What Is an Assault Weapon?
April 3rd, 2019
5 minute read
Like texting, tweeting, woke and hangry, the term “assault weapon” is a relatively recent contrivance. Unlike other contemporary cultural slang, however, folks can go to jail over the exact definition of this ethereal expression. As a result, it is important to appreciate how the concept came to be and then try to grasp just exactly what it means.
There is an apocryphal tale claiming that Adolf Hitler first started this party. During World War II the Nazis debuted a radically new type of Infantry rifle called the MP43. Hitler himself purportedly titled the revolutionary weapon the “Sturmgewehr” or “Storm Gun.” Allied intelligence officials supposedly mistranslated “Storm Gun” as “Assault Rifle,” and here we are.
Assault rifle is an accepted military term today. This is a relatively lightweight man-portable weapon that is capable of fully automatic fire. Fully automatic means the gun will sequentially shoot more than one bullet with a single squeeze of the trigger. Hold down the trigger and it will shoot until you release the trigger or the gun runs empty. The layman would be forgiven for calling this a machinegun. All modern military forces employ assault rifles.
By contrast, in today’s parlance an “assault weapon” is a more obtuse, contrived beastie. An assault weapon today is basically inaccurately described as a semi-automatic firearm that looks like an assault rifle. “Semi-automatic” means the gun fires one shot with each pull of the trigger. Hold down that trigger, and all you are going to get is a single shot. In the gun world, the distinction between fully automatic and semi-automatic is huge.
To the purist, an assault weapon is not even a real thing. While an assault rifle is a fully automatic military tool, an assault weapon is just a gun that people say might look scary. It is therefore all but undefinable. However, that didn’t stop the U.S. Congress from trying.
Congress tried to ban whatever they perceived to be assault weapons in the mid-1990s. Gun defenders insisted upon a legal definition that could stand up in court. Opponents countered that assault weapons were indeed hard to define, but you kind of knew one when you saw it. The messy end result was the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.
This convoluted piece of legislation sought to prohibit the manufacture of certain firearms based upon their appearance. Cosmetic features like pistol grips, bayonet lugs, flash hiders and collapsible stocks all folded into a confusing matrix of sinister features. Certain combinations would arbitrarily pitch a conventional firearm into the dreaded “Assault Weapon” category.
The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban also outlawed the manufacture of ammunition feeding devices (“magazines”) holding more than ten rounds and prohibited numerous specific firearms by name. This muddled bit of jurisprudence automatically expired 10 years after it was enacted. Reputable sources agreed that the ban had no effect on crime rates. There has nonetheless been a concerted effort to reinstate it permanently ever since.
Several states, most notably California, still use a similarly labyrinthine framework to try to capture what exactly an outlawed assault weapon should be (click here to learn about “California-compliant” firearms). It would honestly be kind of funny except that people can go to prison for innocently running afoul of it. I’d walk you through the technical details, but it would invariably put you to sleep.
Defining the Undefinable
The reality is that a true “assault weapon” is a type of fully automatic firearm used by the military. Private citizens in most states can technically own certain fully automatic guns. However, they are about as rare as honest politicians in Washington and nearly as expensive.
Unlike depictions in movies, fully automatic weapons in private hands are vanishingly rare. By contrast, semi-automatic firearms of all stripes are quite literally everywhere. Rifles of any sort are used in a relatively small percentage of the gun crime in America. “Assault weapons,” whatever they actually are, would make up a yet smaller subset.
The more useful term than assault weapon would be “Modern Sporting Rifle” (MSR). MSR’s might look a bit like assault rifles on the outside. However, they are by definition semi-automatic. MSRs are used legally for competition, recreation, and home defense from coast to coast. Despite the relentless bigotry shown against them, MSRs remain the most popular genre of rifles in America.
The Devil is in the Details…
Guys like me find the term assault weapon onerous because it is so soul-crushingly arbitrary. Two semi-automatic firearms might have exactly the same function and capability. However, if one looks scary and the other doesn’t they can be regulated completely differently.
During the decade following the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, benign-looking guns remained unregulated, while production of the scary-looking sort was a felony even if they both did exactly the same thing. The arbitrary dicta defining an “assault weapon” had no practical effect on a gun’s effectiveness, utility or contribution to rates of violent crime. With literally tens of millions of firearms already in circulation that meet the government’s arbitrary cosmetic criteria as assault weapons, attempting to regulate such stuff legislatively becomes tedious, ineffective, frustrating, and, frankly, silly.