What's an Assault Weapon?

New survey data suggest most Americans don't know which guns are covered by the ban they support.


Last week Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a new, supposedly improved version of the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004. But like that earlier law, which the California Democrat also sponsored, Feinstein's bill prohibits the manufacture and sale of guns based on characteristics that have little or nothing to do with the danger they pose. 

Although arbitrary distinctions are a defining characteristic of "assault weapon" bans, recent polls indicate that most Americans support them. New survey data suggest one possible explanation: Most Americans don't know what "assault weapons" are. 

Feinstein's bill would ban "157 dangerous military-style assault weapons" by name, along with other guns that meet certain criteria. A rifle is considered an "assault weapon," for example, if it has a detachable magazine and one or more of these "military characteristics": a pistol grip or forward grip, a grenade launcher or rocket launcher, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel, or a folding, telescoping, or detachable stock. 

The New York Times reported that Feinstein's bill would "ban certain characteristics of guns that make them more lethal." But how exactly do these features—a threaded barrel, say, or a grenade or rocket launcher without grenades or rockets (both of which are banned for civilian use)—make a gun "more lethal"? The distinguishing characteristics of "assault weapons" are mainly cosmetic and have little or no functional significance in the context of mass shootings or ordinary gun crimes. 

CNN made an even bigger mistake, claiming the bill is aimed at "rifles capable of firing multiple rounds automatically." In reality, the bill has nothing to do with machine guns such as those used by the military, which fire continuously (or "automatically") when you pull the trigger and are already tightly restricted by federal law; it deals only with semiautomatics, which fire once per trigger pull. 

Perhaps we should not be too hard on CNN, since President Obama, who supports a new ban on "assault weapons," also seems to think they are machine guns, referring to them as "AK-47s" and "automatic weapons." Contrary to the impression left by such descriptions, "assault weapons" are not distinguished by their rate of fire, the number of rounds they hold, or the caliber of their ammunition. 

A Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey conducted this month suggests such misconceptions are common. After asking the 1,000 respondents if they thought people should be "prohibited from owning assault weapons," the survey (which is sponsored by my employer, the Reason Foundation) asked half of the sample to "describe an assault weapon." The answers are illuminating. 

About two-thirds of the respondents described "assault weapons" as guns that fire rapidly, guns that can fire a large number of rounds without reloading, guns with a lot of "power," or guns used by the military. More than a quarter described them as "machine guns," "automatics," or the equivalent (e.g., "multiple rounds with just one pull of the trigger"). 

Overall support for banning "assault weapons" was only 44 percent, considerably lower than the 60 percent or so in recent Gallup and ABC News polls. But there was majority support—53 percent and 59 percent, respectively—among people whose descriptions of "assault weapons" emphasized rate of fire (including those who mistakenly described them as machine guns) or ammunition capacity. 

One respondent said an "assault weapon" is a "weapon that is similar to the one that caused the tragedy in Newtown," referring to last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That horrifying event, of course, was the pretext for Feinstein's bill, although the Bushmaster rifle Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children and six adults was not covered by the old federal "assault weapon" ban or by a similar law in Connecticut. 

Feinstein has addressed that omission by adding Lanza's rifle to her list of prohibited weapons, which may seem emotionally satisfying. But since would-be mass murderers have plenty of equally effective alternatives, it is logically equivalent to banning the car Lanza drove to the school.

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    Everyone with whom I’ve spoken who supports an assault weapon ban, when asked to define assault weapons, has described them as fully automatic. This sample group, I should mention, are mostly people who gladly and uncritically swallow anything mainstream journalists and the Obama Administration put out whole. In other words, low-information voters (kind of like Congress and the president).

    1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If someone is trying to shoot me with small arms, I would prefer it if they were using a “full auto” setting. Anything to make them less accurate is a good thing.

      Full auto has limited uses. One of which is that it is fun as hell (though expensive). But it is not going to help someone in an active shooter situation kill people quicker.

      1. I had an HK91 for practice shooting when I was in the Marine Reserves. Until I brought them to the range, my stupid civilian friends absolutely would not believe that it wasn’t full auto.

        In Infantry School, they took us to range with spring-loaded targets 50-yards away. First they had us shoot a magazine on burst as fast as we could (our M16A2’s weren’t full-auto). Those targets weren’t hit very often. Then we fired a magazine on semi-auto with well-aimed shots. Of course every shot was a hit.

      2. Well there are a handful of situations where it could but generally they require the targets to be packed in so tightly that it doesn’t matter what path each individual bullet takes it’s going to hit someone.

