&P15 semiautomatic assault rifles 3
The company's marketing move won praise from the gun industry's promotional voices. Shooting Industry magazine awarded it the title of "Manufacturer of the Year."6 Perhaps more important to the company was the assault rifle's contribution to the bottom line. In June 2006, Golden told an investors earning conference call that "consumer response has been very strong" for the new assault rifle. He also noted that he "had the honor of attending the signing of the Protection of Lawful Commerce and [sic] Arms Act by President Bush, a great day for our industry and for me personally." This federal law ­ for which the National Rifle Association (NRA) heavily lobbied ­ insulates the gun industry from liability for the criminal use of products like the M&P assault rifle.7 (One hand washes the other in the gun lobby. In 2012 the NRA inducted Smith & Wesson into its "Golden Ring of Freedom," which is "reserved for those who have given gifts of cash or assets to the NRA totaling one million dollars or more." A May 23, 2012, NRA-ILA press release announcing Smith & Wesson's financial gift noted that with all of its actions in support of the NRA, "Smith & Wesson's support far exceeds one million dollars in cash." In May 2013, current Smith & Wesson CEO James Debney was honored at the NRA's annual meeting in Houston, Texas. In a promotional video on the NRA's website, Debney tells viewers, "I think it's important for everybody to step up and support the NRA. They are our voice."8) The money continued to roll in. On July 20, 2009, Golden stated in an interview that a "category that has been extremely hot is tactical rifles, AR style tactical rifles."9 On a June 2009 investors conference call, Golden enthused that "tactical rifles were up almost 200% versus the same period the year before. We have increased our capacity on that rifle."10 The company was doing so well with its assault rifles that it decided to introduce a new variant in 22 caliber because the ammunition is much cheaper than the military-style ammunition used in the M&P15. "We have an M&P15 that shoots .223 ammo that sells extremely well," Golden said. "We have just launched an AR-style rifle that shoots .22 caliber rounds that we think will be extremely popular because of the price of ammo."11 Smith & Wesson introduced its M&P15-22 in 2009 4
Golden informed investors during the June 2009 conference call that "at the SHOT [Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade] Show, we showed, what we are calling the M&P15-22. And what that is, is a tactical rifle, it looks exactly like an M&P15 but it shoots .22 caliber ammo. And that's a big deal because of the price of ammo. The .22 ammo versus the 5.56, it's about 10% of the cost. So we think that will be a very big product because of the ammo. And again, it's another variant and it's actually a very fun rifle to shoot."12 Number of M&P15 Semiautomatic Assault Rifles Manufactured by Smith & Wesson, 2006-2011 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Total 4,650 24,676 38,372 110,057 100,051 156,705 434,511 Number of M&P15 Semiautomatic Assault Rifles Manufactured by Smith & Wesson, 2006-2011 By March 2012, the M&P line had become for Smith & Wesson "both a brand and product platform," according to current CEO James Debney. "It's really about modern polymer pistols and Modern Sporting Rifles, also known as tactical rifles."13 In June 2012 the company reported that sales for the quarter "climbed 27.7 per cent...driven by strong revenue of M&P polymer pistols and modern sporting rifles."14 Said Debney, "Our objective in fiscal 2012 was to streamline the company and focus on our position as a leading, pure-play firearm company."15 According to Smith & Wesson, "Our M&P branded modern sporting rifles are specifically designed to satisfy the functionality and reliability needs of global military, law enforcement, and security personnel. These rifles are also popular as sporting target rifles and are sold to consumers through our sporting good distributors, retailers, and dealers. We have a broad product portfolio of modern sporting rifles, which includes a lower price-point, sport model, a 5
