The term assault weapon is used in the United States to define some types of firearms. The definition varies among regulating jurisdictions but usually includes semi-automatic firearms with a detachable magazine, a pistol grip and sometimes other features such as a vertical forward grip, 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. 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." The origin of the term has been attributed to legislators, gun control groups, firearm manufacturers, and the media. It is often used interchangeably (but incorrectly) with the term "assault rifle", which may more specifically refer to selective-fire military rifles that can fire in automatic or 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 they should be banned again at 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;
- A pistol grip that protrudes beneath the action of the weapon;
- Bayonet lug, which allows the mounting of a bayonet;
- Threaded barrel, which can accept muzzle devices such as a flash hider, suppressor, compensator or muzzle brake;
- Grenade launcher;
- Barrel shroud.
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
The origin of the term is not clearly known and is the subject of much debate. In the past, the names of certain military weapons used the phrase, such as 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.
One of the earliest uses of the term, or a similar term, in its current meaning was in a bill introduced by Art Agnos in the California State Assembly in April 1985 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, looking into the history of the term, 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.
Other researchers have found evidence to suggest that the firearms industry itself may have 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.
Meanwhile, many gun rights activists have put forward that the term originated from the media or gun control activists. 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 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.
In Illinois, proposed legislation in 2013 would have defined the term "semi-automatic assault weapon" as any semi-automatic firearm able to accept a detachable magazine, but it was never brought to a vote. The Illinois State 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 75 percent of handguns and 50 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.
Distinction from assault rifles
The term "assault rifle" is sometimes used interchangeably with the term "assault weapon". According to the Associated Press Stylebook, "although the terms are often used interchangeably, some make the distinction that assault rifle is a military weapon with a selector switch for firing in either fully automatic or semi-automatic mode from a detachable, 10- to 30-round magazine." Civilian ownership of machine guns, including selective-fire 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 shootings in Aurora, Colorado and at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
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.
Two scholars have written: "One problem inherent in the study of [assault weapons (AW)] is that the classifications of AW are based on cosmetic features of firearms... For instance, the Colt AR-15 series of semi-automatic rifles—the civilian version of the fully automatic M-16 rifle issued to U.S. soldiers—was subject to the 1994 AW restrictions, but the Ruger Mini-14 rifle was not banned. Yet, the Mini-14 is the same caliber, has a similar barrel length, the same semi-automatic action, and can use magazines that hold 30 rounds of ammunition. The only real meaningful difference between the two firearms is cosmetic: The AR-15 rifle looks more dangerous."
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, 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
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.
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.
This Ruger 10/22 rifle with a pistol grip and a folding stock was classified as an assault weapon under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
An Intratec TEC-DC9 with a 32-round magazine. This semi-automatic pistol has a threaded barrel and a magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip, two of the features listed in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
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 additional gun laws. 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.
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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.
- Peterson, Phillip (2008). Gun Digest Buyer's Guide to Assault Weapons. Iola, Wisconsin: Gun Digest Books. p. 11. ISBN 978-0896896802.[dead link]
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In fact, the term was introduced by the gun industry itself to boost interest in new lines of firearms.
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Assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms designed with military features to allow rapid and accurate spray firing.
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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. December 16, 2011.
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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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.
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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.
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[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:
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... 'assault weapon' is a largely cosmetic rather than functional description.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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- S. 150
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- Quotations related to Assault weapon at Wikiquote