(rev 4/10/09)


People clamour for restricting or banning "assault weapons" and say that such weapons have "awesome power" or "awesome firepower," "spew" bullets, are "high power, military-style, rapid-fire, high-capacity," etc.

Every one of these claims is false, and those who make them either don't know any better and simply repeat what others say, or they are purposely trying to mislead the public in the belief that lying is justified since they know best what is best for the rest of us.

There really is no such thing as an "assault weapon" unless one choses to call any weapon used to assault someone an "assault weapon," or unless one uses the term to refer to an assault rifle, which is defined by a federal agency with the background to know something about firearms.  "Assault weapon" is a term that was originally applied by gun makers and sellers to semiautomatic firearms that looked like assault rifles.  The gun control advocates picked it up and started using it to refer to anything ugly or strange looking.  But many people now use the term without even realizing that they don't know what it means.

In some states and even lower level jurisdictions, there are now definitions of the term "assault weapon" as a result of the fact that these jurisdictions have made laws that define the term.  They had to define somehow what it was they were intending to restrict since they were not adhering to an established definition.  These definitions are anything but uniform.  One might say, for example, that the California law defines the "California assault weapon" (like a "California stop") rather than "assault weapon."  So, legally (illogically), we have a "California assault weapon" and a "Denver assault weapon," etc.

The federal government law about the things gun control advocates call "assault weapons" is not actually about "assault weapons."  In the 1994 federal law people refer to when talking about "assault weapons," "semiautomatic assault weapons" are defined, not "assault weapons," and there is never any reference just to "assault weapon."  This is because, in drafting the federal law, it came to some legislator's (or staffer's) attention that the guns they were talking about were not true assault weapons since they were semiautomatic firearms and true assault weapons were already restricted under the law regarding machineguns.  So, they defined a new thing that applied only in the specific federal law.

Because the gun control advocates aren't hampered by a precise definition of "assault weapon," they are free to call any semiautomatic firearm they like an "assault weapon," something they and the media take full advantage of.

What does the public think "assault weapons" are?  First, they generally think they are high-power military weapons that spray a stream of bullets as the weapon is swept in an arc like one might do with a garden hose sprayer.  They think this because the media constantly says so.  The media refers to the weapons "spewing a deadly rain of bullets," and TV has often shown a fully automatic firearm being used while a commentator is referring to "assault weapons."  And, of course, the guns typically used in movies and TV intertainment are fully automatic and the public assumes that they are the same "assault weapons" that gun control advocates in and out of the media are talking about.

And the public thinks that "assault weapons" look certain ways.  They think they know what an "assault weapon" is when they see it.  To them the automatic guns they see in the movies and the guns they are shown when someone says "assault weapons" look the same.  They don't realize that no expert can recognize a true assault weapon just from appearances at a distance, that any external feature that implies that a gun is an assault weapon is only about the size of the trigger of the gun, and that the basic thing that makes a gun an assault weapon is its operation (and the internal features that result in that unique operation).

People tend to think that a firearm is an assault weapon if it does not have the traditional appearance of a rifle, shotgun or revolver.  If it has no wood on it or is predominantly black.  If it looks ugly (or "evil").  If it has a carrying handle on the top of it.  If the front sight is a couple of inches above the end of the barrel.  If the barrel is not right at the top of the gun.  If it has a banana shaped clip sticking out of it.  If it has a pistol grip.  If it has a second handgrip out in front.  If it looks like a black box with a pistol grip.

None of these has anything to do with deadliness of a firearm, or is a necessary characteristic of a true assault weapon.

Some of the laws about so-called "assault weapons" define the subjects of the laws in terms of certain characteristics.  For example, the federal law includes "any semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of..." and then lists five features or sets of features:

Except for the pistol grip, these requirements are mostly a laughable, annoying nuisance to gun owners although the collapsible stock and the flash suppressor are of some legitimate value for some gun users.  By this definition a lowly .22LR rimfire rifle could be an evil "semiautomatic assault weapon" if it had a pistol grip and a collapsable stock (good for backpacking into wilderness and hunting small game for food there) even though it is suitable only for target shooting and hunting of game the size of squirrels and cottontail rabbits (not even powerful enough for jackrabbits).

A flash suppressor is useful to prevent a person using the gun for defense at night from having "night vision" impaired as a result of taking a shot.  This is useful for the safety of both the shooter and for innocent bystanders.

The requirements did force gun makers to change their manufacturing to eliminate some features, resulting in the makers having to do some things differently for their commercial sales than for the military sales.  This increases the costs of both versions a little, which is likely what the gun control advocates were actually trying to do.

For example, the manufacturer now has to make one part with a bayonet mounting lug and another almost identical part without it.  Gun owners typically didn't want the mounting lug.  It just came on the gun they wanted.  But, then, why restrict it?  When in the U.S. has anyone ever been attacked with a bayonet on a gun?  Government officials, politicians and gun control advocates have been asked this question and have never been able to cite a single incident.

