Assault weapon is a term used in the United States to define specific types of firearms. The definition varies among regulating jurisdictions, but usually includes semi-automatic firearms with a detachable magazine and a pistol grip, and sometimes other features such as a flash suppressor or barrel shroud. Some firearms are specified by name. At the time that the now-defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994, 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." The origin of the term is muddled and has been attributed to politicians, gun control groups, the media, and the firearms industry itself. It is sometimes conflated with the term "assault rifle," which refers to selective fire military rifles that can fire in automatic and burst mode.
After the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, many news organizations ran stories about assault weapons, explaining their varying definitions and presenting varying opinions about whether or not they should be banned again on the federal level.
Definitions and usage
Drawing from federal and state law definitions, the term assault weapon refers primarily to semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns that are able to accept detachable magazines and possess one or more other features. Some jurisdictions define revolving cylinder shotguns as assault weapons. Legislative definitions do not include fully automatic weapons, which are regulated separately as Title II weapons under federal law.[n 1] A key defining law was the now-defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. At that time, the United States Department of Justice 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."
Common attributes used in legislative definitions of assault weapons include:
- Semi-automatic firearm capable of accepting a detachable magazine
- Folding or telescoping (collapsible) stock, which reduces the overall length of the firearm
- Pistol grip, whether rifle, shotgun, or pistol
- Bayonet lug, which allows the mounting of a bayonet
- Threaded barrel, which can accept devices such as a flash suppressor, Suppressor, compensator or muzzle brake
- Grenade launcher
- Barrel shroud, which prevents burning of shooter's arm or hand as a safety device.
Dictionary definitions vary from legal definitions. 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
Prior to its use in U.S. firearms laws, the term "assault weapon" was limited to naming certain military weapons, for example, the Rifleman's Assault Weapon, a grenade launcher developed in 1977 for use with the M16 assault rifle, or the Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon, a rocket launcher introduced in 1984.
In April 1985, Art Agnos introduced in the California State Assembly a bill to ban semi-automatic "assault firearms" capable of using detachable magazines of 20 rounds or more. 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.
In 2013, The Washington Post wrote of the term: "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 the Cleveland School massacre in Stockton, California, in January 1989." Sugarmann had written:
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.
Others say the firearms 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.
Conservative writer Rich Lowry said that assault weapon is a "manufactured term." 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."
Differing state law definitions
Seven states have assault weapon bans with different definitions and characteristics.
- California defines assault weapons by name, by "series" (AK or AR-15), and by characteristic. A shotgun with a revolving cylinder is also defined as an assault weapon.
- Connecticut defines assault weapons as selective-fire firearms (including assault rifles capable of fully automatic or burst fire); semi-automatic firearms specified by name; and semi-automatic 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.
- Massachusetts defines assault weapons as semi-automatic firearms with the same definition provisions from the expired federal ban of 1994.
- 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, but it was never brought to a vote. 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. As municipalities, Chicago and Cook County bans certain firearms defined as assault weapons and have no provision for legal possession of firearms owned before their laws were passed. Minnesota also defines certain firearms as assault weapons and regulates their sales.
Not "Assault rifles"
The term "assault weapon" is sometimes conflated with the term "assault rifle". According to the Associated Press Stylebook, the media should differentiate between "assault rifles," which are capable of fully automatic firing, and "assault weapons," which are semiautomatic and "not synonymous with assault rifle." Civilian ownership of machine guns (and assault rifles) has been tightly regulated since 1934 under the National Firearms Act and since 1986 under the Firearm Owners Protection Act.
Gun control advocates and gun rights advocates have referred to at least some of the features outlined in assault weapons bans as "cosmetic." The NRA Institute for Legislative Action and the Violence Policy Center both used the term in 2004 when the federal ban expired. In May 2012, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said, "the inclusion in the list of features that were purely cosmetic in nature created a loophole that allowed manufacturers to successfully circumvent the law by making minor modifications to the weapons they already produced." Some reporters used the term in stories after the 2012 Aurora shooting and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Assault weapons, also sometimes called "black guns" or "black rifles," 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.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group organized "to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports", states that the term assault weapon has been misapplied to many semi-automatic firearms because of their appearance and not their use in crime.
Political and legislative issues
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. In 2002, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre and Jim Baker said "assault weapons" is a pejorative term. The National Shooting Sports Foundation considers it a politically driven catchphrase aimed to conflate non-automatic weapons with full-automatic assault rifles.
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, and can not be known because of the different definitions in different jurisdictions. AR-15 rifles are a favorite for target shooting, hunting, and personal protection.
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.
