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What Are Assault Weapons?

Customer looking at AR-15 in gun store
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Obama laid out his plans for gun control yesterday. Along with instituting background checks for all gun purchases, he also proposed the re-institution of the Assault Weapons Ban that expired in 1994.

To me, the term “assault weapon” was obvious. I grew up hunting and shooting. Yesterday a friend asked me a question that I didn’t expect: “What exactly are assault weapons?”

If you grew up without guns that is a perfectly legitimate question. Also an important one for the uninformed. “Assault weapons” is a term the media throws around like “fiscal cliff” and expects the average person to always understand the definition when they may not. A friend of mine told me that even his dad, a farmer who has always owned guns, didn’t understand what so-called assault weapons were.

“I don’t see why people need to have these assault weapons,” the father said. “I don’t know anyone who owns one of those AR-15’s.”

He was immediately informed that his son-in-law and son, the one he was talking to, each owned one of these rifles. Upon further discussion it was discovered that the father was under the false impression that the AR-15 type of rifle was fully automatic.

An assault weapon, as defined by is “any of various automatic and semiautomatic military firearms utilizing an intermediate-power cartridge, designed for individual use.” The problem with this definition, while not inaccurate itself, is that politicians and the media have used it to mislabel civilian firearms that look military. The M16 and M4 rifles used by the U.S. military look identical to the civilian AR-15 model rifles. But the military does not issue the AR-15 as it is not a military weapon. While that may seem like a semantic argument it really isn’t.

The word “automatic” also presents issues. “Automatic” simply means that the shooter does not need to manually reload the weapon. But there are two types of automatics: fully automatic and semi-automatic. Fully automatic weapons start firing rounds when the trigger is pulled and keep firing until the trigger is released. Semi-automatic weapons only fire once when the trigger is pulled. To fire again the trigger must be released and pulled. It can stil fire multiple rounds quickly but a human finger could never keep up with the 700 round-per-minute pace of a military M16 or M4.

During the Assault Weapons Ban, instituted in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, classified a rifle as an “assault weapon” if it was semi-automatic and used detachable magazines and had two or more of the following characteristics: a folding or telescopic stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppresor, or a grenade launcher.

AR-15 Diagram

The features described in the law were all cosmetic or comfort related and do not make the rifle any more lethal than it already is. Bayonet mounts and grenade launchers certainly would make them more lethal, but gun owners don’t care about those features anyway.

If the ban on assault weapons is reinstated, statistics do not really support that it will drastically slow down gun crime. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California claims that the previous ban is responsible for a 6.7 percent drop in gun murders. Other numbers say that assault rifles make up less than half of one percent of all gun crime.

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