A popular misnomer among gun-control activists about the AR-15 rifle is that the AR stands for “assault rifle.” Never mind the lack of definition that constitutes what an “assault rifle” is, AR is short for ArmaLite rifle, a name referring to the manufacturer of the firearm in the 1950s. Another misnomer about these types of rifles is that they are “weapons of war.” However, most rifles used in the military (the M4 Carbine) are unavailable to the civilian population and have a three-round burst fire mode. Popular sporting rifles, such as the AR-15, are semi-automatic just like most every handgun on the market. So why are gun-control activists so adamant on banning these firearms from law-abiding citizens?

Short History on Gun Laws

Many laws in the American Colonies, such as Connecticut in 1643, required “at least one adult man in every house to carry a gun to church or other public meetings” for protection. There were certain aspects of gun-control laws, as well. A year after the ratification of the Second Amendment, a federal law was passed that required “every man eligible for militia service own a gun and ammunition suitable for military service, report for frequent inspection of their guns, and register his gun ownership on public records.” It wasn’t until the rise of mafia-related gun violence in the 1920s and 30s that the debate on banning specific guns from civilian use, such as the automatic machine gun, started. Mafia-related crimes were also behind the first passing of the National Firearms Act.

A series of high-profile assassinations (JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy) prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) to sign the Gun Control Act of 1968, which “regulates interstate gun commerce, prohibiting interstate transfer unless completed among licensed manufacturers, importers and dealers, and restricts gun ownership.” Though these restrictions were put into place, gun violence only escalated as criminals typically refrain from abiding by laws put in place by the government. Therefore, politicians continued banning firearms and restricting access to law-abiding citizens through legislative action by passing the first federal “assault weapons” ban in the 1994 Crime Bill.

States with ‘Assault Weapon’ Bans

Once upon a time in the “good ol’ days,” you could spot a rifle hanging from a gun rack in almost every pickup truck in the parking lot of a public place … or school for that matter. The recent passing of the “assault weapons” ban in Illinois has once again fired up the debate around specific guns in relation to gun violence in today’s society (though the debate never fully goes away). For some reason, gun-control politicians always target popular sporting and home-defense rifles such as the AR-15 and AK-47. But handguns are the firearm of choice in most gun-related violence and crime among criminals.1

Many pro-gun groups have pledged to challenge these laws as they are passed in hopes that the court system will overturn them on a constitutional basis. Until the court process plays out fully, these are the current states that have some form of an “assault weapons” ban.

A map of the United States, highlighting the states with 'assault weapons' bans in red.

States With ‘Assault Weapons’ Bans
California Connecticut
Delaware D.C.
Hawaii Illinois
Maryland Massachusetts
New Jersey New York
Washington

California

According to the California Penal Code 30605, “Anyone within this state, who possesses an assault weapon, except as provided in this chapter, will be punished by imprisonment for up to one year in a county jail, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.” Exclusions include those that possessed these firearms before the enactment and have since registered them, as well as certain law enforcement entities. These firearms are defined as:

  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and at least one of the following additional features:
    1) A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon
    2) A thumbhole stock
    3) A folding or telescoping stock
    4) A grenade or flare launcher
    5) A flash suppressor
    6) A forward pistol grip
  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds
  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has an overall length of less than 30 inches
  • A semi-automatic pistol that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and any one of the following:

1) A threaded barrel, capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward handgrip or silencer
2) A second handgrip
3) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel allowing the bearer to fire the weapon without burning his or her hand, except a slide that encloses the barrel
4) The capacity to accept a detachable magazine at some location outside of the pistol grip

  • A semi-automatic pistol with a fixed magazine that has the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has both a folding or telescoping stock, and a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, thumbhole stock or vertical handgrip
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine
  • A shotgun with a revolving cylinder
  • A semi-automatic centerfire firearm that is not technically a rifle, pistol or shotgun, if it either has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, has an overall length of less than 30 inches or does not have a fixed magazine but has at least one of the features associated with assault weapons, as described above