.22 caliber model, and a fully automatic model designed for the exclusive use of military and law enforcement agencies throughout the world." In annual filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission for fiscal year 2012, Smith & Wesson estimated the domestic non-military firearm market for modern sporting rifles at $489 million. According to the company: "The sale of modern sporting rifles accounted for $75.1 million in net sales, or 18.2% of our net sales, for the fiscal year ended April 30, 2012, $38.7 million in net sales, or 11.3% of our net sales, for the fiscal year ended April 30, 2011, and $61.8 million in net sales, or 17.3% of our net sales, for the fiscal year ended April 30, 2010." The company said that in fiscal year 2013 it had captured 20 percent of the assault rifle market market based on sales of M&P assault rifles. In its annual SEC filing, its "2013 Highlights" section noted, "The introduction of new products in the last several years combined with increased production volumes for our M&P branded polymer pistols and modern sporting rifles have had a positive impact on our net sales and gross margins for fiscal 2013. In addition, increased consumer demand, which we believe has been caused by both increased customer acceptance of firearms as well as the fear of current and potential legislative restrictions on the sale or makeup of firearms has attributed to our sales and gross margin." Smith & Wesson: A Leader in Undermining California's Assault Weapons Ban Smith & Wesson is one of many assault weapon manufacturers that have worked to undermine California's tough assault weapons ban through the marketing of what Smith & Wesson euphemistically calls in its 2013 catalog "Compliant for sale in CA" assault rifles. Smith & Wesson and other manufacturers are accomplishing this with the addition of a minor design change to their military-style weapons made possible by a definitional loophole: the "bullet button." California law bans centerfire semiautomatic rifles with the capacity to accept a detachable ammunition magazine and any one of six enumerated additional assault weapon characteristics (e.g., folding stock, flash suppressor, pistol grip, or other military-style features). However, in California an ammunition magazine is not considered to be detachable if a "tool" is required to remove it from the weapon. The "bullet button" is a release button for the ammunition magazine that can be activated with the tip of a bullet. With the tip of the bullet replacing the use of a finger in activating the release, the button can be pushed and the detachable ammunition magazine removed and replaced in seconds. Compared to the release process for a standard detachable ammunition magazine it is a distinction without a difference. Legislation passed by the California legislature banning the sale of semiautomatic centerfire rifles capable of accepting a detachable ammunition magazine would have addressed the "bullet button" issue and ended the gun industry's ability to circumvent the intent of California's assault weapons ban. The legislation was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown on October 11, 2013. 6
According to news reports, the Smith & Wesson assault rifle used by Ciancia was legally purchased in California from a federally licensed firearms dealer, the Target Range Gun Store in Van Nuys. It has not been reported whether it was a "bullet button" assault rifle or not. 7
Key Points About Assault Weapons 1. Semiautomatic assault weapons like Smith & Wesson's M&P15 assault rifles are civilian versions of military assault weapons. Even though the gun industry prefers to call semiautomatic assault weapons "modern sporting rifles," there are no significant differences between them and military assault weapons. 2. Military assault weapons are "machine guns." That is, they are capable of fully automatic fire. A machine gun will continue to fire as long as the trigger is held down until the ammunition magazine is empty. 3. Civilian assault weapons are not machine guns. They are semiautomatic weapons. (Since 1986 federal law has banned the sale to civilians of new machine guns.) The trigger of a semiautomatic weapon must be pulled separately for each round fired. It is a mistake to call civilian assault weapons "automatic weapons" or "machine guns." 4. This is a distinction without a difference in terms of killing power. Civilian semiautomatic assault weapons incorporate all of the functional design features that make assault weapons so deadly. They are arguably more deadly than military versions, because most experts agree that semiautomatic fire is more accurate than automatic fire. 5. The distinctive "look" of assault weapons is not cosmetic. It is the visual result of specific functional design decisions. Military assault weapons were designed and developed for a specific military purpose--laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone, also known as "hosing down" an area. 6. Civilian assault weapons keep the specific functional design features that make this deadly spray-firing easy. These functional features also distinguish assault weapons from traditional sporting guns. 7. The most significant assault weapon functional design features are: (1) ability to accept a high-capacity ammunition magazine, (2) a rear pistol or thumb-hole