In discussions about gun laws and gun 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. An assault weapon has 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 weapons are rifles, but pistols or shotguns may also fall under the definition(s) or be specified by name.
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, as well as state and local laws often derived from or including definitions verbatim from the expired Federal Law.
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. Some have 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 fully automatic and semi-automatic firearms, while others argue that the term was promulgated by the firearms industry itself in the 1980s and used as a marketing tactic to stimulate sales of certain guns that had an unfamiliar appearance in the wake of slumping handgun sales.
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, state, and local laws.
The term "assault weapon" is also used to refer to some weapons that are used by the military for offensive operations in battle, such as portable rocket launchers used for anti-tank and bunker destruction purposes and various other weapons using flammable munitions and/or explosives.
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. Definitions from the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban only specified semi-automatic weapons. Certain cosmetic features rather than fully automatic operation caused a gun to be classified as an assault weapon. 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. Nonetheless, assault weapon is a term that has been given many different meanings. For example, some pistols are also classified as assault weapons, despite clearly not possessing the cosmetic features of an assault rifle, under both state and federal laws. Another definition is any of various automatic and semi-automatic military firearms utilizing an intermediate-power cartridge. The reason is that since the definition of assault weapon is only defined by cosmetic features, both semi-automatic firearms that possess these cosmetics, as well as full-auto firearms that possess these same cosmetic features, irrespective of the presence or absence of the operational functions of assault rifles, is enough in some states to cause a firearm to be classified by the term "assault weapon". Federal laws, however, clearly make the distinction that assault weapons that possess both the cosmetic and operational features of assault rifles are Title II weapons, not assault weapons, and 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 machine guns. (For example, the US Army's M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle machine gun was a favorite of gangster Clyde Barrow (1909 – May 23, 1934), who obtained his through periodic robberies of Army National Guard armories in the Midwest.) In California, even some manually operated firearms, such as .50 BMG rifles, are essentially treated as assault weapons.
Some state laws, however, make no such distinction, classifying all firearms with either the cosmetic features or the actual operational features of assault rifles as assault weapons. Hence, some state definitions of assault weapon explicitly include assault rifles. For example, 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". Only seven states have such state-level assault-weapons bans in place; in all other states, assault weapons are considered semi-automatic only, per prior definitions established by federal law. Even within the seven states with their own state-level assault weapon bans there are differences in the legal definitions of assault weapons. For example, Massachusetts and New York, two states from the set of seven states that have their own assault weapons bans, define assault weapons as being semi-automatic firearms, only. The vast majority of states define assault weapons as being semi-automatic firearms only.
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 a new class of small arm, the Sturmgewehr 44, which combined the characteristics of a carbine, submachine gun and automatic rifle. Prior to the 1980s, the term "assault weapon" was used in the context of military weapons systems, such as for 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 media, Agnos referred to them as both "assault firearms" and "assault weapons". 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.
The term is highly controversial especially amongst advocates of gun control and gun rights. Gun rights activists consider it 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 semiautomatic 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.
United States 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 after ten years in 2004. It banned the manufacture or importation of certain semi-automatic firearms that it defined 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. The law also 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 also 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.
Proposed 2013 federal ban 
On January 24, 2013, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would institute a new federal assault weapons ban. The proposed legislation would prohibit the manufacture or importation of firearms it defines as assault weapons. Currently owned firearms that would fall under the new definition would be grandfathered in, and could be sold or transferred if the buyer passes a background check. The manufacture, importation, sale, or transfer of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition would also be prohibited. The bill would provide funds for voluntary buy-back programs at the state level.
The proposed legislation defines an assault weapon as a semi-automatic firearm with a detachable magazine and one additional feature, such as a pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, a barrel shroud or threaded barrel, or a grenade launcher or rocket launcher. Also defined as assault weapons would be all semiautomatic rifles and handguns with a fixed magazine that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition, semiautomatic shotguns with one additional feature and a fixed magazine that can hold more than five rounds, and semiautomatic shotguns with a rotating cylinder. The bill also specifically names 157 models of firearms as assault weapons.
Differing state law definitions 
Although the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, several states still have their own current assault weapons bans that sometimes differ from the former federal law. Only seven states have their own assault-weapons bans in place. The states with their own assault weapons bans are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York; local assault weapons bans also exist in 17 local areas, including Denver, Colorado, and Cook County, Illinois.
In Connecticut, an assault weapon is defined as "Any selective-fire firearm capable of fully automatic, semiautomatic or burst fire at the option of the user" (i.e. with fully automatic capability) plus other specific semi-automatic firearms plus other semi-automatic firearms with certain attributes.
In Massachusetts, assault weapons "have the same meaning as a semiautomatic assault weapon as defined in the federal Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. section 921(a)(30) as appearing in such section on September 13, 1994...”. They thus have the same definitions in Massachusetts as was used in the expired Federal 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.
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 formerly under consideration defined the term "assault weapon" even more broadly to mean any semi-automatic firearm with a detachable magazine, which would include the majority of all firearms, but 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. Critics say that it is an vague term created by anti-firearm activists in an attempt to brand specific firearms as 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 the phrase 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 Federal assault weapon legislation and their purposes:
- Detachable magazines allow for fast reloading
- Collapsible stocks allow for adjustment to the length of pull to the shooter's preference.
- Folding stocks reducing the total length of the firearm, making it easier to transport. Critics maintain that it makes 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 allow the mounting 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 are concentric rings around the muzzle that facilitate attachment of rifle grenades
- A barrel shroud is a tube around the barrel designed to limit transfer of heat from the barrel to the supporting hand, or to protect a shooter from being burned by accidental contact.
- Magazines greater than 10 rounds
- Semi-automatic, functionality meaning that they can eject spent shell casings and chamber the next round without additional human action, but (as opposed to automatic firearms) only one round is fired per pull of the trigger.
See also 
- 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
- Assault weapon (disambiguation)
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