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Snippet from Wikipedia: Assault weapon

Assault weapon is a term used in the United States to define some types of firearms. The definition varies among regulating jurisdictions but usually includes semi-automatic firearms chambered for centerfire ammunition 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, the media and the firearms industry. It is sometimes conflated with the term "assault rifle", which refers 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.

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.<ref name=NYTimesComplicated>

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</ref><ref name=“Media Myths on assault weapons”>


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.<ref name=Philly/> Semi-automatic firearms fire and reload only one bullet (round) per trigger pull.<ref name=“CQR130308”>

</ref> Most assault weapon definitions are limited to rifles,

but some pistols and shotguns also sometimes fall under the varying definitions.<ref name=NYTimesComplicated /><ref name=“LoadedLanguage”>

</ref> Some firearms are specified by name. Some gun control advocates 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 defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.<ref name=FedBan94>

</ref> 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.”<ref name=“LoadedLanguage” /> State and local laws, often derived from or including definitions verbatim from the expired federal law, also define the term.

It has been asserted that the term is a media invention<ref name=“Assault_Weapon_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,<ref name=“intentional_confusion”/><ref name=“Sugarmann_popularized”/> while others argue that the term was promulgated by the firearms industry itself.<ref name=NYTimesComplicated /><ref name=SJMNWhatIs /><ref name=VPCGILies>


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.<ref>

</ref> 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.

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.<ref name=“Media Myths on assault weapons”/><ref name=“BanningAssaultWeapons”>

</ref> (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.<ref name=“mental_illness”>

</ref>) The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban did not apply to fully automatic weapons.<ref name=“FedBan94” /><ref name=“Media Myths on assault 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.<ref name=“Ballou”>


Only seven states have their own state-level assault weapon bans<ref name=“seven_states”>

</ref> and there are differences in their definitions of “assault weapons”. Massachusetts and New York only include semi-automatic firearms in their definitions.<ref name=“MA_Law”>

</ref><ref name=“NY_Law”>

</ref> 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.<ref name=ConnJudicial>

</ref> In California, even some manually operated firearms, such as .50 BMG rifles, are treated as assault weapons.<ref name=“50_BMG_2005”>


Some semi-automatic pistols are defined as “assault weapons”<ref name=“Philly”>

</ref><ref name=“Slate”/> defines “assault weapon” as “any of various automatic and semiautomatic military firearms utilizing an intermediate-power cartridge, designed for individual use.”<ref>Definition of "assault weapon", Retrieved December 29, 2012.</ref> Merriam-Webster's online definition is “any of various automatic or semiautomatic firearms; especially: assault rifle.”<ref>Definition of "assault weapon", Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 29, 2012.</ref>

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.<ref name=“Stg44”>

</ref> 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.<ref>Jane's Infantry Weapons 1995–96, p. 219.</ref>

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.<ref name=G&A1985>

</ref> In his bill, AB 1509, these guns were categorized as “assault firearms”.<ref name=G&A1985/> Speaking to the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Agnos said, “The only use for assault weapons is to shoot people.”<ref name=LATimes-Ingram>

</ref> The measure did not pass when it came up for a vote.<ref name=G&A1985/>

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.<ref name=“Sugarmann_popularized”>

</ref> Sugarmann wrote:


Others say the gun industry itself introduced the term “assault weapon” to build interest in new product lines.<ref name=“Gunindustry_introduced”>

</ref> Phillip Peterson, the author of Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons (2008) wrote:


Gun rights advocates consider the term “assault weapon” to be a misnomer intended to conflate civilian semi-automatic firearms with military assault rifles.<ref name=“LoadedLanguage”>

</ref> 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.”<ref name=“intentional_confusion”>

</ref> Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said “the term 'assault weapon,' as used by the media, is a media invention.”<ref name=“Assault_Weapon_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.<ref name=“no_more_powerful”>

</ref> 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.<ref name=“black_guns”>


Defunct U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban

Sporter SP1 Carbine is a military style semi-automatic rifle that fires one round each time the trigger is pulled.]]

rifle with a pistol grip and a folding stock.]]

rifle with a pistol grip and a folding stock was classified as an assault weapon under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.]]

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.]]

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.<ref name=FedBan94/>

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.<ref name=FedBan94/><ref name=Slate>


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.<ref name=FedBan94/><ref name=Slate/>

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.<ref name=“jamieson 121216”>

</ref> 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.<ref name=“LaPierre121221”>

</ref> Feinstein and Senator Richard Blumenthal held a separate news conference in response.<ref name=“Feinstein-Blumenthal”>

</ref> There, Feinstein said that it seemed to her “prudent” to register grandfathered assault weapons under the National Firearms Act (NFA).<ref name=“Feinstein121221”>

</ref> A two-page bill summary on the senator's web site also mentioned registering grandfathered assault weapons under the NFA,<ref name=“Summ121226PDF>

</ref> but the text of the bill introduced to the Senate did not include that provision.

