A ballot initiative bans the sale of these weapons to adults younger than 21.

By: Jacob Sullum January 3, 2019

As of Tuesday, adults younger than 21 are no longer allowed to buy semi-automatic rifles in Washington, thanks to a ballot initiative approved by 59 percent of that state’s voters last November. The initiative, I-1639, officially targets “semiautomatic assault rifles,” but its definition of that term is so broad that it renders the assault part superfluous, except for tendentious rhetorical purposes.

The New York Times, for example, describes the firearms restricted by I-639 as “assault weapons” (a term the initiative also uses) and implies that they are similar to the guns banned under that heading in “states like California and Connecticut.” While those laws do cover semi-automatic rifles, they do not cover all semi-automatic rifles—only specifically named models or those with disfavored features such as pistol grips, folding stocks, and flash suppressors.

I-1639, by contrast, defines a “semiautomatic assault rifle” as “any rifle which utilizes a portion of the energy of a firing cartridge to extract the fired cartridge case and chamber the next round, and which requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each cartridge.” That category includes not just scary-looking, military-style rifles like the AR-15 but a wide range of firearms commonly used for hunting, target shooting, and competitions. The definition excludes rifles that are “manually operated by bolt, pump, lever, or slide action” but includes all the rest.

In addition to the new minimum purchase age, the initiative imposes a 10-day waiting period on buyers of semi-automatic rifles and bans sales to residents of other states; those provisions take effect in July. According to the initiative, the restrictions are supposed to help prevent mass shootings.

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