Assault weapon is a political and legal term that refers to different types of firearms, and that has differing meanings, usages and purposes. Whether or not assault weapons should be legally restricted more than other firearms, how they should be defined, and even whether or not the term "assault weapon" should be used at all, are questions subject to considerable debate.
In discussions about firearms laws and politics in the U.S., assault weapon definitions usually include semi-automatic firearms with a detachable magazine and one or more cosmetic, ergonomic, or safety features, such as a flash suppressor, pistol grip, or barrel shroud, respectively. Semi-automatic firearms fire and reload only one bullet (round) per trigger pull. Assault weapon definitions include rifles, pistols and shotguns. Some firearms are specified by name. In 2013 in Colorado, some gun rights advocates said that a proposed high-capacity magazine ban would effectively make assault weapons of pump shotguns because they can be altered to hold more than eight shells - the proposed state limit for shotguns.
The exact definition of the term in this context varies among each of the various jurisdictions limiting or prohibiting assault weapon manufacture, importation, sale, or possession, and legislative attempts are often made to change the definitions. Governing and defining laws include the now defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. At that time, the U.S. Justice Department said, "In general, assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use." State and local laws, sometimes modeled after the expired federal law, also define the term.
It has been asserted that the term is a media invention or a term that was intended by gun control activists to foster confusion with the public over differences between full automatic and semi-automatic firearms, while others argue that the term was promulgated by the firearms industry itself.
The term "assault weapon" is sometimes conflated with the term "assault rifle" which refers only to military rifles capable of switching between semi-automatic and fully automatic fire. In the U.S., fully automatic firearms are regulated by laws such as the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), which requires that they be registered and taxed, and the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, as well as by state and local laws.
The term "assault weapon" is used to refer to anti-tank or anti-material explosive based weapons that are used by the military, such as the Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon (SMAW) portable rocket launcher.
- 1 Definitions and usage
- 2 Political and legislative issues
- 3 Attributes commonly used in assault weapon definitions
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes
- 6 External links
Definitions and usage
The term "assault weapon" refers primarily but not exclusively to semi-automatic firearms that are able to accept detachable magazines and possess certain features. (Semi-automatic firearms, when fired, automatically extract the spent cartridge casing and load the next cartridge into the chamber, ready to fire again. They do not fire automatically like a machine gun. Rather, only one round is fired with each trigger pull.) The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban did not apply to fully automatic weapons. Federal laws state that weapons that possess the operational features of assault rifles are Title II weapons, not assault weapons. (Title II weapons are heavily regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA) of June 26, 1934, passed in response to infamous Prohibition era use of Thompson Submachine Guns and the US Army's M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle.)
Only seven states have their own state-level assault weapon bans and there are differences in their definitions of "assault weapons". Massachusetts and New York only include semi-automatic firearms in their definitions. But in Connecticut, an assault weapon is legally defined as "any selective-fire firearm capable of fully automatic, semiautomatic or burst fire at the option of the user", thus explicitly including assault rifles. In California, even some manually operated firearms, such as .50 BMG rifles, are treated as assault weapons.
Some semi-automatic pistols are defined as "assault weapons" Dictionary.com defines "assault weapon" as "any of various automatic and semiautomatic military firearms utilizing an intermediate-power cartridge, designed for individual use." Merriam-Webster's online definition is "any of various automatic or semiautomatic firearms; especially: assault rifle."
History of terminology
During World War II, Adolf Hitler personally chose the name "Sturmgewehr" (literally, "storm rifle", translated in English as "assault rifle") to describe the first (the Sturmgewehr 44) of a new class of small arm, which combined the characteristics of a carbine, submachine gun and automatic rifle. A half-decade earlier the propaganda-friendly term "Sturmgeschütz" ("storm gun") was similarly invented and applied to certain armored military vehicles, turretless tank chassis mounting artillery intended for direct fire support. Otherwise, in English, use of the term "assault weapon" was restricted, prior to the 1980s, to naming certain minor military weapons systems, for example, the Rifleman's Assault Weapon, an American grenade launcher developed in 1977 for use with the M16 assault rifle.
In 1985, Art Agnos introduced a bill in the California State Assembly seeking to place restrictions on semi-automatic firearms capable of using detachable magazines of 20 rounds or more. In his bill, AB 1509, these guns were categorized as "assault firearms". Speaking to the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Agnos said, "The only use for assault weapons is to shoot people." The measure did not pass when it came up for a vote.
Popularization of the term "assault weapon" is attributed by many to the 1988 book "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America", written by gun-control activist Josh Sugarmann, and to subsequent public reaction to the January 1989 Cleveland School massacre in Stockton, CA. Sugarmann wrote:
Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.