grip, and, (3) a forward grip or barrel shroud. Taken together, these are the design features that make possible the deadly and indiscriminate "spray-firing" for which assault weapons are designed. None of them are features of true hunting or sporting guns. 8. Although the gun lobby today argues that there is no such thing as civilian assault weapons, the industry, the National Rifle Association, and gun magazines enthusiastically described these civilian versions as "assault rifles," "assault pistols," and "military assault" weapons to boost civilian sales throughout the 1980s. The industry and its allies only began to use the semantic argument that a "true" assault weapon is a machine gun after civilian assault weapons turned up in large numbers in the hands of drug traffickers, criminal gangs, mass murderers, and other dangerous criminals. 8
What Is a Semiautomatic Assault Weapon? Semiautomatic assault weapons are civilian versions of automatic military assault rifles (like the AK-47 and the M-16) and automatic military assault pistols (like the UZI). These guns look the same because they are virtually identical, save for one feature: military assault rifles are machine guns. A machine gun fires continuously as long as its trigger is held back--until it runs out of ammunition. Civilian assault rifles are semi-automatic weapons. The trigger of a semiautomatic weapon must be pulled back separately for each round fired. Because federal law has banned the sale of new machine guns to civilians since 1986,16 and heavily regulates sales to civilians of older model machine guns, there is virtually no civilian market for military assault weapons. The gun industry introduced semiautomatic versions of military assault weapons in order to create and exploit new civilian markets for these deadly weapons. What's So Bad About Semiautomatic Assault Weapons? Assault weapons did not "just happen." They were developed to meet specific combat needs. All assault weapons--military and civilian alike--incorporate specific features that were designed to provide a specific military combat function. That military function is laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone, also known as "hosing down" an area. Civilian assault weapons keep the specific design features that make this deadly spray-firing easy. These features also distinguish assault weapons from traditional sporting firearms. The distinctive "look" of assault weapons is not merely "cosmetic," as the gun lobby often argues--the assault weapon's appearance is the result of the design of the gun following its function. A brief summary of how assault weapons came into being makes clear the reason for, and the nature of, their distinctive design features. The problem of trench warfare. The roots of military assault weapons lie in the trench fighting of the First World War. The standard infantry weapon of that conflict was the long-range battle rifle. "Infantrymen in most armies were equipped with high-powered rifles: long, unwieldy, but accurate to ranges of 1,000 m (3,280 ft) or more. But a long weapon was a definite handicap in the close-quarter fighting of the trenches, and long-range capability was wasted when combat usually took place at ranges of tens of metres or less."17 Submachine guns--the intermediate step. When armies bogged down in the World War I trenches, weapons designers looked for ways to break the bloody stalemate. Among them was the submachine gun, designed to be a "compact, fast-firing, short-range weapon" for use in the trenches and by highly mobile storm troops in new tactical formations.18 According to the Illustrated Book of Guns, "A submachine gun (SMG) is a close-range, automatic weapon, firing pistol cartridges (e.g., 9mm Parabellum), and is compact, easy to carry, and light enough to be fired from either the shoulder or the hip."19 9
The final step--the first assault rifle. The last step in the evolution of the military assault rifle came during the Second World War. It grew out of the German military's pre-war interest in "obtaining a relatively high-power intermediate or mid-range cartridge and corresponding weapon for infantry application."20 (Emphasis added). German military thinkers realized that, "Since most infantry action took place at ranges under 400 meters, the long-range potential of the standard cartridge and service rifle were actually wasted."21 There were also logistical problems in supplying armies in the field with different kinds of rounds of ammunition: the larger rifle cartridges for the battle rifle and the smaller pistol cartridges for the submachine guns.22 As one expert noted, "During their Operation Barbarossa (Russian) campaign and elsewhere, the Germans were continually reminded of the ever-increasing need