What is an “assault weapon,” “military-style weapon,” “weapon of war,” etc? Well, in a nutshell it is whatever the person using those phrases wants it to be. Of course the implication of such phrases is that certain firearms available to civilian U.S. citizens are in fact military weapons. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The earliest reference to an “assault weapon” that I could find was from a 1976 Army Research and Development publication and referred to “Improved Light Antitank/Assault Weapon.” Later military references also indicated either a non-armored gun mounted on tank tracks for mobility or a light armored antitank tracked vehicle. None of which can you buy at the local gun store or through the supposed gun show “loophole,” so obviously antitank weapons are not the issue.
The oldest reference I could find using “assault weapon” in reference to civilian semi-automatic rifles was from the LA Times, May 19, 1989:
Major provisions of the “Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989,” which will become law Jan. 1, 1990, include these:
The law establishes a new classification of firearms known as “assault weapons.” It declares that an assault weapon has “such a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.”
Now, if you know anything about modern firearms, that description fits probably 80-90% of firearms produced today. If you know anything about the 2nd Amendment, then you know “sports or recreation” have no bearing on its “Arms” protections. With modern firearms technology, most rifles and handguns are semi-automatic, most have detachable magazines and with minimal training most can be fired reasonably accurately at a “rate of fire” that could be considered “high.” Notice the use of subjective terms with no definition.
Some might react to that admission by saying they should all be banned. Others might say that in relation to firearms across the board the “playing field” is relatively level. It is not the “rate of fire” or “firepower” that makes any particular firearm especially deadly. You can rack up a high body count with a .22 revolver and some speed-loaders if you have large numbers of victims, unarmed in a contained area. Which is exactly how most mass shootings occur.
Not long after the California “Assault Weapons” ban came the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” at the federal level. It focused not on “high fire rates” or “firepower,” but on the scary look of certain weapons. Things like barrel shrouds, pistol grips and bayonet lugs which have nothing to do with function or lethality. Naturally, with a few cosmetic changes, these “dangerous” weapons were back on the market and no more of an issue after the bans than they were before the bans. In the end, no matter how you define an “assault weapon,” they are not a problem in America.
Despite millions of “military-style” rifles in circulation, they are rarely used to commit crimes or murder people. Of all of the heartbreaking “gun violence” in America, which has been declining for decades, only 1-2% of homicides involve “assault weapons.” Only 300-400 deaths a year are related to RIFLES of any type. As the NY Times reported in 2014 – The Assault Weapon Myth:
The criminologist James Alan Fox at Northeastern University estimates that there have been an average of 100 victims killed each year in mass shootings over the past three decades. That’s less than 1 percent of gun homicide victims.
Not all of those mass shooting over the last 30 years involved “assault weapons,” but the ones that did got wall to wall news coverage with the phases “assault weapon,” “military-style weapon” or “weapon of war” attached to it and repeated about every 30 seconds day in and day out. Media coverage typically throws in the word “automatic” in place of semi-automatic quite regularly as well. Though automatic weapons, silencers and a few other weapon types have been virtually banned since 1934 (National Firearms Act). People who can afford automatic weapons, typically $10-25K each, pay the taxes, get the background checks and anal probing required DO NOT go around shooting up places with them.
So, what is an “assault weapon”? It’s anything that politicians and media-types can convince you that you don’t “NEED”. They started with automatic weapons 80+ years ago, then regulated manufacturers and dealers. Banned certain weapon and ammunition imports. Closed down the last remaining lead smelter in the U.S. Instituted background checks. Some states have registration and licensing. Now they are back on the “assault weapons” banned-wagon. Then what? Universal background checks which will require a national registry in order to enforce? Ban semi-automatic pistols and/or extended magazines?
Ironically, what media calls an “assault weapon” if you or I own it, is referred to as a Personal Defense Weapon when government employees have them. People with actual firearms knowledge and experience simply call them modern sporting rifles. Military veterans who are quite familiar with “weapons of war” explain the difference and the need for such weapons in civilian society [see video below]. Yet the drone of “nobody needs an assault weapon” continues, without definition and fluid in its application.