Others say the gun industry itself introduced the term "assault weapon" to build interest in new product lines. Phillip Peterson, the author of Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons (2008) wrote:
The popularly held idea that the term 'assault weapon' originated with anti-gun activists is wrong. The term was first adopted by manufacturers, wholesalers, importers and dealers in the American firearms industry to stimulate sales of certain firearms that did not have an appearance that was familiar to many firearms owners. The manufacturers and gun writers of the day needed a catchy name to identify this new type of gun.
Gun rights advocates consider the term "assault weapon" to be a misnomer intended to conflate civilian semi-automatic firearms with military assault rifles. Joseph P. Tartaro of the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) wrote in 1994: "One of the key elements of the anti-gun strategy to gull the public into supporting bans on the so-called 'assault weapons' is to foster confusion. As stated previously, the public does not know the difference between a full automatic and a semi-automatic firearm." Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said "the term 'assault weapon,' as used by the media, is a media invention."
Civilian semi-automatic rifles identified as "assault weapons" are no more powerful than many other semi-automatic rifles legally used for hunting throughout the United States; they do not shoot faster or have greater range. Assault weapons are also sometimes called "black guns" or "black rifles," due to the presence of black plastic parts in the place of wood for stocks and grips.
Defunct U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, more commonly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, expired in 2004. It banned the manufacture or importation of certain semi-automatic firearms that it defined as "semiautomatic assault weapons," commonly known as assault weapons. Any firearms so defined that were already possessed at the time the law took effect were grandfathered in, and could be legally owned or transferred. Another aspect of the law banned the manufacture or importation of magazines that could hold more than ten rounds of ammunition, with existing magazines grandfathered in as legal.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 defined certain firearms as assault weapons based on the features they possessed. This included semi-automatic rifles with a detachable magazine and at least two of these features: a pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, a flash suppressor or threaded barrel, a bayonet mount, or a muzzle-mounted grenade launcher. It included semi-automatic pistols with a detachable magazine and at least two of these features: a magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip, a threaded barrel, a barrel shroud, or an unloaded weight of 50 ounces or more. Additionally defined as assault weapons were semi-automatic shotguns with a rotating cylinder, or with at least two of these features: a pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, a detachable magazine, or a fixed magazine that can hold more than five rounds.
The ban also prohibited 19 specifically named models of firearms, as well as copies of those guns. These included the AK-47, Uzi, Galil, AR-15, FN FAL, MAC-10, Steyr AUG, TEC-9, and Armsel Striker.
Failed Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 bill
On December 16, 2012, two days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would introduce a new assault weapons ban on the first day of Congress. Five days later, on December 21, Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, held a news conference repeating the NRA's opposition to gun control. Feinstein and Senator Richard Blumenthal held a separate news conference in response. There, Feinstein said that it seemed to her "prudent" to register grandfathered assault weapons under the National Firearms Act (NFA). A two-page bill summary on the senator's web site also mentioned registering grandfathered assault weapons under the NFA, but the text of the bill introduced to the Senate did not include that provision.
On January 24, 2013, Feinstein introduced S. 150, the "Assault Weapons Ban of 2013." The bill was similar to the 1994 ban, but differed in that it used a one-feature test for a firearm to qualify as an assault weapon rather than the two-feature test of the 1994 ban. On April 17, 2013, it failed on a Senate vote of 60 to 40.
Differing state law definitions
Seven U.S. states have their own assault weapons bans.
- California defines assault weapons by name, by "series" (AK or AR-15), and by characteristic.
- Connecticut defines assault weapons as selective-fire firearms (capable of fully automatic, semi-automatic or burst fire); semi-automatic firearms specified by name; and semi-autmatic firearms with specific characteristics.
- Hawaii defines and bans assault pistols.
- Maryland defines and bans assault pistols. It regulates 45 other assault weapons listed by make and/or model including copies, regardless of manufacturer.
- Massachusett defines assault weapons by the same provisions as the expired federal ban of 1994.
- Minnesota defines certain firearms as assault weapons and regulates their sales.
- New York had an assault weapons ban prior to 2013, but on January 16 of that year it passed the SAFE Act, which created a stricter definition of assault weapons and banned them immediately. The NY SAFE Act defines assault weapons as semi-automatic pistols and rifles with detachable magazines and one military-style feature, and semi-automatic shotguns with one military-style feature.
- Virginia defines certain firearms as assault weapons and regulates their sale and use. 
In Illinois, proposed legislation in 2013 would have defined the term "semi-automatic assault weapon" to mean any semi-automatic firearm able to accept a detachable magazine. The Illinois Rifle Association said most of the state's firearms owners owned one or more guns that would have been banned under the proposal. The NRA said the proposal would have restricted about 50 percent of handguns and 75 percent of long guns in circulation. The legislation died in committee before coming to a vote.