for a rapid fire arm that was small enough to be convenient to hand carry, but at the same time possessed sufficient range and power to be adequate out to about 200 meters."23 The result of German Research and Development was the STG (Sturmgewehr) ("storm gun") 44, the "father of all assault rifles....After the war it was examined and dissected by almost every major gunmaking nation and led, in one way and another, to the present-day 5.56mm assault rifles."24 STG-44 on top, S&W M&P15 on bottom Deadly designs. One thing leaps out from the pictures above: the remarkable similarity of the first assault rifle to the Smith & Wesson M&P15 and other assault rifles currently flooding America's streets. This family resemblance is not a coincidence. From the STG-44 "storm gun" to the M&P15 "tactical rifle," assault weapons have incorporated into their design specific features that enable shooters to spray ("hose down") a large number of bullets over a broad 10
killing zone, without having to aim at each individual target. These features not only give assault weapons a distinctive appearance, they make it easy to simply point the gun while rapidly pulling the trigger--including firing from the hip, a procedure seldom used in hunting anything but human beings. The most important of these design features are: "High-capacity" detachable ammunition magazines that hold as many as 100 rounds of ammunition. "This allows the high volume of fire critical to the `storm gun' concept."25 A rear pistol grip (handle), including so-called "thumb-hole stocks" and magazines that function like pistol grips. A forward grip or barrel shroud. Forward grips (located under the barrel or the forward stock) "give a shooter greater control over a weapon during recoil."26 Forward grips and barrel shrouds also make it possible to hold the gun with the non-trigger hand, even through the barrel gets extremely hot from firing multiple rounds. These design features create the ability to quickly lay down a high volume of fire, making semiautomatic assault weapons a particularly dangerous addition to the civilian gun market. They explain why assault weapons are favored by terrorists, mass killers, and violent criminals, and they distinguish such weapons from true hunting and target guns. Deliberate, aimed fire from the shoulder may be more accurate than the "hosing down" of an area for which assault weapons were designed. But mass murderers and other violent criminals drawn to assault weapons are not after marksmanship medals. They want to kill or maim as many people as possible in as short a time as possible--the exact job for which the semiautomatic assault weapon was designed. The National Shooting Sports Foundation's "Modern Sporting Rifle" Rebranding Campaign. The NRA, the gun industry, the gun press, and other pro-gun "experts" today claim that there is no such thing as a civilian "assault weapon." They prefer to call them "tactical rifles" or "modern sporting rifles." But before these types of guns came under fire, these same experts enthusiastically described exactly these civilian versions as "assault rifles," "assault pistols," and "military assault" weapons. In November 2009, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) announced that--"due to gun owners' concerns over President-elect Obama and possible legislation regulating the Second Amendment rights of Americans"--it had placed on its website a "media resource...to help clear up much of the confusion and misinformation about so-called `assault weapons.'"27 This was the opening salvo in the industry's meretricious campaign to "rebrand" semiautomatic assault weapons as "modern sporting rifles."28 The point of the campaign--inspired by the pummeling the industry gets for selling killing machines--is apparently that semiautomatic assault rifles are really just another sporting gun, no different from an older generation of boltaction and low-capacity rifles. 11
But some within the gun industry's own ranks continue to call semiautomatic assault rifles what they are--assault rifles--and even write lurid prose promoting the worst features of these guns. For example, the August 2010 edition of Gun World magazine headlines "Ruger's Mini-14 Tactical Rifle" as "`Combat Customized' From the Factory."29 Among other outbursts of naked candor in the enthusiastic article are the following-- "Ruger's Mini-14 Tactical Rifle is a version of the well-established Mini14 incorporating many of the assault rifle features that end users have being [sic] applying themselves for decades, this time straight from the factory." "Being seen over the years as a sort of `poor man's assault rifle' the Mini14 has spawned a huge array of after-market parts that may be applied to make it more `assault rifle-y.' Recently Sturm, Ruger & Co. finally decided to get into the act themselves by producing their Mini-14 Tactical Rifles." This spasm of candor is typical of the "wink and nod" game that the gun industry plays when it talks to itself and to its hard-core consumers. But, call them what you will--"black rifles," "tactical rifles," or "modern sporting rifles"-- military-style semiautomatic assault weapons are, plain and simply, killing machines. 12