        Course in those situations a Shotgun would likely be just as if not more deadly

        1. Enfilading fire, where the cross section of your mass of targets is parallel to the direction of your fire.

          1. Still need a real machine-gun that doesn’t climb. Most full auto rifles are pointing at the sky after a few rounds.

      3. Also, I’ve heard the claim that a pistol grip makes it easier to shoot from the hip… If someone is shooting at me, I DEFINITELY want them to shoot from the hip. They’d have a better chance of hitting me with a smooth bore musket at 100 yards.

        1. I don’t see why “shooting from the hip” is quoted by anti-gunners as if it’s as evil as stomping puppies. Is it supposted to evoke some sort of scary scenario in the minds of low-information voters?

          1. Yes, that’s exactly what it does. It evokes images of Arnold or Sly firing machine guns from the hip, never running out of ammo and killing with every single bullet. It’s ridiculous to those who understand how guns work, but in the mind of the ignorant, that IS how guns work.

          2. Because Rambo did it that way.

          3. It also brings to mind Prohibition-era gangsters with Tommy guns. It’s how “bad guys” shoot their guns.

      4. Full-auto is much less accurate and the shooter runs out of ammo quickly. The need to reload dgives an opponent with a pistol or semi-auto rifle a good opportunity to get in a few accurate shots.

        1. I always think of the scene from The Dark Knight where the Joker is firing a side arm with an extended clip in full auto at the Police truck carrying Harvey Dent. The clip is empty in a few seconds. No harm is done. He throws the gun away and grabs an RPG.

        2. Three shot bursts.

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  2. The link for the pole goes into an unrelated archive. Without seeing the pole I will call it irrelevant B.S.

    I simply don’t believe it until I see where it was conducted and how it was asked.

    It is irrelevant because I live in a Constitutional Republic, not a direct-Democracy city-state.

    1. Worked fine for me.

  3. Feelings, nothing more than feelings…

    1. If you trust your feelings…
      Well, so did Charles Manson.

      1. But he can’t surf.

  4. The idea that a semi-automatic is less dangerous than an automatic is stupid. Ask any soldier what they prefer to use when trying to shoot an enemy.

    1. Automatics are better for indiscriminately mowing down crowds of people.

      Standard disclaimer: Fuck gun control laws.

      1. There are practical limits to this, though. If you’re pumping out 500-1000 rounds per minutes you’re going to run out of ammo real quick unless you’ve got an assistant feeding it to you from a box. Then there’s the issue of misfires and jams, which are much more common when operating near the weapon’s maximum output. So you quickly have to trade away the element of surprise for the ability to spray bullets around. And your probably aren’t going to have that ability for very long…

    2. Still, irrelevant as they aren’t talking about banning actual full-automatic weapons. This is about “ugly,”modern-looking guns more than anything else.
      The thing is, they keep trying to tell me you can’t hunt with my favorite hunting rifle. Why not use an AR-15? It’s legal to use it for that, and very effective for the purpose. And just by changing the upper, I can change the caliber to suit what I’m hunting. I even have a .22LR upper for plinking on the cheap.

      1. Why does anyone need a changeable upper?


      2. The mindset on this is “hunting” = “deer hunting.”

        The .223 Remington is excellent for feral hog, coyote, and other such. .22LR is great for squirrel and rabbit.

        The other mindset is “assault weapon” = “AR-15.”

        In fact, Ms Feinstein’s hate list includes everything from .22LR to .50 BMG.

        I would love to issue Congress Barrets and watch them assault a hill.

  5. I’ve been in several debates recently with people about the AWB. Every single person that I’ve debated about them insisted that they were banning full auto “bullet hoses”. Several of them even called me a liar or worse when I provided info to the contrary. The ignorance surrounding these guns is the only thing driving these types of laws.

    My question to you all is: How do we educate people about REAL gun tech, and stop them from thinking Hollywood guns are even remotely realistic?

    1. The ignorance surrounding these guns is the only thing driving these types of laws.

      That’s a feature, not a bug.

      Looking at it, I realize that it’s no accident that people like Feinstein push the things they do. She’s been at it for 18+ years. ANYTHING a person has been doing for 18 years, they should be an expert or damned close.

      I’m certain now that it’s no accident that most media outlets portray them as automatic, or speak of them in terms of ‘spraying bullets’ or foolishly claim that semi-auto handguns fire 4 or 5 rounds a second.

      Either they deliberately mislead by portraying semi-autos this way, OR they are relying on a small number of sources for their info and those people are misleading the media, and thus using them as tool, for their agenda.

      I realize that it’s usually more likely to blame ignorance or stupidity rather than malice, but come on. How is everyone getting it wrong in almost the same way? Are they all really relying on the same small number of biased sources?

