How Do We Define An Assault Weapon? However You Want To Define It.

Now that the gun violence prevention (GVP) community appears to have come together to push for a ban on assault rifles, and Herr Donald Schumck-o has decided that anyone over the age of 18 should be able to walk into a gun shop and purchase said product, maybe it’s time to figure out how and when the term ‘assault rifle’ should be used.

AR              According to Gun-nut Nation, there’s no such thing as an ‘assault rifle,’ at least not anything that can get into the hands of any law-abiding gun owner, unless he’s willing to plunk down $200 for a Treasury-NFA tax stamp and wait a few months for the purchase to be approved. This is because gun purists have decided that the term ‘assault rifle’ can only be applied to fully-automatic weapons, since the term first applied to a German sub-machine gun, the ‘Sturmgewehr,’ that was issued to German troops near the end of World War II.

Now the fact that this particular design first appeared in a gun issued to Russian troops during the Battle of Stalingrad makes little difference to those gun-history experts who pliantly craft their narratives to fit the marketing needs of the NSSF and the NRA. But why let facts get in the way of whatever nonsense you want to peddle, particularly when you can tie your spiel to something that will protect their 2nd-Amdnement ‘rights?’

The first time the term ‘assault weapon’ appeared in legislation was the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, the assault-weapon ban that became law in California, passed following the gunning down of five immigrant school-children in 1989. And here’s the critical wording of the actual law which needs to be understood today: “a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.”

Now the good news about this bill was that it made an explicit distinction between weapons designed to be used against human beings, as opposed to weapons designed for hunting and sport. The bad news is that the law didn’t explicitly define such terms as ‘high rate of fire,’ and ‘capacity for firepower,’ which opened the Pandora’s box of how to define an ‘assault weapon’ that remains open to the present day. Instead of defining these terms and then banning any weapon which met these definitions, the law listed over 50 specific banned guns, and added some silly language about various cosmetic doo-dads (collapsible stock, flash hider, etc.) which don’t really change a gun’s lethality in any particular way.

When the Feds put together their AWB in 1994, they borrowed the list of California-banned guns, included the various design features but dropped any reference to lethality; i.e., no mention of ‘high rate of fire’ or ‘capacity’ at all. This opened the door for Gun-nut Nation to claim that since no semi-automatic rifle can shoot faster than the speed at which the shooter pulls the trigger, there is no real difference between an AR-15 and any other kind of semi-automatic gun. In fact, the 1994 AWB, a creation of Chuck Schumer by the way, said absolutely nothing about why the law was needed beyond this statement in the Introduction to the bill: “To make unlawful the transfer or possession of assault weapons.”  Period. That’s all she (or he) wrote.

I don’t want to predict whether an AWB has any chance of becoming law. But the GVP still needs to come up with a comprehensive and accepted definition of an ‘assault weapon,’ a definition not based on what the gun looks like, but what it’s designed to do; namely, to kill and injure as many human beings as quickly as you can. And anyone who denies that this is how and why assault weapons are used will also believe that Mexico is going to pay for the wall.


25 thoughts on “How Do We Define An Assault Weapon? However You Want To Define It.

  1. Well, there was the WW I vintage Fedorov Avtomat.

    And this:

    “…Part of the memorandum received from the Army’s Trifiletti stated: “SUBJECT: Freedom of Information Jay H. Greenblatt & Associates “Assault Rifle”.

    1. This office researched the definition of the term “assault rifle” by identifying and locating official Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Army (DA) publications on ordinance technical terminology, DOD/DA technical small arms publications or definitions of military terms.

    2. The definition of an “assault rifle” is “Assault rifles are short, compact, select-fire (i.e. both semiautomatic and full-automatic) weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges…”

    “Assault Weapon” is a term (as is “modern sporting rifle”) that gets around the selective fire issue which in the present context, seems like a distinction without a difference. I think one possibility is define an AW on the basis of being an autoloading centerfire rifle (to exclude 22 LR, etc) with a large (TBD) ammunition (magazine) capacity. Some have aimed their wrath at the 5.56×45 but I would hate to see a company bypass a rule by rechambering an AR-15 in 222 Remington.