Chicago defines certain firearms as assault weapons and bans those. Chicago and Cook County, which have no provision for the legal possession of guns that were owned before their laws were passed.
Relation to assault rifles
A common mistake stems from the conflation of the term "assault weapon" with the term "assault rifle", which refers to military rifles having selective fire capability. Unlike assault rifles, semi-automatic firearms fire one round each time the trigger is pulled; the spent cartridge case is ejected and another cartridge is loaded into the chamber, without the manual operation of a bolt handle, a lever, or a sliding handgrip. In contrast, a selective fire rifle may have the ability to fire in fully automatic mode, in which the rifle will repeatedly fire rounds in rapid succession with the trigger pulled once and held back, or fire in burst mode, in which two or three rounds will be fired as a burst each time the trigger is pulled, or fire in both fully automatic and burst modes.
Civilian ownership of assault rifles or any other full-automatic firearm is tightly regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under the National Firearms Act of 1934 as amended by Title II of the Gun Control Act of 1968. Unlike "assault rifle", "assault weapon" has no consistent definition across all legal jurisdictions in the United States and is subject to varying definitions for varying purposes, including definitions that include common non-military firearms. In this respect, it is primarily a legal term, with various statutory definitions in local, state, and federal laws that define them by a set of characteristics they possess, sometimes described as military-style cosmetic features. Using lists of cosmetic features to define assault weapons was first codified by the language of the expired 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
Political and legislative issues
Whether or not the term "assault weapon" should be used at all and, if so, how the term should be defined and whether firearms defined as assault weapons should be legally restricted more than other firearms are questions subject to considerable debate as part of the arguments of gun politics in the United States. Gun-rights advocates prefer the term modern sporting rifles.
Prominent gun-control groups that support restrictions on ownership of firearms include the Brady Campaign and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Prominent opponents of assault-weapons bans include the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America. Gun-rights and sports shooting groups consider "assault weapon" to be a pejorative when used to describe civilian firearms, considering it a politically driven catchphrase aimed to conflate non-automatic weapons with actual full-automatic assault rifles which are already (since 1934) strictly regulated and cannot be obtained by civilians without prior clearance by US federal, state, and local authorities.
As of 2012, there are an estimated 2.5-3.7 million rifles from just the AR-15 family of rifles in civilian use in the United States; the total number of assault weapons in the United States among all types is not known. AR-15 rifles are a favorite for target shooting, hunting, and personal protection.
Attributes commonly used in assault weapon definitions
Attributes commonly used in assault weapon definitions, and their purposes:
- Semi-automatic firearm fires one bullet (round) per trigger pull, unlike automatic (military) firearms, which fire multiple rounds per pull
- Detachable magazine with capacity greater than 10 rounds
- Folding or telescoping (collapsible) stock, reduces the overall length of the firearm
- Pistol grip (on rifle or shotgun)
- Bayonet lug allows the mounting of a bayonet
- Threaded barrel to accept safety devices such as a flash suppressor, silencer, compensator or muzzle brake
- Grenade launcher (even though civilian ownership of grenade launchers and grenades are regulated under the National Firearms Act as destructive devices)
- Barrel shroud - safety device to prevent burning of shooter's arm or hand.
- Goode, Erica (January 16, 2013). "Even Defining 'Assault Rifles' Is Complicated". New York Times. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- Lallanilla, Marc (January 17, 2013). "What Is an Assault Weapon?". Fox News. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
- Richman, Josh (January 18, 2013). "Assault Weapons: What Are They, and Should They Be Banned?". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
- Blake, Aaron (January 17, 2013). "Is It Fair to Call Them 'Assault Weapons'?". Washington Post. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
- Carney, Timothy P. (December 17, 2012). "Media Myths on 'Assault Weapons' and 'Semiautomatic Firearms'". Washington Examiner. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
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- Richardson, Valerie (March 3, 2013). "Pump shotgun on banned list doesn’t sit well with Colorado hunters". Washington Times (Washington Times). Retrieved March 13, 2014.
- 103rd Congress (1994). "Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, H.R.3355" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. pp. 201–215. Retrieved January 27, 2013.
- Ekins, Emily (January 30, 2013). "Just 27 Percent of Americans Say the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban Would Have Helped Avoid the Sandy Hook Shooting". reason.com.
- Kauffman, Matthew (December 18, 2012). "In State With 'Assault Weapons' Ban, Lanza's Rifle Still Legal". The Courant (Hartford, Connecticut). Retrieved January 2, 2013. "The term 'assault weapon,' as used by the media, is a media invention. These are semi-automatic firearms that have military cosmetic characteristics. They look like our military firearms, but they're not."
