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What are "Assault Weapons?"

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For more than 60 years, the answer to that question has depended on whom and when you asked. Between 1943 and 1984, newspapers used the slang term "assault weapon" to describe baseball bats in the hands of major league ballplayers, bows and arrows, cobblestones used to pave roads in a quaint style, and snow plows, as well as airplanes, tanks, amphibious warfare hedgerow-thrashers, missiles, anti-aircraft guns, plastic explosives and, at least once, a fully-automatic machine gun-a type of firearm that is legally and mechanically distinct from the semi-automatic and pump-action firearms that gun control supporters call "assault weapons."

Semi-automatic firearms were introduced in the late 1800s, but gun control supporters didn't begin calling them "assault weapons" until the 1980s, when they realized that they had failed in their original goal-getting handguns banned-and needed a new issue. That assessment is not based upon a mere hunch. In 1988, an anti-handgun group led by the former communications director for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns encouraged gun control supporters to recognize that efforts to get handguns banned had failed and to shift their energies to semi-automatic "assault weapons," describing it as a "new topic" that could "strengthen the handgun restriction lobby."

Intimating to gun control supporters that they could convince people into going along with an "assault weapon" ban by blurring the legal and mechanical differences between fully-automatic and semi-automatic firearms, the group said "the public's confusion over fully-automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons-anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun-can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on [semi-automatic] weapons."

Gun control supporters, including those in the TV and print news media, have contributed to the "public's confusion" by describing semi-automatic firearms as if they were rapid-firing fully-automatic machine guns used by the military. Gun control groups' "assault weapon" propaganda is laced with photographs of fully-automatic machine guns. And network and local TV "news" programs go so far as to show video footage of fully-automatic machine guns being fired while their reporters talk about legislation related to semi-automatic firearms, misleading people into thinking that fully-automatic machine guns are the types of firearms covered by semi-automatic "assault weapon" legislation.

For the benefit of people who aren't familiar with firearm terminology, a fully-automatic firearm can fire repeatedly and very fast when the trigger is pulled; an example is the military's M16 rifle, which can fire 30 rounds of ammunition in about 2.5 seconds. Fully-automatic firearms are defined as "machine guns" under federal law, and are heavily regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and longstanding state laws. Hollywood movie studios are allowed to use fully-automatic firearms for movie-making purposes, so most people are familiar with them from their use by fictional action heroes, pretending to mow down extraterrestrial aliens and other sensational adversaries with exaggerated amounts of make-believe gunfire. However, other than for gun control supporters' propaganda purposes, fully-automatic firearms have nothing to do with semi-automatic "assault weapon" legislation or laws, all of which have come about since the early 1980s.

Semi-automatics and all other firearms, such as bolt-actions, pump-actions, lever-actions, revolvers, double-barreled shotguns, and single-shot firearms, fire only once when the trigger is pulled. They've been commonly used for self-defense, hunting and target shooting for more than a century. Though gun control supporters initially demanded that only semi-automatic firearms be banned as "assault weapons," today they want pump-actions banned as "assault weapons" too, apparently on the theory that people who don't know one century-old firearm type from another will go along with banning it, so long as it's called an "assault weapon."

We encourage you to continue reading. This section of our website traces the history of the "assault weapon" issue. It explains what "assault weapons" are (and are not), summarizes reports showing the relatively infrequent use of "assault weapons" in crime and the irrelevance of "assault weapon" bans to crime trends, discusses how such bans are incompatible with the fundamental right of the people to keep and bear arms for self-defense and other constitutionally-protected purposes, and sheds light on the character and motives of "assault weapon" bans' most aggressive supporters.


1. The surprisingly varied history of the term "assault weapon." From 1943 to 1984, newspapers used the slang term "assault weapon" to describe everything from baseball bats to battle tanks, and snow plows to rocket launchers. Gun control supporters began calling semi-automatic rifles "assault weapons" in the 1980s, decades after many of the rifles had become popular.

2. Why the campaign against "assault weapons?" Gun control activist groups began campaigning against semi-automatic rifles, calling them "assault weapons," because they had failed in their original goal-to get handguns banned-and believed they needed a "new topic" to "strengthen the handgun restriction lobby."

3. Christians, Jews, organic food advocates and other "right-wingers" . . . with machine guns? Semi-automatic "assault weapons" are commonly owned, but gun control supporters have always tried to associate them with real and imagined narrowly defined suspect groups, and they've mischaracterized how the firearms operate. In the 1980s, they portrayed the guns as fully-automatic machine guns, and as being popular with "right-wingers." The "right-winger" claim fell flat, but the machine gun deception persisted, largely due to repetition by some in the "news" media.