    I think the horses have long left the barn on these rifles. Not sure how I would handle it if I were of infinite power. Maybe require a license and minimum age of 21, analogous to a pistol permit in some states. What that would do is not make them as easy to buy as they are presently. Adam Winkler dismisses AW bans.

  2. I applaud you on wanting the GVP to come up with a comprehensive and accepted definition of an ‘assault weapon.’ While they’re doing that it would be nice for them to also come up with a definition of an ‘assault rifle.’
    I remember, not to long ago, I asked for a definition from one of “mikethegunguy” Contributing Editors and he responded with around 300 to 400 words when he could have just said, in four simple words…I don’t have one.
    P.S. The NFA tax stamp is $200 not $250

    • Actually Alan is right and I’ll correct the $250 cost. There’s a bill floating around Congress which would raise the NFA stamp to $500, by the way.

  3. Instead of worrying about features like “collapsible stocks” or “flash hiders”, why not just limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds and be done with it?

    • >10 rounds and a certain muzzle energy. Recently, Democrats in Ohio wrote a bill that would classify 1960’s era 22 LR semiauto rifles such as the Remington Nylon or Marlin 60 as “Assault Weapons” (Ohio State Senate Bill 260). That was just inept. Seems sometimes that there are very few Dems left who know something about firearms.

    • Good analysis although having an “armed” person present isn’t a cure unless that person is thoroughly trained. With the proliferation of CCW permits (Ohio only requires 8 hours of training), I’m concerned that most people who get these permits aren’t trained nearly as well as they would need to be to handle the “active shooter”.

      • What type of training is needed for one to handle the “active shooter?” There were four police officers, one having over 33 years of training, in Parkland, Florida who couldn’t handle the “active shooter.”

      • You’ve probably heard of the ALICE program to defend against active shooters. I’m actually the instructor for my workplace. The company that teaches ALICE also teaches a program called RAIDER for police officers (road patrol, not SWAT) to enter a school by themselves to stop a shooter. I’ve never been through the training but it looks very intense from what I have seen. It requires moving fast and aggressive towards a shooter. This is the level of training that teachers would have to undergo to effectively neutralize a shooter. Quite a commitment.

      • Why does the teacher need to go after the shooter? Let the shooter come to the teacher. Had assistant coach Aaron Feis, who is reported to have had a CCW, been armed he would not have had to go after the shooter and would have had a fighting chance. I believe many get the vision of teachers turning into Rambo. That wouldn’t have been the case with Coach Feis.
        There is case law, Warren v. District of Columbia, that says police do not owe a specific duty to provide police services to citizens based on the public duty doctrine. So, for me, I would rather a qualified teachers (who volunteers) be armed than wait for the police who may be 4 to 5 minutes away. I don’t want to gamble and have someone like Scot Peterson or the three other deputies who hid behind their cars to arrive. You may also be so unlucky to have someone like a Captain who will give orders to set up a perimeter.

  4. The comment above (“Why does the teacher need to go after the shooter? Let the shooter come to the teacher.”). Is important and I have seldom heard anyone mention it.

    Compare a classroom to your home. Think of the sound of breaking glass or any other sounds the gun magazines talk about and you need to defend your family after getting them into a safe room and call the police and wait for those evil people to break down the door. What skills are needed here?

    Now think of a teacher in a classroom. There are noises and pandemonium in the hallway or an announcement about a lock down. If one of those active shooters starts trying to break into the classroom I think it is similar to someone breaking into your home. The rules of engagement for the teacher could legally limit the teacher to only defending the classroom from the inside and the kids could be told to lay down on the floor and the target would be the shooter if he tried to enter the room and succeeded. The danger to the kids if the teacher succeeds could be small unless the shooter took out the teacher.

    There would be need to be a means to stage the weapons or keeping them on the teacher’s body and large legal penalties for students who try to get a hold of them as some kids may try for sport.

    The worst part of this scenario to me is in the situation of a active shooter the students ask the teacher if she is going to protect them but the teacher can only say she is against guns.