Connecticut

Provided in Connecticut statute § 53-202e, any person who, within this state, possesses an assault weapon, except as provided in §§ 53-202a to 53-202k, inclusive, and 53-202o, shall be guilty of a class D felony and shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of which one year may not be suspended or reduced by the court. An assault weapon is defined as:

  • Any “selective-fire” firearm capable of fully automatic, semi-automatic or “burst fire” at the option of the user
  • Any semi-automatic centerfire rifle, regardless of the date produced, that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following features:

1) A folding or telescoping stock
2) Any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, thumbhole stock or other stock that would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing
3) A forward pistol grip
4) A flash suppressor
5) A grenade or flare launcher

  • A semi-automatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following features:

1) The ability to accept a detachable ammunition magazine that attaches at some location outside the pistol grip
2) A threaded barrel capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward pistol grip or silencer
3) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm without being burned (except a slide that encloses the barrel)
4) A second hand grip

  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has both of the following features:

1) A folding or telescoping stock
2) Any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, a thumbhole stock or any other stock, the use of which would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing

  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has:

1) a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition
2) an overall length of less than 30 inches

  • A semi-automatic pistol with a fixed magazine that has the ability to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that can accept a detachable magazine
  • A shotgun with a revolving cylinder

UPDATE (June 7, 2023)

On June 6, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed HB 6667 into law. A new registration will open for 2023 assault weapons. If they were purchased before Sept. 13, 1994, they can be registered until May 1, 2024. If registered, owners can continue possessing them but further transfers are generally barred. The law went into effect immediately.

Delaware

According to Del. Code tit. 11, § 1466(a), it is unlawful for a person to do any of the following:

1) Transport an assault weapon into this State
2) Manufacture, sell, offer to sell, transfer, purchase, receive or possess an assault weapon

“Assault weapon” means any of the following:

  • An assault long gun
  • An assault pistol
  • A copycat weapon

“Copycat weapon” means any of the following:

  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following:

1) A folding or telescoping stock
2) Any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, a thumbhole stock or any other stock, the use of which would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing
3) A forward pistol grip
4) A flash suppressor
5) A grenade launcher or flare launcher

  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has an overall length of less than 30 inches
  • A semi-automatic pistol that can accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following:

1) An ability to accept a detachable ammunition magazine that attaches at some location outside of the pistol grip
2) A threaded barrel capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward pistol grip or silencer
3) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to fire the firearm without being burned, except a slide that encloses the barrel
4) A secondhand grip

  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has both of the following:

1) A folding or telescoping stock
2) Any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, a thumbhole stock or any other stock, the use of which would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing

  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine
  • A shotgun with a revolving cylinder
  • A semi-automatic pistol with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 17 rounds
  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine that can accept more than 17 rounds

District of Columbia

What DC defines as an “assault weapon” shall not be issued a registration certificate, making it illegal to own/possess, regardless of when it was obtained. In §7-2501.01, the District of Columbia defines an assault weapon as:

(IV) A semi-automatic rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and any one of the following:

(aa) A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon
(bb) A thumbhole stock
(cc) A folding or telescoping stock
(dd) A grenade launcher or flare launcher
(ee) A flash suppressor
(ff) A forward pistol grip

(V) A semi-automatic pistol that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and any one of the following:

(aa) A threaded barrel, capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward handgrip or silencer
(bb) A second handgrip
(cc) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel that allows the bearer to fire the weapon without burning his or her hand, except a slide that encloses the barrel
(dd) The capacity to accept a detachable magazine at some location outside of the pistol grip

(VI) A semi-automatic shotgun that has one or more of the following:

(aa) A folding or telescoping stock
(bb) A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon
(cc) A thumbhole stock
(dd) A vertical handgrip

(VII) A semi-automatic shotgun that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine

(VIII) All other models within a series that are variations, with minor differences, of those models listed in subparagraph (A) of this paragraph, regardless of the manufacturer

(ii) Any shotgun with a revolving cylinder; provided, that this sub-subparagraph shall not apply to a weapon with an attached tubular device designed to accept and capable of operating only with .22 caliber rimfire ammunition
(iii) Any firearm that the Chief may designate as an assault weapon by rule, based on a determination that the firearm would reasonably pose the same or similar danger to the health, safety and security of the residents of the District as those weapons enumerated in this paragraph

Hawaii

Provided in Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-8(a), the manufacture, possession, sale, barter, trade, gift, transfer or acquisition of an assault pistol is prohibited.