- Semi-automatic firearm
- Military-style semi-automatic, New Zealand legal classification
- StG 44 - the WWII developed selective fire rifle considered the "first modern assault rifle"
- Goode, Erica (January 16, 2013). "Even Defining 'Assault Rifles' Is Complicated". New York Times. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- Babay, Emily (December 22, 2012). "Confusion abounds: Just what is an ‘assault weapon’?". Philadelphia Media Network. Retrieved December 28, 2012.
- Levs, Josh (January 31, 2013). "Loaded language poisons gun debate". CNN. Retrieved January 31, 2013.
- 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.
- Blake, Aaron (January 17, 2013). "Is It Fair to Call Them 'Assault Weapons'?". Washington Post. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
- Kauffman, Matthew (December 18, 2012). "In State With 'Assault Weapons' Ban, Lanza's Rifle Still Legal". 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.
- 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.
In fact, the term was introduced by the gun industry itself to boost interest in new lines of firearms.
- Carney, Timothy P. (December 17, 2012). "Media Myths on 'Assault Weapons' and 'Semiautomatic Firearms'". Washington Examiner. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
- "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.
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- Definition of "assault weapon", Dictionary.com. Retrieved December 29, 2012.
- Definition of "assault weapon", Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 29, 2012.
- Jane's Infantry Weapons 1995–96, p. 219.
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- Sugarmann, Josh (1988). "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America". Violence Policy Center. Retrieved February 26, 2005.
- Peterson, Phillip (2008). Gun Digest Buyer's Guide to Assault Weapons. Iola, Wisconsin: Gun Digest Books. p. 11. ISBN 978-0896896802.
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New York is one of only seven states that have assault-weapons bans in place, according to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.
- "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).
- Mantel, Barbara (March 8, 2013). "Gun Control". CQ Researcher (CQ Press) 23 (10): 233–256. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
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- Acevedo, Edward J. (January 4, 2013). Amendment to Senate Bill 2899, Illinois General Assembly web site. Retrieved January 18, 2013. "In this Section: "Semi-automatic assault weapon" means: ... (C-2) a semi-automatic rifle or a pistol with the capacity to accept a detachable magazine, a muzzle brake, or muzzle compensator..."
- "Illinois Assault Weapons Ban Fails Again, Votes Not There For Passage In Lame-Duck Session". Huffington Post. January 7, 2013. Retrieved January 9, 2013.
State Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, called the bill "too broad" as it applied to too many different types of guns, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
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Law-abiding citizens, however, will once again be free to purchase semi-automatic firearms, regardless of their cosmetic features, for target shooting, shooting competitions, hunting, collecting, and most importantly, self-defense.
- "Violence Policy Center Issues Statement on Expiration of Federal Assault Weapons Ban" (Press release). Washington, D.C.: Violence Policy Center. September 13, 2004.
Soon after its passage in 1994, the gun industry made a mockery of the federal assault weapons ban, manufacturing 'post-ban' assault weapons with only slight, cosmetic differences from their banned counterparts.
- "Assault Weapons Policy Summary". San Francisco, California: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. May 21, 2012.
- Seitz-Wald, Alex (February 6, 2013). "Don’t mourn the assault weapons ban’s impending demise". Salon.
[The National Rifle Association] says the ban created an artificial distinction between 'assault weapons' and other semi-automatic weapons, based almost entirely on cosmetic features. This is largely true.
- More cosmetic sources:
- McArdle, Megan (November 12, 2012). "Just Say No to Dumb Gun Laws". The Daily Beast.
... 'assault weapon' is a largely cosmetic rather than functional description.
- Kopel, David (December 17, 2012). "Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown". Wall Street Journal.
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.
- Yager, Jordy (January 16, 2013). "The problem with 'assault weapons'". The Hill.
Gun companies quickly realized they could stay within the law and continue to make rifles with high-capacity magazine clips if they steered away from the cosmetic features mentioned in the law.
- Sullum, Jacob (January 30, 2013). "What's an Assault Weapon?". Reason.
The distinguishing characteristics of 'assault weapons' are mainly cosmetic and have little or no functional significance in the context of mass shootings or ordinary gun crimes.
- McArdle, Megan (November 12, 2012). "Just Say No to Dumb Gun Laws". The Daily Beast.
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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.
- 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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The recent campaign by the NSSF to educate hunters everywhere about the 'modern sporting rifle' can be directly attributed to [Randy] Luth's push to make AR rifles acceptable firearms in the field, the woods and on the range.
- "Modern Sporting Rifle (MSR) Comprehensive Consumer Report 2010" (PDF). National Shooting Sports Foundation. 2010. Retrieved August 16, 2013.
With no database available of known MSR owners, NSSF promoted participation in this study via online banner ads on various websites, blogs and e‐newsletters geared toward firearm ownership and hunting.... The term Modern Sporting Rifle was clearly defined as AR‐platform rifles such as an AR‐15, tactical rifles and black guns.
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