In discussions about firearms laws and politics in the United States, an assault weapon is most commonly defined as a semi-automatic firearm possessing certain cosmetic, ergonomic, or construction features similar to those of military firearms. Semi-automatic firearms fire one bullet (round) each time the trigger is pulled; the spent cartridge case is ejected and another cartridge is loaded into the chamber, without requiring the manual operation of a bolt handle, a lever, or a sliding handgrip. In this context an assault weapon is often defined as having a detachable magazine, in conjunction with one, two, or more other features such as a pistol grip, a folding or collapsing stock, a flash suppressor, or a bayonet lug. Most assault weapon definitions are limited to rifles, but pistols or shotguns may also fall under the definition(s) or be specified by name. Some lawmakers have attempted to place pump-action shotguns in this category.
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-expired 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, often derived from or including definitions verbatim from the expired federal law, also define the term.
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. As a political and legal term, it is highly controversial.
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 in the 1980s.
The term "assault weapon" is sometimes conflated with the term "assault rifle" which refers only to military rifles capable of selective fire, including fully automatic fire and/or burst fire. In the United States, fully automatic firearms are heavily restricted and regulated by federal laws such as the National Firearms Act of 1934 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 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" Another definition is: Any of various automatic and semi-automatic military firearms utilizing an intermediate-power cartridge.
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.
Many advocates of gun rights (and even some advocates of gun control) 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 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.
Expired 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 January 24, 2013, Senator Dianne 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, and required registration of any grandfathered weapons under the National Firearms Act. It received enhanced media attention in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting but on April 17, 2013, the bill failed on a Senate vote of 60 to 40.
Differing state law definitions
Seven U.S. states have their own assault weapons bans. They are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Local assault weapons bans exist in 17 areas, including Denver, Colorado, and Cook County, Illinois.
- In California, there are three categories of assault weapons: by name, by "series" (AK or AR-15), and by characteristic.
- In Connecticut, assault weapons are 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.
- In Massachusetts, assault weapons have the same definitions as the expired federal ban of 1994.
- In New York, an assault weapon is defined as "Any semiautomatic centerfire or rimfire rifle or semiautomatic shotgun which has one or more ... features, ..., Any shotgun with a revolving-cylinder magazine, ..., (or,) Any part, or combination of parts, designed or redesigned or intended to readily convert a rifle or shotgun into an assault weapon." The New York Safe Act of 2013 legislated a stricter definition of assault weapons, and immediately banned weapons in that category, including even magazines used by police officers. Considered assault weapons are: semi-automatic pistols and rifles with detachable magazines and one military-style feature, and semi-automatic shotguns with one military-style feature.
In Illinois, proposed legislation in 2013 would have defined the term "assault weapon" even more broadly to mean any semi-automatic firearm with a detachable magazine, which would have included the majority of all firearms. The legislation died in committee before coming to a vote.
While assault weapons are legal in most of Illinois, they are banned in 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 now-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. A politically neutral term used to describe firearms in this class are modern sporting rifles. Critics say terming them as "assault weapons" constitutes a deliberate ambiguity perpetuated by anti-firearm activists in an attempt to brand specific firearms as somehow more dangerous than others.
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 in assault weapon definitions
Attributes previously defined in the now expired federal ban, and their purposes:
- Semi-automatic firearms eject spent shell casings and load the next bullet (round) without additional human action, but (as opposed to automatic firearms) fire only one round per trigger pull
- Detachable magazines allow for fast reloading
- Collapsible stocks allow for adjustment to the length of pull to the shooter's preference
- Folding stocks reduce the length of the firearm, making it easier to transport (some say they make the weapon more concealable)
- Pistol grips (on rifles) reduce the angle (and thus rotational strain) of the wrist when the rifle is shouldered
- Bayonet mounts or "lugs" allow for the affixing of a bayonet
- Flash suppressors reduce night vision degradation to a shooter's vision, as well as those beside or behind the user 
- Threaded barrels allow for the mounting of flash suppressors, compensators and muzzle brake
- Barrel mounted grenade launcher mounts (concentric rings around the muzzle) facilitate attachment of rifle grenades
- Barrel shrouds (tube around the barrel) limit transfer of heat from the barrel to the supporting hand, or to protect a shooter from being burned by accidental contact
- Magazines with capacities greater than 10 rounds allow for less frequent reloading.
- Federal Assault Weapons Ban
- Firearm Owners Protection Act
- Gun Control Act of 1968
- Military-style semi-automatic, New Zealand legal classification
- National Firearms Act
- StG 44 The original Sturmgewehr
- Title II weapons
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- 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."
- Peterson, Phillip (2008). Gun Digest Buyer's Guide to Assault Weapons. p. 11. ISBN 978-0896896802. "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."
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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."
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- 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."
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