Assault pistol means a semi-automatic pistol that accepts a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following characteristics:

(1) An ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip
(2) A threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward hand grip or silencer
(3) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the second hand without being burned
(4) A manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded
(5) A centerfire pistol with an overall length of 12 inches or more
(6) It is a semi-automatic version of an automatic firearm; but does not include a firearm with a barrel 16 or more inches in length, an antique pistol as defined in this section, or a curio or relic as those terms are used in 18 United States Code section 921(a)(13) or 27 Code of Federal Regulations section 478.11

Illinois

The new Illinois law amends the Criminal Code of 2012. It makes it unlawful to deliver, sell or purchase, or cause to be delivered, possessed or sold or purchased by another, an assault weapon, assault weapon attachment, .50 caliber rifle or .50 caliber cartridge. It makes it unlawful for any person to knowingly possess an assault weapon, .50 caliber rifle or .50 caliber cartridge 300 days after the effective date of the amendatory act, except possession of weapons registered with the Illinois State Police in the time provided.

An assault weapon is defined as:

(A) Any rifle that has a belt-fed ammunition system or which has a detachable magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition

(B) A semi-automatic rifle that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has any of the following

(i) A folding or telescoping stock
(ii) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the non-trigger hand without being burned

(C) A semi-automatic pistol that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has any of the following:

(i) A folding or telescoping stock
(ii) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles the barrel, that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the non-trigger hand without being burned
(iii) A manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded

(D) A semi-automatic rifle with a fixed magazine that has the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition

(E) A semi-automatic shotgun that has:

(i) A folding or telescoping stock
(ii) Contains its ammunition in a revolving cylinder
(iii) A fixed magazine capacity in excess of five rounds of ammunition, except as may be authorized under the Wildlife Code and excluding magazine extensions during the snow geese conservation order season
(iv) An ability to accept a detachable magazine of more than five rounds of ammunition

There are several ongoing federal and state court cases challenging the assault weapons ban. Check back for updates as the ban continues to be challenged in court.

Maryland

Under Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law §§ 4-301(d), 4-303(a), Maryland now prohibits the possession, sale, offering of sale, transfer, purchase, receipt or transportation into the state of an assault weapon, which includes assault pistols and assault long guns.

“Assault weapon” means:

  • An assault long gun
  • An assault pistol
  • A copycat weapon

“Copycat weapon” means:

(i) a semi-automatic centerfire rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has any two of the following:

  1. A folding stock
  2. A grenade launcher or flare launcher
  3. A flash suppressor

(ii) A semi-automatic centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds
(iii) A semi-automatic centerfire rifle that has an overall length of less than 29 inches
(iv) A semi-automatic pistol with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds
(v) A semi-automatic shotgun that has a folding stock
(vi) A shotgun with a revolving cylinder

UPDATE (May 23, 2024)

On May 20, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the assault-weapon ban in Maryland. Litigation on this matter continues in a lower court.

Massachusetts

According to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131M, no person shall sell, offer for sale, transfer or possess an assault weapon or a large-capacity feeding device that was not otherwise lawfully possessed on September 13, 1994.

Assault weapons are not defined in the statute but shall have the same meaning as a semi-automatic assault weapon as defined in the federal Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(30) as appearing in such section on September 13, 1994, and shall include, but not be limited to, any of the weapons or copies or duplicates of the weapons of any caliber, known as:

(i) Avtomat Kalashnikov (AK) (all models)
(ii) Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil
(iii) Beretta AR-70 (SC-70)
(iv) Colt AR-15
(v) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR and FNC
(vi) SWD M-10, M-11, M-11/9 and M-12
(vii) Steyr AUG
(viii) INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9 and TEC-22
(ix) revolving cylinder shotguns, such as or similar to, the Street Sweeper and Striker 12

New Jersey

Any person who manufactures, causes to be manufactured, transports, ships, sells or disposes of an assault firearm without being registered or licensed to do so pursuant to N.J.S.2C:58-1 et seq. is guilty of a crime of the third degree.