- Tartaro, Joseph P. (1995). "The Great Assault Weapon Hoax". University of Dayton Law Review Symposium, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, vol. 20, no. 2, 1995: 557. Retrieved January 3, 2013. "One of the key elements of the anti-gun strategy to gull the public into supporting bans on the so-called "assault weapons" is to foster confusion. As stated previously, the public does not know the difference between a full automatic and a semi-automatic firearm. They have been further hoodwinked by the television charades of people like New York's former Governor Mario Cuomo talking about semi-automatic firearms while the camera shows a full automatic firing. Fully automatic weapons have been strictly regulated and registered since 1934. Real assault weapons are controlled by the 1934 law and by laws in most states. There is no need for a new law on semi-automatic firearms. However, the anti-gunners responsible for the hoax have continued to perpetuate it by exploiting public confusion."
- Blake, Aaron (January 17, 2013). "Is it fair to call them ‘assault weapons’?". Washington Post. Retrieved January 30, 2013. "The term 'assault weapon' became widely used starting the late 1980s. Many attribute its popularization to a 1988 paper written by gun-control activist and Violence Policy Center founder Josh Sugarmann and the later reaction to a mass shooting at a Stockton, Calif., school in January 1989."
- "Bullet Hoses: Semiautomatic Assault Weapons—What Are They? What's So Bad About Them?". Washington, D.C.: Violence Policy Center. 2003. The Gun Industry's Lies.
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- "Banning Assault Weapons: A Legal Primer for State and Local Action" (PDF). Legal Community Against Violence. April 2004. Retrieved December 27, 2012. "Assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms designed with military features to allow rapid and accurate spray firing."
- Kopel, David (December 17, 2012). "Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown". Wall Street Journal (Opinion). "None of the guns that the Newtown murderer used was an assault weapon under Connecticut law. This illustrates the uselessness of bans on so-called assault weapons, since those bans concentrate on guns' cosmetics, such as whether the gun has a bayonet lug, rather than their function."
- Ballou, James L. (2000). Rock in a Hard Place: The Browning Automatic Rifle. Collector Grade Publications Inc. pp. 77–79. ISBN 0-88935-263-1.
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- "General Laws: Title XX, Chapter 140, Section 121". Massachusetts Laws. The 188th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
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- "Frequently Asked Questions .50 BMG Rifle Registration". State of California Department of Justice. Retrieved 2012-12-26. "Effective January 1, 2005, the .50 Caliber BMG Regulation Act of 2004 regulates the .50 BMG rifles in essentially the same manner as assault weapons. The law generally prohibits the manufacturing, importation, sale and possession of .50 BMG rifles. The same basic exceptions that apply to assault weapons will also apply to the new .50 BMG rifle restrictions. For individuals who lawfully possessed .50 BMG rifles prior to January 1, 2005, the new law also provides for the registration and possession of their .50 BMG rifles."
- Koerner, Brendan (September 16, 2004). "What Is an Assault Weapon? At last, you can get a semiautomatic rifle with a bayonet". Slate. Retrieved January 26, 2013.
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- "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America". Violence Policy Center. 1988. Retrieved February 26, 2005. "Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons."
- Richman, Josh (January 18, 2013). "Assault Weapons: What Are They, and Should They Be Banned?". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved January 19, 2013. "In fact, the term was introduced by the gun industry itself to boost interest in new lines of firearms."
- Peterson, Phillip (2008). Gun Digest Buyer's Guide to Assault Weapons. Iola, Wisconsin: Gun Digest Books. p. 11. ISBN 978-0896896802.
- Harrison, Laird (December 20, 2012). "4 Myths About Assault Weapons". KQED. Retrieved December 28, 2012. "But these guns are no more powerful than many semiautomatic rifles legally used for hunting in California and throughout the United States. They don't shoot farther, faster or with more power. In order to create an 'assault weapon' ban, legislators had to list specific models of guns or characteristics such as pistol grips on rifles, flash hiders, folding rifle stocks and threaded barrels for attaching silencers."
- Roth, Alex; Prada, Paulo; Dade, Corey (March 13, 2009). "New Calls for Assault-Gun Ban". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 28, 2012. "People seeking to stock up on the types of weapons that would likely be targeted by any ban - semiautomatic weapons, sometimes known as "black guns" or "black rifles" - have flocked to purchase them."
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- "Frequently Asked Questions: What is considered an assault weapon under California law?". California Department of Justice. "There are three categories of assault weapons under California law. The first category is firearms listed on the original Roberti-Roos assault weapons list (Penal Code section 12276, subds (a), (b), and (c)). The second category of assault weapons is AK and AR-15 series weapons, pdf (Penal Code sections 12276 (e) and (f)). The third category of assault weapons is defined by specific generic characteristics (PC section 12276.1, SB 23)."
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