Endnotes 1 Mike Golden, President and CEO, Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation, "Q4 2008 Smith & Wesson Hldg. Corp Earnings Conference Call ­ Final," FD (Fair Disclosure) Wire, June 12, 2008. 2 "LAX shooting: Dramatic details emerge of rampage targeting TSA agents," Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2013; "A day of tears and twists in Colorado," The Washington Post, July 23, 2012; "Gun's magazine shaped the pace of Colorado theater massacre," latimes.com, July 22, 2012. 3 In the late 19th century, Smith & Wesson produced a "revolving rifle," which was essentially a handgun (revolver) with a detachable stock. The gun's popularity was "limited." Dean K. Boorman, The History of Smith & Wesson Firearms (Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2002), p. 42. 4 "Smith & Wesson enters long-gun market; Industry news," Shooting Industry, February 1, 2006. 5 "Smith & Wesson enters long-gun market; Industry news," Shooting Industry, February 1, 2006. 6 "Smith & Wesson Earns `Manufacturer of the Year' Title and NRA Golden Bullseye Award," PR Newswire US, May 23, 2006. 7 Mike Golden, President and CEO Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., "Q4 2006 Smith & Wesson Hldg. Corp. Earnings Conference Call," FD (Fair Disclosure) Wire, June 15, 2006. 8 "Smith & Wesson to be Inducted into the NRA Golden Ring of Freedom," http://www.nraila.org/news-issues/news-from-nra-ila/2012/05/smith-wesson-to-be-inducted-intothe-nra-golden-ring-of-freedom.aspx. For more information on gun industry financial support of the National Rifle Association, see the 2013 Violence Policy Center report Blood Money II: How Gun Industry Dollars Fund the NRA (http://www.vpc.org/studies/bloodmoney2.pdf). 9 "Smith & Wesson boss talks about guns and gun laws," Outdoors (Daily Oklahoman), July 20, 2009. 10 "Q4 2009 Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation Earnings Conference Call ­ Final," FD (Fair Disclosure) Wire, June 22, 2009. 11 "Smith & Wesson boss talks about guns and gun laws," Outdoors (Daily Oklahoman), July 20, 2009. 12 "Q4 2009 Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation Earnings Conference Call ­ Final," FD (Fair Disclosure) Wire, June 22, 2009. 13
13 "Smith & Wesson Hldg Corp at Roth Capital Partners OC Growth Stock Conference ­ Final," FD (Fair Disclosure) Wire, March 14, 2012. 14 "Smith & Wesson Q4 profit up on sales and margin growth," Proactive Investors, June 29, 2012. 15 "Smith & Wesson Q4 profit up on sales and margin growth," Proactive Investors, June 29, 2012. 16 See, 18 U.S. Code, Section 922(o). 17 Chris Bishop (ed.), Guns in Combat (Edison, N.J.: Chartwell Books, 1998): 37. 18 Ian V. Hogg, Submachine Guns (Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001): 7. 19 David Miller (ed.), The Illustrated Book of Guns (London: Salamander Books Ltd., 2000): 232. 20 Peter R. Senich, The German Assault Rifle, 1935-1945 (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1987): 1. 21 Peter R. Senich, The German Assault Rifle, 1935-1945 (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1987): 1. 22. Chuck Taylor, The Fighting Rifle: A Complete Study of the Rifle in Combat (Boulder, Paladin Press, 1984), p. 2. 23 Chuck Taylor, The Fighting Rifle: A Complete Study of the Rifle in Combat (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1984): 2. 24 Ian Hogg, Jane's Guns Recognition Guide (Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000): 302. 25 Chuck Taylor, The Fighting Rifle: A Complete Study of the Rifle in Combat (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1984): 5. 26 Duncan Long, The Terrifying Three: Uzi, Ingram, and Intratec Weapons Families (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1989): 104. 27 "NSSF Announces Media Resource on `Assault Weapons,'" Shooting Wire, November 29, 2009, www.shootingwire.com/archived/2008-11-24_sw.html. 28 "Rebranding is the creation of a new name, term, symbol, design or a combination of them for an established brand with the intention of developing a differentiated (new) position in the mind of stakeholders and competitors." "Rebranding," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebranding. 14
29 "Ruger's Mini-14 Tactical Rifle," Gun World, August 2010, p. 58. 15

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