An assault firearm is defined as:

Any firearm manufactured under any designation that is substantially identical to any of the firearms listed here

(3) A semi-automatic shotgun with either a magazine capacity exceeding six rounds, a pistol grip or a folding stock

(4) A semi-automatic rifle with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 10 rounds (“Assault firearm” shall not include a semi-automatic rifle which has an attached tubular device and which is capable of operating only with .22 caliber rimfire ammunition)

(5) A part or combination of parts designed or intended to convert a firearm into an assault firearm, or any combination of parts from which an assault firearm may be readily assembled if those parts are in the possession or under the control of the same person

(6) A firearm with a bump stock attached

New York

Provided in N.Y. Penal Law §§ 265.02(7), 265.10, New York prohibits the manufacturing, transporting, disposing of or possessing an assault weapon in the state.

Assault weapon means:

(a) A semi-automatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following characteristics:

(i) A folding or telescoping stock
(ii) A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon
(iii) A thumbhole stock
(iv) A second handgrip or a protruding grip that can be held by the non-trigger hand
(v) A bayonet mount
(vi) A flash suppressor, muzzle break, muzzle compensator or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor, muzzle break or muzzle compensator
(vii) A grenade launcher

(b) A semi-automatic shotgun that has at least one of the following characteristics:

(i) A folding or telescoping stock
(ii) A thumbhole stock
(iii) A second handgrip or a protruding grip that can be held by the non-trigger hand
(iv) A fixed magazine capacity in excess of seven rounds
(v) An ability to accept a detachable magazine

(c) A semi-automatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following characteristics:

(i) A folding or telescoping stock
(ii) A thumbhole stock
(iii) A second handgrip or a protruding grip that can be held by the non-trigger hand
(iv) Capacity to accept an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip
(v) A threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip or silencer
(vi) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the non-trigger hand without being burned
(vii) A manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded
(viii) A semi-automatic version of an automatic rifle, shotgun or firearm

(d) A revolving cylinder shotgun

(e) A semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic shotgun or a semi-automatic pistol or weapon defined in subparagraph (v) of paragraph (e) of subdivision 22 of § 265.00 of this chapter as added by chapter 189 of the laws of 2000 and otherwise lawfully possessed pursuant to such chapter of the laws of 2000 prior to September 14th, 1994

(f) A semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic shotgun or a semi-automatic pistol or weapon defined in paragraph (a), (b) or (c) of this subdivision, possessed prior to the date of enactment of the chapter of the laws of 2013 which added this paragraph

(g) Provided, however, that such term does not include:

(i) Any rifle, shotgun or pistol that

(A) Is manually operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action
(B) Has been rendered permanently inoperable
(C) Is an antique firearm as defined in 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(16)

(ii) A semi-automatic rifle that cannot accept a detachable magazine that holds more than five rounds of ammunition
(iii) A semi-automatic shotgun that cannot hold more than five rounds of ammunition in a fixed or detachable magazine or
(iv) A rifle, shotgun or pistol, or a replica or a duplicate thereof, specified in Appendix A to 18 U.S.C. 922 as such weapon was manufactured on October 1st, 1993. The mere fact that a weapon is not listed in Appendix A shall not be construed to mean that such weapon is an assault weapon
(v) Any weapon validly registered pursuant to subdivision 16-a of § 400.00 of this chapter. Such weapons shall be subject to the provisions of paragraph (h) of this subdivision
(vi) Any firearm, rifle or shotgun that was manufactured at least 50 years prior to the current date, but not including replicas thereof that is validly registered pursuant to subdivision 16-a of § 400.00 of this chapter