4. Different guns, same old tune . . . and worse. From "killing machines" to "weapons of choice," from "the battlefield" to "the streets," and from "designed to kill" to designed to kill thousands of people all at once, gun control supporters vilify "assault weapons" with the same phraseology that they previously used against handguns-and with statements that are even more hyperbolic-hoping people will go along with banning any gun characterized in exaggerated terms.

5. Taking advantage of "the public's confusion" about semi-automatics So-called "assault weapons" aren't fully-automatic machine guns or "military," or "rapid-fire" "weapons of war" "designed for "combat" or "the battlefield," or "designed to be spray-fired from the hip." But gun control supporters and some in the media refer to the guns in that manner. TV news programs even go so far as to show fully-automatic machine guns being fired during stories about semi-automatic "assault weapons."

6. "Traced to crime?" Says who? After their attempt to associate "assault weapons" with "right-wingers" failed, gun control supporters began claiming that the firearms were commonly "traced to crime" by the BATFE. However, traces don't trace guns "to crime," and as the BATFE and the Congressional Research Service have made clear, traces don't (and aren't intended to) indicate how often any type of firearm is used in crime.

7. This firearm is "known to the State of California" (and New Jersey) . . . . In 1989, California banned "assault weapons," though state government statistics showed that the guns were rarely used in crime. In 1990, with the unanimous support of New Jersey's squirrel population, that state banned the Marlin Model 60, a ubiquitous small game and recreational plinking rifle that one anti-gun politician called a "people killing machine." In part because the banned firearms were so rarely used in crime in the first place, California's murder rate increased significantly after its ban, while New Jersey's increased slightly after its ban.

8. The BATF reverses itself on importation of semi-automatic rifles. After years of approving the importation of 43 models of semi-automatic rifles, the BATF banned the rifles' importation in 1989. It did the same thing with so-called "assault pistols" in 1993 and several shotguns in 1994. Because the BATF's 1989 ban was more restrictive than the federal "assault weapon" ban of 1994, the 1994 ban had no effect on imported rifles, such as AK-47s and Uzis-the two foreign-made rifles most often singled out for derision by gun control supporters.

9. President Clinton's Pyrrhic victory: The "assault weapon" ban becomes law, but Democrats lose control of Congress. Desperate for a victory in his chronically troubled presidency, Clinton campaigned aggressively for the "assault weapon" ban, and convinced scores of Democrats who voted against the ban in 1991 to vote for it in 1994. Republicans won back both houses of Congress that November, and Clinton said it was because of the NRA.

10. Coincidence? Most guns affected by the "assault weapon" ban weren't "assault weapons." Instead, most were the type of gun that gun control groups have always most wanted to be banned.

11. Not the "weapons of choice of criminals" after all. The congressionally-mandated study of the federal "assault weapon" and "large" magazine ban concluded that "the banned weapons and magazines were never used in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders."

12. The Clinton White House: "We're taking the law and bending it as far as we can." In 1998, President Clinton ordered the BATF to expand its 1989 importation ban to prohibit the importation of rifles capable of using magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The White House said "we're taking the law and bending it as far as we can to capture a whole new class of guns."

13. More "assault weapons" and "large" magazines, less crime. Violent crime began decreasing before the federal "assault weapon" and "large" magazine ban was imposed and, contrary to gun control groups' predictions, violent crime has continued to decrease since the ban expired. As the numbers of "assault weapons" and "large" ammunition magazines have risen to all-time highs, the nation's total violent crime rate and murder rate have fallen to 36-year and 45-year lows, respectively.

14. Which anti-gun group is right about the federal "assault weapon" ban? Brady Campaign says the ban was "effective"; the Violence Policy Center says it was a "charade."

15. Terrorists, Mexican Drug Cartels and "Right-winger" Reprise. With the number of "assault weapons" at an all-time high and the nation's total violent crime rate at a 36-year low, gun control supporters now characterize "assault weapons" not as the firearms of common criminals, but rather as those of terrorists, drug traffickers and-as they did in the 1980s-"right-wingers."

16. "We got our nose under the tent." First, gun control supporters said that "assault weapons" were detachable-magazine semi-automatics equipped with multiple attachments. Now they say that the term should also apply to fixed-magazine semi-automatic rifles, firearms that have none of the attachments, all semi-automatic shotguns, and even pump-action firearms. Their lists of "assault weapons" keep getting longer, but to whose surprise? A co-author of California's first "assault weapon" ban said it "got our nose under the tent."