On January 24, 2013, Feinstein introduced

, 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.<ref name=“simon 130417”>


Differing state law definitions

Seven U.S. states have their own assault weapons bans.<ref name=“seven_states”/>

  • California defines assault weapons by name, by “series” (AK or AR-15), and by characteristic.<ref name=“CA_Law”>


  • 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.<ref name=ConnJudicial/>
  • Hawaii defines and bans assault pistols.<ref name=“CQR130308”>


  • Maryland defines and bans assault pistols. It regulates 45 other assault weapons listed by make and/or model including copies, regardless of manufacturer.<ref name=“CQR130308” /><ref name=“ATFStates31st”>


  • Massachusett defines assault weapons by the same provisions as the expired federal ban of 1994.<ref name=“MA_Law” />
  • Minnesota defines certain firearms as assault weapons and regulates their sale and use.<ref name=“CQR130308” />
  • 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.<ref name=“NYSAFEAct-PR”>

    </ref><ref name=“NY_Law”/><ref name=“Berger130118”>

    </ref> 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.<ref name=“NYSAFEAct-PR” />

  • Virginia defines certain firearms as assault weapons and regulates their sale and use. <ref name=“CQR130308” />

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.<ref>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…”</ref> 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.<ref name=“chakraborty 130103”>

</ref> The NRA said the proposal would have restricted about 50 percent of handguns and 75 percent of long guns in circulation.<ref name=“chakraborty 130103” /> The legislation died in committee before coming to a vote.<ref>


Chicago defines certain firearms as assault weapons and bans those. Chicago<ref>

</ref> and Cook County,<ref>

</ref> 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.<ref name=Slate/> 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.<ref name =Philly/><ref name =“NSSF Facts”/> 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.<ref name=“FedBan94” /><ref name=“Media Myths on assault weapons”/>

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.<ref name=NYTimesComplicated /><ref name=OutdoorWireLuthRetires>

</ref><ref name=NSSFMSR2010>


Prominent gun-control groups that support restrictions on ownership of firearms include the Brady Campaign<ref>"Federal Gun Laws: Assault-Style Weapons", Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Retrieved January 6, 2013.</ref> and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.<ref>"Issues and Campaigns: Assault Weapons", Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Retrieved January 6, 2013.</ref> Prominent opponents of assault-weapons bans include the National Rifle Association<ref>"Semi-Automatic Firearms and the 'Assault Weapon' Issue", National Rifle Association – Institute for Legislative Acton, June 3, 2011. Retrieved January 6, 2013.</ref> and Gun Owners of America.<ref>"Assault Weapons Bans: A Solution in Search of a Problem", Gun Owners of America, December 24, 2008. Retrieved January 6, 2013.</ref> Gun-rights and sports shooting groups consider “assault weapon” to be a pejorative when used to describe civilian firearms,<ref>Amy Hunter, Gun sales booming across the nation (December 1, 2008). Culpeper Star-Exponent.</ref><ref>Cook County assault weapon ban hits Illinois Supreme Court (January 18, 2012). Illinois Public Radio.</ref><ref>Wayne LaPierre and James Jay Baker (2002). Shooting Straight: Telling the Truth about Guns in America. Regnery Publishing. pp. 43–44.</ref> considering it a politically driven catchphrase aimed to conflate non-automatic weapons with actual full-automatic assault rifles<ref name=“NSSF Facts”>”

</ref> 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.<ref>

</ref> AR-15 rifles are a favorite for target shooting, hunting, and personal protection.<ref>


Attributes commonly used in assault weapon definitions

Attributes commonly used in assault weapon definitions, and their purposes:

  • Semi-automatic firearm<ref name=FedBan94 /> fires one bullet (round) per trigger pull, unlike automatic (military) firearms which fire multiple rounds per pull<ref name=“Slate”/>
  • Detachable magazine with capacity greater than 10 rounds<ref name=FedBan94 />
  • Folding or telescoping (collapsible) stock,<ref name=FedBan94 /> adjusts the length of pull or reduces the overall length of the firearm<ref name=“CQR041112”>


  • Pistol grip (on rifle or shotgun)<ref name=FedBan94 />
  • Bayonet lug<ref name=FedBan94 /> allows the mounting of a bayonet
  • Threaded barrel to accept safety devices such as a flash suppressor, silencer,<ref name=FedBan94 /> compensator or muzzle brake
  • Grenade launcher<ref name=FedBan94 /> (even though civilian ownership of grenade launchers and grenades are regulated under the National Firearms Act as destructive devices)
  • Barrel shroud - safety device preventing burns to operator from hot barrel<ref name=“CQR041112” />

See also


  • Assault weapons entry by Robert J. Spitzer in the Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture and the Law, Vol. 2 (2002, ed. Gregg Lee Carter), p.&nbsp;34-35.

United States federal firearms law

assault_weapon.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/12 18:31 (external edit)