(h) Any weapon defined in paragraph (e) or (f) of this subdivision and any large capacity ammunition feeding device that was legally possessed by an individual prior to the enactment of the chapter of the laws of 2013 which added this paragraph, may only be sold to, exchanged with or disposed of to a purchaser authorized to possess such weapons or to an individual or entity outside of the state provided that any such transfer to an individual or entity outside of the state must be reported to the entity wherein the weapon is registered within 72 hours of such transfer. An individual who transfers any such weapon or large capacity ammunition device to an individual inside New York state or without complying with the provisions of this paragraph shall be guilty of a class A misdemeanor unless such large capacity ammunition feeding device, the possession of which is made illegal by the chapter of the laws of 2013 which added this paragraph, is transferred within one year of the effective date of the chapter of the laws of 2013 which added this paragraph.

Washington

On April 25, 2023, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed HB 1240 into law. It goes into effect immediately.

The law restricts 60 firearms (listed on Pages 2 to 4).

In addition, it also prohibits:

  • A semi-automatic rifle that has an overall length of less than 30 inches
  • A conversion kit, part, or combination of parts, from which an assault weapon can be assembled or from which a firearm can be converted into an assault weapon if those parts are in the possession or under the control of the same person
  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and has one or more of the following:
    1. A grip that is independent or detached from the stock that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon (The addition of a fin attaching the  grip to the stock does not exempt the grip if it otherwise resembles the grip found on a pistol.)
    2. Thumbhole stock
    3. Folding or telescoping stock
    4. Forward pistol, vertical, angled or other grip designed for use by the non-firing hand to improve control
    5. Flash suppressor, flash guard, flash eliminator, flash hider, sound suppressor, silencer or any item designed to reduce the visual or audio signature of the firearm
    6. Muzzle brake, recoil compensator, or any item designed to be affixed to the barrel to reduce recoil or muzzle rise
    7. Threaded barrel designed to attach a flash suppressor, sound suppressor, muzzle break or similar item
    8. Grenade launcher or flare launcher
    9. A shroud that encircles either all or part of the barrel designed to shield the bearer’s hand from heat, except a solid forearm of a stock that covers only the bottom of the barrel
  • A semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds
  • A semi-automatic pistol that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and has one or more of the following:
    1. A threaded barrel, capable of accepting a flash suppressor,  forward handgrip or silencer
    2. A second hand grip
    3. A shroud that encircles either all or part of the barrel designed to shield the bearer’s hand from heat, except a solid forearm of a stock that covers only the bottom of the barrel
    4. The capacity to accept a detachable magazine at some location outside of the pistol grip
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has any of the following:
    1. A folding or telescoping stock
    2. A grip that is independent or detached from the stock that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon. (The addition of a fin attaching the grip to the stock does not exempt the grip if it otherwise resembles the grip found on a pistol.)
    3. A thumbhole stock
    4. A forward pistol, vertical, angled or other grip designed for use by the non-firing hand to improve control
    5. A fixed magazine in excess of seven rounds
    6. A revolving cylinder shotgun

2024 Assault Weapons Ban Updates

Colorado (last updated May 8, 2024)

On May 6, one of the primary sponsors of HB24-1292, a bill aimed at banning assault weapons in the state, requested that the legislation to be postponed indefinitely.

Virginia (last updated March 28, 2024)

On March 26, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) vetoed 30 gun bills — among them a proposed assault weapons ban.

Washington (last updated April 15, 2024)

On April 8, Judge Gary Bashor of the Cowlitz County Superior Court declared that Washington’s prohibition on magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds is unconstitutional under both state and U.S. laws. He promptly issued an injunction halting the state from enforcing the ban. In response, Attorney General Bob Ferguson swiftly filed an emergency appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, aiming to maintain the ban’s enforcement throughout the appeals process. The Supreme Court granted this request, meaning the ban remains effective for the time being.

Endnotes

1“Number of murder victims in the United States in 2021, by weapon used,” Statista, October 14, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/195325/murder-victims-in-the-us-by-weapon-used/.

“Weapon types used in mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and January 2023, by number of weapons and incidents,” Statista, January 23, 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/476409/mass-shootings-in-the-us-by-weapon-types-used/.