The features are considered "cosmetic" (irrelevant).  When gun manufacturers changed their designs for commercial firearms to eliminate these features so their new guns would comply with the law, the gun banning advocates in and out of the government cried "foul" and criticized the manufacturers for making "cosmetic" changes and "using loopholes" to get around the law.

Of course, they never mention that the cosmetic features are the very same ones they had used to needlessly make some firearms illegal to start with.  The features were "so dangerous" when the gun banners wanted to use them to restrict guns, but they became "cosmetic" when the banners wanted to vilify the firearms industry (part, along with the NRA, of what they call "the gun lobby" so they can accuse legislators who know something about firearms of being "owned" by the "gun lobby").

And, the gun banners never mention that some of the manufacturers at the same time voluntarily made some design changes to make it even harder for a person to convert the gun to fully automatic.

Clinton objected that the manufacturers had not changed the basic internal mechanism, even though some of them had, not mentioning that there are only a handful of basic mechanisms used in all semiautomatic firearms and that they are the same ones that are used in all those semiautomatic firearms the ban advocates had not banned when they banned a few selected ones.


What about the characterization of the so-called (semiautomatic) "assault weapons" as being "military"?  Mistake or lie.  Not a one of them is used by any military.  Military forces use real assault weapons—fully automatic firearms or firearms with such capability being a selectable option.  Military forces need the capability of being able to shoot into large numbers of enemy forces rather than trying to shoot this one and that one.


Gun control advocates and the unwitting (or advocating) media typically refer to "military-style" assault rifles or weapons.  They do this because none of the weapons they are referring to is used by any military and therefore is not a "military" weapon.  The weapons are really "military style" only in that they look something like true military weapons or have some features that look like features of true military weapons.  Other misleading references the media uses are like "AK-47 style" when the gun in question just looks similar to an AK-47 or (maybe) is an AK-47s ("s" for semiautomatic).


A firearm has a "capacity" only if it is of a type that has an internal magazine (the place where the cartridges—what the public calls "bullets" are kept in the gun until they are fired or removed).  Firearms with detachable magazines (incorrectly sometimes called "clips") do not have "capacity."

The magazine has a capacity, but it is irrelevant in the case of bolt action or semiautomatic firearms.  This is because emptying a magazine does not mean the person with the gun must stop shooting.  It only means the person extracts the empty magazine and inserts a loaded one.  For pistols this takes about two seconds since the empty is ejected automatically just by pressing a button.  For some rifles it may take about five seconds because the removal and insertion of the clip are both usually two-hand operations.

Although magazine capacity is irrelevant in the case of semiautomatic firearms like the ones the laws and gun control advocates call "assault weapons," it is relevant in the case of true assault weapons.  For a true assault weapon in full-auto firing mode, a 30-round magazine will be emptied in two to three seconds (depending upon the rate at which the gun fires).  So a person using a fully automatic firearm would have to be changing magazines almost constantly if the magazines held only 30 rounds.  For true assault weapons, then, magazines typically hold 90-100 rounds or more.


"Firepower" is a term that refers to the combination or product of two (or maybe three) other characteristics: individual shot lethality and capacity or firing rate (or both).  Hence, a high rate or capacity coupled with a low lethality would not result in high firepower, and neither would a high lethality coupled with a low firing rate or capacity.  Hence a semiautomatic .22 rimfire caliber rifle with a large magazine does not have "high firepower."  Select the preceding links to find out why the guns called "assault weapons" generally have less firepower than many guns, including true assault weapons.



When referring to a firearm as a "high-power" firearm, one is referring to the caliber of the cartridge--which translates to the energy carried by the bullet (projectile) to the target.  The term doesn't actually relate to the projectile diameter that is part of every caliber designation, or to any other projectile size characteristic.

Instead, it relates essentially to the amount and effectiveness of the gun powder in the cartridge.  Hence, it is possible to have a short, small-diameter projectile in a caliber that is considered "high power."  To have this, the case of the cartridge will be relatively long and of greater diameter than the projectile—and the case will have a lot of gun powder in it.

The "power" is actually measured in units of energy: foot-pounds in the U.S.  A high energy means that the projectile will carry a lot of energy to the target.  The amount of energy a projectile has drops the further the projectile gets from the muzzle (barrel opening) of the gun because the energy is used in moving the air the projectile passes through (and making noise and heat as a result).

Also, a cartridge will impart less energy to the projectile if fired from an automatic or semiautomatic firearm than it will if fired from another type of gun.  The reason for this is that some of the energy produced by a cartridge in an automatic or semiautomatic firearm is used up in the operation that ejects an empty case and pushes the next cartridge into the firing chamber.

If the target is a moderately dense material such as the flesh of a human or animal, a large part of the energy of the projectile will be transferred to the target material and cause damage to it.  This contributes heavily to the lethal character of the cartridge.


Bookmark for later reading this document by Dr. Edgar Suter of Doctors for Integrity in Policy Research (at RKBA.org). [alt source]

Also, Rational Basis Analysis of "Assault Weapon" Prohibition by attorney David B. Kopel.