      At least computer people have a chance at being reached as they see firsthand how badly computers are represented in fiction, and how those portrayals influence people and the media, as well as how the media seems to deliberately misstate the issues around various computer stories.

      1. Actually, Feinstein has been at this since the mid-1970s. She came to power as mayor in SF due to the shooting of then-mayor George Moscone and fellow supervisor Harvey Milk. From day one, all the way up the ladder to the US Senate, she has been on a crusade against firearms. Her legacy in California, from her time in Sacramento is a Statewide assault weapons ban that was rehearsal for the federal ban she later passed in DC and now wants to resurrect.

        1. It seems too bad she didn’t win that gubernatorial election in 90 against Pete Wilson. Maybe would have spared us her Senatorial crap for who know how many years.

      2. Brendan —

        You’re exactly right. One of my dad’s friends, who has always been libertarian-leaning since before it was cool, told him that if the bad things government was doing were done out of ignorance or negligence, then at least accidentally they would get something right. But since everything they do and say is bad or wrong, it can no longer be said that it’s done by mistake. Their actions must be intentionally designed to cause harm and confusion.

        1. In related news, NBC just got nailed for selective editing, again.

          Media Falsely Claims Gun Activists Heckled Father of Murdered Newtown Boy


      3. foolishly claim that semi-auto handguns fire 4 or 5 rounds a second.

        As if everyone and his mother is a professional trick shooter…

  6. I saw this movie one time, where a robot who looked just like Arnold Schwarzenegger walked into a gun store and bought a fully automatic Ouzi right off the shelf. So there.

    1. Nobody needs a plasma rifle in the 40 watt range.

      1. Come with me if you want to vote for gun control.

    2. A shot of Ouzo?

    3. Uzi or Ouzo? Fully automatic ouzo might be fun…

    4. I did that too. In Somalia.

  7. What gets me is these ignoramuses (ignorami?) are actually proud of their complete lack of knowledge about firearms.

    1. “Nobody needs to know anything about guns.” /progresso-tard

    2. We have to do something!

  8. What’s an Assault Weapon?

    Any weapon that looks scary to a progresso-tard.

    Which, if they were honest, would be pretty much any gun, most martial arts weapons (swords, bo staffs, nunchuks, knives used for anything other than cooking, and even some kitchen knives such as butcher knieves or meat cleavers, etc).

    1. Only professional chefs need a 7 inch kitchen knife. We should ban them to prevent stabbings.

    2. And maybe a large wrench or bumper jack.

  9. Back when the federal assault weapons ban expired, and even a little later, when the Heller decision affirmed the individual right to keep and bear arms, I had high hopes that the California ban would soon fall, and I would be able to go down to Big 5 and legally get an AK47 to celebrate the return of good sense to my home State. I thought that, at least, a serious challenge to the State’s assault weapons ban would be working its way through the courts by now. I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath. But why is this necessary process taking so long? It’s embarrassing that my mother in law in Henderson NV can go out and shoot one of those guns whenever she wants, but I am denied my 2nd Amendment rights by the “progressive” ruling class here in the People’s Republic. The WHOLE POINT of the 2nd Amendment was to give the INDIVIDUAL the choice to have weapons — as well as the choice of weapons. The California ban should be struck down on 2nd Amendment grounds, yet where is our relief?

  10. I’m hinting around for a PDW (personal defense weapon) for my 2013 Christmas gift. It remarkably resembles the America’s Rifle – 15; comes in a matte tan color, utilizes (2) 15 round mags whose bodies can be fitted together, and longer spring, to hold 30 rounds. I’m getting her the PDWW which comes in pink.

  11. Autoloading shotguns (purchased second-hand from the USN for $50 each)work fine for me.

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  13. 1) To reduce assault style rifle violence mandate that owners must keep their weapons away from minors and disturbed individuals in the home or face severe civil and criminal consequences with mandatory prison time. Let your son go to school with your AR-10, AR-15, high capacity assault styled weapon because you didn’t lock it away from him then lose your savings, your home and your freedom. If you locked it up and he stole it, then you are not culpable. But you run the risk to trust him or not. This would not include handguns.

    2) To reduce handgun related violence declare the Bloods, Crips, MS13, Hells Angels, mafia, …. demonstrably violent gangs…. as TERRORISTS. Treat them like enemy combatants. Use the NDAA 2012 and extended Patriot Act against them. Sure we have too many people in prison and yet our crime rates are down – go figure. Just being in a demonstrably violent gang should make it illegal to own a gun. When you are a member of a gang you are forswearing your primary secular allegiance to the U.S.

  14. assault weapon,” for example, if it has a detachable magazine

  15. you’re a goddamn moron and we should ban journalist cause they stir the pot to their cause

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