Monday, July 23, 2012

Firearms Terminology 101: Assault Rifles vs. Assault Weapons

In the wake of the Aurora, CO shooting I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about how we ought to have tighter controls on people buying assault rifles. It’s kind of an odd thing to say in the context of the Aurora incident because the shooter didn’t have an assault rifle. This confusion is due to a bit of obfuscation on the part of the gun control lobby.

“Assault rifle” is a well-defined military term. It is a rifle intended to be used by an individual with provisions to be fired from the shoulder, capable of full automatic fire, using a cartridge more powerful than a handgun round but less powerful than a standard rifle, uses a detachable box magazine, and has a minimum effective range of 1000 feet. The requirement for full automatic fire capability is an important one because it means assault rifles are regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1968.

“Assault weapon” is a term coined by the gun control lobby. It’s not particularly well defined and is generally applied to any weapon they want to demonize with the intent of confusing people and making them think they’re talking about an assault rifle. The closest “assault weapon” has ever come to being defined is probably the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 aka the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. That defined assault weapons as semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns that had two or more cosmetic features from a list provided in the bill.

Note the difference. Assault rifles are defined by how they operate. Assault weapons by how they look. Notice also that the one criterion for how an assault weapon functions, that it be semi-automatic, disqualifies it as an assault rifle. Semi-automatic guns fire only one round per pull of the trigger. Assault rifles are capable of full automatic fire, allowing them to fire multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger.

The Aurora shooter used an AR-15 rifle. The first AR-15 was built by a company called ArmaLite as an assault rifle to be used by the US military. Colt bought the design from ArmaLite and it was rebranded as the M16. Colt then created their own AR-15, a semi-automatic version of the M16 intended for civilian use. As a semi-automatic rifle, i.e. one that only fires one round per pull of the trigger, the AR-15 is not an assault rifle. It can be modified for full automatic fire but doing so involves using parts regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1968.

The National Firearms Act of 1968 controls the transfer and ownership of machine guns. Assault rifles are classified as machine guns because of their full automatic fire capability. Under the NFA of 1968 you need the permission of both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of your area to transfer (sell) an assault rifle. It should come as no surprise that they are very reluctant to grant such permission. An extensive background check will be performed on the buyer and even if it comes up clean permission may still be denied. Legally owned assault rifles aren’t much of a problem when it comes to civilian gun violence. More regulation seems unlikely to impact illegally obtained assault rifles because, well, they’re illegally obtained.

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