In the wake of mass violence in the United States, especially attacks that involve rifles, some voices often call for bans on "assault rifles" or "assault weapons," while others push back. But what exactly would that include?
For advocates of such bans, "assault rifles" and "assault weapons'' are terms used broadly to describe automatic and semiautomatic rifles, especially those with added features such as detachable magazines, pistol grips and collapsible or folding stocks. Automatic rifles are those that repetitively shoot round after round when you pull and hold down the trigger; semi-automatic rifles fire only one bullet per trigger pull, so holding down the trigger does not fire the next round. Advocates for stricter gun control often argue that no law-abiding citizen has a need for either type of weapon.
For gun rights advocates, that argument unjustly demonizes semiautomatic guns routinely used for hunting and target shooting. They would likely apply the terms "assault rifles" and "assault weapons" only to fully automatic guns used by military and law enforcement.
Related: Translating How Left and Right Use "Gun Control" Differently
The different definitions have been a product of different laws and bans, as well as decades of marketing by the gun industry, partisan politics, and public confusion about the proper names of and characteristics for certain guns.
Where Did the Terms Come From?
Credit for inventing the term “assault rifle” is often given to the Germans during World War I and World War II. Germany pioneered the invention of fully automatic rifles during the first half of the 20th century, and referred to one of them as the “Sturmgewehr,” which translates to “storm rifle.” Since then, “assault rifle” has been commonly used to describe fully automatic rifles, which can also be known as machine guns.
The emergence of the term “assault weapon” is first seen in gun advertisements from the 1980’s, but its current popularity seems to have been born out of the gun control movement.
A 2013 New York Times (Lean Left bias) article says that in the 1980’s, gun manufacturers began using the term “assault” to describe weapons designed for civilian purchase but styled after military-issue weapons. According to the Washington Post (Lean Left bias), many attribute popularization of the term “assault weapon” to a 1988 paper written by gun control advocate Josh Sugarmann.
A 2015 article from National Review (Right bias) concurs that “marketing departments within the firearms industry” invented the term “assault weapon.” It also says Sugarmann and other advocates have misused the term to advance a political agenda.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton’s ban on “assault weapons” laid out very specific and complex criteria for defining an “assault weapon.”
When the now-defunct ban was passed, the U.S. Department of Justice defined "assault weapons" as "semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use."
The ban outlawed 18 specific firearms — including Colt’s AR-15 rifle — as well as some military-type features on guns. But loopholes allowed gun manufacturers to modify weapons slightly so that they didn't fall under the ban. The ban wasn’t renewed when it expired in 2004, but some states including New York and Massachusetts, preserved their own versions of the law and still include semiautomatic firearms as “assault weapons” in their state statutes.
Is the AR-15 a Military-Grade Weapon?
The AR-15 and rifles similar to it are among the most common types of rifles in the U.S. today. But are they “military-grade”?
The rifles have been used in many mass shootings, but are also owned by millions of law-abiding gun owners. The first AR-15, designed by Colt, was based on the U.S. military’s M16 rifle, but was a semiautomatic rifle designed for civilian use, unlike the “military grade” fully automatic rifles used by the military.
"AR" stands for "Armalite Rifle." A common misconception is that AR stands for "assault rifle" or "automatic rifle."
Gun control advocates would argue that the difference between an AR-15 and a “military-grade” gun is irrelevant because they are both capable of killing people in large numbers and can both fire similar types of ammunition. They would say civilians have no justifiable reason to own them.
Gun rights advocates would likely object to that comparison. They argue that the difference between a semiautomatic and fully automatic rifle is significant, and that there are good reasons to preserve the rights of law-abiding citizens to own some types of guns.
So, AR-15 style rifles are not "military-grade," but based on their appearance and caliber, one might argue that they are "military-style."
Semi-Automatic vs Fully Automatic, Assault Weapon vs Assault Rifle - What’s the Difference?
As stated earlier, an automatic rifle, also known as a machine gun, can fire more than one round when the shooter holds down the trigger. A semiautomatic weapon requires a shooter to pull the trigger again for each shot.
"Assault rifle" is often used to describe fully automatic rifles/machine guns, and is a more useful term than "assault weapon," which many agree has no clear definition.
Civilian use and ownership of machine guns has been restricted significantly since the National Firearms Act of 1934, and new domestic production of machine guns was effectively outlawed by the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986.
Possession and transfer of machine guns legally registered prior to May 1986 are still legal for civilians in states that allow it. Taking possession of such guns requires a $200 federal transfer tax, an application to register the weapon, passport photos, submission to an FBI background and fingerprint check, and having your chief law enforcement official sign your application.
Many high-profile mass shootings in recent memory involved semiautomatic guns rather than fully automatic ones. The 2022 shootings in Uvalde, Texas, Buffalo, N.Y. and Tulsa, Okla. all involved AR-15 style semiautomatic rifles.
One exception to this was the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, when 58 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The shooter reportedly modified several semiautomatic rifles to fire like fully automatic rifles, using “bump stocks,” which were legal at the time but have since been banned.
The Bump Stock Debate
“Bump stocks” are modifications to semiautomatic rifles that simulate automatic fire. The modified rifle stock harnesses energy from the weapon’s recoil, enabling the gun’s firing mechanism to move faster than originally designed.
After the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 and the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the Trump administration moved to ban bump stocks at the federal level. The ban remains in place, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told owners of “bump-stock-type devices” to get rid of them by March 26, 2019, saying that they fell under the definition of “machine gun” as established by the laws described in the previous section.
2017 data from a joint NPR/Ipsos poll suggests that 82% of Americans support banning bump stocks. The National Rifle Association has also shown support for bump stock regulation, though not an outright ban.
Finding Common Ground on Guns
Despite the confusion and disagreements over “assault rifles” and “assault weapons,” there are many areas where Americans agree on guns.
For example, 2021 data from Pew Research Center (Center bias) found that 85% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats support preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns. And a 2019 poll from PBS/NPR/Marist College found that over 70% of Americans support creating "red flag" laws allowing authorities to confiscate guns from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. Those types of laws are among the potential new gun safety initiatives being discussed by a bipartisan group of senators.
Related: Here's Where Republicans and Democrats Agree on Guns
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Henry A. Brechter is the Managing Editor of AllSides. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by News Editor Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias), Director of Research Andrew Weinzierl (Lean Left), News Assistant Ethan Horowitz (Lean Right bias), and Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings Julie Mastrine (Lean Right bias).