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Assault Weapons?

By: Joshua Sullivan, Feb. 14, 2013
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First, please understand that the phrase “assault weapon” bares a resemblance to “assault rifle” but is not a synonym.  The two are not interchangeable.  In layman's terms, an assault rifle is a machine gun and an assault weapon is a semi-automatic rifle.  Read on for the actual definitions.


The phrase “assault weapon” did not exist until about 1994.  In the “Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act” commonly referred to as the “Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994”, the term was given a legal definition.

Assault Weapon (noun) -
  • A semi-automatic rifle that
    1. Accepts a removable magazine and
    2. Possesses two or more of the following features:
      • A folding or adjustable stock - allows the rifle to be stored in a smaller area or to be used by people with different arm lengths.
      • A pistol grip - protrudes at an angle to the stock instead of being the stock.
      • A Bayonet mount - allows a bayonet to be attached to the barrel, facing forward
      • A flash suppressor (not to be confused with a sound suppressor) - directs the gasses away from the user and increases the amount of sound directed at the target.
      • A grenade launcher - provides the ability to fire grenades.  The grenades themselves are already banned.
  • A semi-automatic pistol that
    1. Accepts a removable magazine and
    2. Possesses two or more of the following features:
      • A magazine that attaches to the rifle somewhere outside of the pistol grip
      • A threaded barrel - allows the attachment of a silencer, flash suppressor, or weight.  Silencers are highly regulated but legal in most states.
      • A barrel shroud - a sheet of metal, wood, or plastic that covers the top of the barrel.
      • An unloaded weight of at least 3 pounds, 2 ounces
      • Is a semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm (ie: a look-alike)
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has two or more of the following features:
      • A folding or adjustable stock
      • A pistol grip
      • A fixed magazine that can hold more than 5 rounds
      • A detachable magazine


Notice that none of these features change the functionality of the firearm itself.  They are considered “cosmetic” features because they change the appearance - but do not enhance the lethality - of the firearm.  Therefore an assault weapon is a normal firearm that “looks scary”.  This distinction is more obvious when compared to an actual assault rifle.  The following is the classical definition of an assault rifle.


Assault Rifle (noun) - A select-fire rifle capable of accepting a detachable magazine and utilizing an intermediate cartridge.



For people who are not firearm enthusiasts, this may sound like Greek.  The term “Select-Fire” basically means that the gun can fire in semi-automatic mode and at least one of the following automatic modes:

  • Burst Mode: While the trigger is depressed, the gun will fire up to a set number of rounds.  Typical numbers are 3 or 5 rounds.  If this many shots are fired, even if the trigger is still depressed, the firearm will not continue to fire.  
  • Fully Automatic: While the trigger is depressed, the gun will continue to fire until one of the following occurs: (1) the trigger is released, or (2) the magazine is empty.

The Detachable Magazine is a spring-loaded box that holds cartridges for the firearm to access.  It can be removed from the firearm and replaced by another (a process commonly called a “reload”).  This allows a single firearm to be used in place of multiple firearms.

An Intermediate Cartridge is a type of ammunition that is light but fast.  It is less powerful than common hunting rounds and produces less lethality by design.  Intermediate cartridges became the standard for military use because the goal of a soldier is not to kill his enemy - only to stop him.  A wounded enemy must be tended to by medics and other potential combatants.  According to a post-World War Two study by the U.S. Army, this means that wounding an enemy eliminates about 4 threats while killing an enemy only eliminates one.  Also a light, fast bullet will not hyper-penetrate once it impacts.  This reduces collateral damage.  

In the civilian realm, hunters often use comparable ammunition for hunting fox, coyote, marmots (aka: groundhogs), or other small game.  The round is acceptable for such small animals due to the fact that they are thin-skinned, have tightly packed internal organs, and require less energy to kill.  These cartridges are preferred because they are less likely to exit their target with sufficient energy to cause damage to whatever is behind the animal.  They are safer than using larger, more powerful ammunition.  In the role of self-defene, they are preferred because they provide more stopping energy than a pistol and are easier to control.  They also provide the added safety benefit of quickly losing energy after striking something.