    • If the teacher (or other armed person) can resist the urge to “go hunting” for the shooter and just set up a defensive position to protect the students under his/her charge, then fine. There is still a need for very intense training. This would have to include scenarios using red man suits, training guns and live fire exercises maybe in conjunction with the local PD.

  5. Mike’s blog about the lack of a universal definition of an “assault rifle” is right on. After the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia, committed with an AR-15 and a similar semi-automatic rifle of Belgian design (L1A1), the Australian government took just 12 days to decide to ban civilian ownership of all semi-automatic rifles, thereby avoiding debate over what constituted and “assault rifle.” They also banned self-loading and pump action shotguns. Australia already had stringent restrictions on civilian handgun ownership. Approximately 1 million of the newly banned firearms were bought back and melted down. Since the 1996 ban was enacted, there have been no further mass shootings (using the definition of a single incident in which at least 5 people are killed) in Australia, and the rate of gun homicide in Australia has dropped from on fifteenth the US rate to one twenty-seventh the US rate.

    In order to substantially reduce rates of gun violence in the USA, we should drop the term, “assault rifle,” and enact gun control laws comparable to the ones in Australia, including a ban on all semi-automatic rifles, with no grandfather clause. In order to stringently regulate civilian ownership of handguns, the Heller decision must first be overturned.

    • Australia hasn’t banned semi-automatic rifles, nor has the UK – despite persistent claims to the contrary. Australia put semi-automatic rifles into license categories C and D, so you need a reason (like farming) to own one. In the UK, the only semi-automatic rifles available to the public are those chambered in 22lr, or a variant which is centre-fire but straight pull.

      So, yes, AR-15s are legal in the UK. The 22lr restriction is reasonable, given the price of bullets.

      Semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns are also legal in both countries.

      The secret sauce in both the UK and Australia is licensing – taking rather longer than three seconds to figure out who is asking for a gun, but then only asking once every five years (in the UK).

    • Bill,
      If you looked at the trend lines for gun mischief over the last 30 years for Aus and the state of Texas… same population… you could not tell them apart. Now, one place spent half a billion dollars trying to remove types of weapons that another place added several millions of the same weapons and you could not tell them apart on the basis of results. Yes, there was a mass shooting here recently. But there the last comparable on was 30 years ago. If Oz had one tommorrow, their whole exertion and expenditure would be rendered completely pointless. No one thinks even half of the banned weapons were turned in.

    • I don’t see anyone in congress or any state legislature trying something like what has been done in the UK or Australia. The idea of confiscating someone’s personal property would cause such an angry backlash plus I believe law enforcement would come out against it. What has seemed to work are laws such as Canada’s where tiered licenses are granted depending on the type of weapon (I think handguns and ARs are similarly classified). The background and suitability of the candidate to own a gun is examined.

      Good luck in getting the “Heller decision” overturned too. Even though the NRA is extreme, “confiscation talk” only increases their membership.

      • ” The idea of confiscating someone’s personal property would cause such an angry backlash plus I believe law enforcement would come out against it. ”

        In the USA, this is called Eminent Domain.

        In the UK, very few guns were confiscated. Unlike in Australia, the compensation provided often was not sufficient.

    • Mr. Durston- You are a decorated Marine who was decorated for ‘Courage under fire’. I presume you swore an oath not to your president, but to uphold and defend the Constitution. Yet, you want to overturn a section of the Bill Of Rights you find distasteful. Please justify to me how you can have such a change of heart.
      Further, what, exactly were you decorated for? ‘Courage under fire’ is a rather broad category. Please provide specifics as there are many in the spotlight who tend to overblow their accomplishments.
      One more thing: has you being quite the political activist over the last decade. You have spent $234,000 dollars in the political arena. Nice to see someone such as yourself who lives in a gated community(with your own private security force) get off by telling the very people you keep out of your community that we shouldn’t have guns.

      • As a veteran I can tell you there are two definitions for “Courage Under Fire”:
        One—Bravery while being shot at,
        Second—While being strongly criticized
        I believe I have a good idea which one Mr. Durston received.
        Veterans will understand.

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