The Matter of 'Assault Weapons'

Immediately after a mass murder involving any kind of semi-automatic rifle or pistol, we see a deluge of reporting about “assault weapons” and a predictable push for restrictions on semi-automatic, magazine-fed firearms. Rather than reacting to that with the traditional eye roll and “gun-splaining,” I propose we take some time to educate the general public about the issue before the next gun-control blitz.

Relative Differences

The problem is that what makes a gun lethal isn’t the same as what makes a gun good in a fight. That might sound odd, but bear with me.

The two guns most concerning to the anti-gun crowd are variants of the AR-15 and AK-47 designs. The AR-15 is a cousin to, but not the same as, the U.S. Military’s M16 and M4 rifles. In both cases, the commercially available rifles are mechanically neutered versions of their military cousins. Military “assault rifles” are capable of firing automatic bursts — more than one round comes out with each press of the trigger — but the civilian versions of those rifles are not.

Some pundits have expressed concern that these neutered rifles can be easily modified to fire automatic bursts. It is physically possible to modify them … but it is also physically possible to build a machine gun from scratch. It takes a level of machining equipment and know-how that few people have. There are some devices that help pull the trigger faster, but they force a would-be attacker to give up any semblance of accuracy or reliability in exchange for firing rate.

With Great Power

“Power” also comes up a lot in discussions about these guns. The AR-15 is described by pundits as a “powerful assault rifle,” a term that leaves people like me scratching our heads. Most AR-15s run a notoriously small bullet that has received decades of criticism for being under-powered relative to older rifles. In fact, you aren’t allowed to hunt deer with a .223 or 5.56 in some states because the bullet is considered too small to reliably and mercifully kill a deer. That doesn’t mean it lacks a hunting role, however; it is very popular in pest control, and ranchers use it to exterminate invasive prairie dogs, coyotes and feral pigs. Conversely, most AK variants run a much larger, slower bullet that has notoriously ineffective terminal ballistics (behavior upon impacting the intended target).

The “power” of a rifle is usually measured by the combination of speed, diameter and weight of the bullet. Hunting rifles are typically more powerful than fighting rifles; hunting bullets are usually twice as heavy as those fired by an AR-15. So there is no easy or useful way to define a gun based on “power,” and referring to fighting guns as “high-powered” usually betrays the speaker as ignorant.

Illustration by: Brian Fairrington ​​​​​Use Some Tact​​​​​​​

What this gets us is a lot of mental and verbal gymnastics in trying to legally define an “assault weapon.” In 1994, Congress passed — and President Clinton signed — an “Assault Weapons Ban.” It defined an “assault weapon” as any rifle that could semi-automatically cycle the next bullet after firing, accept a detachable magazine and had some other trait, such as a bracket for the attachment of a bayonet, a hand grip that was separate from the stock or a stock that could fold. What really irritated people like me about that is that none of those traits contribute in any meaningful way to how “dangerous” the gun is.

In the rhetoric, we hear about these guns as “weapons of war” — which, as I mentioned earlier, they aren’t — that are “meant to kill as many people as possible as fast as possible.” Again, that really only applies to actual machine guns, which have been basically illegal since the 1930s (and even further restricted since the mid-1980s). These guns are meant to be used tactically in fights against other people, but that doesn’t make them evil. I own a gun because I have a fundamental responsibility to protect myself and my family for the eight to 11 minutes it will take police to arrive. Of course I want a gun with which I can fight!

Even if you are anti-gun, I urge you not to use the term “assault weapon.” It exposes your ignorance on a topic against which you are passionately advocating and creates a barrier to constructive policy discussions. What you probably don’t like are “guns meant to fight other people with” — what I would call tactical carbines or “modern sporting rifles.” I can understand that, but I will never agree with it. We had a federal ban on those guns from 1994 to 2004, and no one can show any meaningful evidence that the ban did any good whatsoever. If you really want to cut violence, fund mental health services; find a constructive way to break the cycle of poverty; lock up career criminals; increase resources for local, county and state-level law enforcement; and consider different approaches to national drug policies.

Jim is a concerned citizen and gun-rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of his or any other agency. References and links to other gun-advocacy sites do not imply endorsement of those organizations. You can reach him at