In general, if a medium powered firearm with a removable magazine can fire in fully automatic or burst mode, it is considered an assault rifle.  This kind of rifle is standard issue for military infantry.  

Assault rifles are already banned for civilians.


That’s right - in 1986, manufacture of automatic firearms was banned for civilian purchase and all those in circulation were classified as National Firearms Act (NFA) weapons.  People who owned such a firearm could continue to possess it as long as it was registered with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF).  This registration cost $200.00 per firearm and placed the owner’s name on a list kept by the ATF.  In addition, the firearm could not be transported across state lines without written permission from the ATF.  The firearm could not be sold to anyone (even family members) without written permission and a background check from the ATF.  If the owner wanted to sell the firearm, he had to pay an additional $200.00 to have the ATF do the background check and register the new owner to the firearm.  The background checks for such transfers currently take from 6 months to over a year.  Because the law banned manufacture of these rifles, there are no legal new ones entering the market.  This has made the value of such rifles skyrocket to over twenty times the cost of production (the military M4 is currently produced for about $900.00 but a civilian-legal version can run well over $20,000.00).  The civilian version also would be a used model that is almost 30 years old.  Most people who own this kind of firearm do so for financial purposes.  These firearms are typically treated as investments.

An AR-15 is not a “weapon of war” - it is a normal rifle that only looks like a military rifle while performing entirely differently.  The name “AR-15” can be confusing as it does NOT stand for “Assault Rifle”.  The initialism comes from the abbreviation of “Armalite Rifle Model 15”.  Armalite was the name of the company that designed the AR-15.  In order to win a military contract, Armalite redesigned the internal functionality of the AR-15 into the modern M4 assault rifle.  This allowed accessories such as stocks, lights, scopes, and grips to be used with both the civilian and military versions of firearms.  The modular design of the rifle systems is one of the largest attractions to users.  People like to personalize their rifles for fun - not lethality.

Common misconceptions:

  • Question: Can you convert an AR-15 into a fully automatic M4?
  • Answer: You cannot easily convert a semi-automatic AR-15 into a fully automatic M4.
    • It is almost impossible to convert a semi-automatic AR-15 into an automatic.  The rifles are intentionally designed to have completely incompatible internal components.  This also holds true for almost all semi-automatic firearms as the internal designs are so different from one another.
    • The only way to make such a conversion would be to redesign and modify the entire receiver of the firearm and re-fabricate the required components.  This kind of work would require extensive knowledge regarding the mechanics of firearms, access to a well-equipped machine shop, and a large amount of time, money, and effort.  
    • In addition, if caught, there are severe penalties.  Possessing an illegal machine gun is a federal felony with a sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.  All of the suspect’s firearms would be confiscated.  After being released, the felon would no longer be permitted to own any firearms.
  • Question: Are “assault weapons” used for self defense?
  • Answer: AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles are excellent home defense firearms.
    • The ability to accurately hit an intruder is vital to self-defense.  Rifles are much easier to wield than pistols.  Rifles provide more energy on target while retaining more muzzle control than pistols.
    • Semi-automatic action allows the defender to focus attention on the threat rather than his/her weapon.  Access to magazines with sufficient ammo supply allow a single defender to stand a chance against multiple (possibly armed) attackers.
    • Intermediate cartridges are less likely to cause collateral damage than heavier, large-caliber bullets while still providing the stopping power needed to end a threat.
  • Question: Are there other legal uses for “assault weapons”?
  • Answer: Hunters actually use AR-15s and other Modern Sporting Rifles extremely frequently (“modern sporting rifle” is a more accurate term than “assault weapon”).
    • The design of such rifles lends them well to hunting small or thin skinned game that travel in groups.  The modular nature of these rifles allows them to be quickly adapted for short range and long range targets.  They also are usable in all weather conditions with little impact on performance.
    • The use of intermediate cartridges prevents damage to the surrounding environment.  Both physical damage and ecological damage are minimized.