While politicians often toss around the term “assault weapons,” there is great confusion about what that means, exactly.
For good reason, according to gun control critics — it’s a political phrase.
“It’s just a made-up term,” said John Lott, founder and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center. “It has to do with the cosmetics of the gun on the outside.”
President Obama repeatedly has called for banning “weapons of war” from civilian use in the United States. In his address to the nation Sunday about an attack that killed 14 people last week at a holiday party in California, he said, “We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino.”
Fully automatic “machine guns” already are tightly controlled under federal law and virtually are unused in crime. Those are the types of guns that militaries use, Lott said. The hysteria over “assault weapons” usually centers on semi-automatic weapons that look like military guns but work like hunting rifles. The AR-15, the biggest-selling rifle in America, fires one round each time the trigger is pulled — despite its menacing appearance.
“Assault weapons” were actually conflated with “assault rifles,” which is a real term that refers to the military’s automatic weapons, or machine guns. What gun ban proponents called “assault weapons” included semi-automatic guns that are not actually “assault rifles.”
When Congress passed a so-called “assault weapons” ban in 1994, it had to make up a definition for the weapons.
When Congress passed a so-called “assault weapons” ban in 1994, it had to make up a definition for the weapons. It ended up prohibiting the sale of 19 different kinds of firearms. The ban expired in 2004. An assessment by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service that year concluded that the effects on gun violence of renewing the ban “are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
Lott predicted that a renewed ban would have a similar non-effect on crime.
“The notion of banning some guns on the basis of how they look … doesn’t make much sense,” he said.
Firearms experts argue that Obama and other gun control advocates seek to take advantage of public misconceptions about weapons. The media often pile on. The Associated Press Stylebook, the official guide to language used by most American news organizations, describes assault weapon like this:
“An assault weapon is the civilian version of the military carbine with a similar appearance. This gun is semi-automatic, meaning one shot per trigger pull. Ammunition magazines ranging from 10 to 30 rounds or more allow rapid-fire capability. Other common characteristics include folding stock, muzzle flash suppressor, bayonet mount and pistol grip.”
Research by the National Rifle Association shows newspapers dating to the 1940s used “assault weapon” to describe everything from airplanes to hedgerow thrashers to cobblestones used to pave roads.
The New York Times used the term “assault rifle” in the 1980s to describe rifles that could easily be converted from semi-automatic to fully automatic.
Newsweek ran a cover story in 1985 headlined “Machine Gun U.S.A.” that lumped together fully and semi-automatic weapons.
“Basically, it has become the term that gun control supporters use to denigrate a firearm, limited only by what they think they can slip by the public”
“Basically, it has become the term that gun control supporters use to denigrate a firearm, limited only by what they think they can slip by the public,” NRA Institute for Legislative Action spokeswoman Amy Hunter told LifeZette via email. “Needless to say, few in the media will explain the nuances to the public.”
The NRA warns that legislation proposed by California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein — who sponsored the 1990s assault weapons ban — would go much further, since it defines the term based on magazine capacity. The gun rights organization warns this could ban most long guns currently in use.
Critics also argue that Obama’s use of phrases like “weapons of war” mislead the public into believing that proposed gun control measures are designed to address military weapons. But Lott said the types of guns actually used by militaries are not used in domestic shootings and already are barred from sale to the public.
“It’s the reason why none of these (proposed) laws actually deal with machine guns,” he said.