Words Have Meaning: Assault Rifles, Assault Weapons, & the roadblock to sensible debate

On too many issues today there is an inverse ratio between passion and knowledge. The more wrapped up people become in “their” issues, the dumber the debate tends to be. We’ve all become Red Sox or Yankees fans; my team is the greatest, your team sucks, you’re an idiot for liking them, and I won’t listen to any argument to the contrary. In sports, this feature isn’t merely a positive side-effect, but central to why we watch sports. Unfortunately, this has bled into how we view everything in society and our existence has been distilled down to sports fandom, and not the good kind (looking at you Philly and SEC fans).

The gun debate takes the gold in the Stupid Olympics, both sides yelling at one another with neck veins popping and the faint scent of psychosis wafting through the air. If we are to bring the discussion back to reality there must be a framework of agreement in place before a sensible consensus emerges, assuming there’s enough level-headed folks on both sides that desire such a conference. To make any headway a consensus on terminology must be the first step.

Legal documents do not appear out of thin air and typically take months, sometimes years, of negotiation between parties to hammer out an agreement on terms and definitions. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, took months of negotiations between everyone from the lowest level diplomats up to government ministers and heads of state. The resulting agreement laid out not just the terms of German surrender but clear language defining those terms, such as the boundaries of Germany and territories to be granted independence or ceded to other nations.

Legalese is not just a way for lawyers to look smart and have fun confusing us mere mortals. What’s the point of having an agreement or signing a contract if the language is vague and open to endless interpretation? Whether it’s a treaty ending a war, a divorce settlement, or a debate on gun control, all sides must come to the bargaining table with a framework of understanding already in place, or at least be prepared to hash one out before the real debate can begin. Words have meaning.

The gun control debate, no different from a peace conference or divorce settlement, is complicated yet at its core there is a notable absence of basic agreement on terminology. The two biggest red flags are “assault rifles” and “assault weapons”. The following are basic overviews of each type.

  • Assault Rifle

The assault rifle traces its origins to World War II and the work of German gun designer Hugo Schmeisser. The German Army outfitted its troops with one of two primary small arms- the Karabiner 98k bolt-action rifle and the MP 40 submachine gun. The 98k was accurate, firing a large bullet out to ranges in excess of 1,000 yards but it was long, heavy, could hold only five rounds, and limited in its firing rate due to the bolt-action. Conversely, the MP 40 fired a small, pistol-caliber round with a maximum range of just 270 yards, but it was light, mobile, fully automatic, and fitted with a large 32-round detachable magazine that could lay down an incredible hail of bullets.

Schmeisser created a completely new type of rifle that combined the best qualities of the semiautomatic infantry rifle and full automatic submachine gun, the Sturmgewehr 44, literally translated as storm rifle, now known as the assault rifle. Just a few years after the war, Red Army veteran Mikhail Kalashnikov and his team (scrubbed from history by the Soviets), created the AK-47, not just the most recognized weapon in the world but one of the most-recognized man-made objects period.

Over the past 75 years the assault rifle became the primary small arm of every military in the world. In that time the term “assault rifle” coalesced into a generally agreed-upon definition among militaries, historians, and gun experts. To be an assault rifle a small arm must check three boxes:

□ A detachable magazine holding at least 20 rounds.

□ Chambered to fire an intermediate cartridge.

□ Selective fire (capability to change weapon firing mode between semi- and fully automatic)

Despite the general consensus on the definition of “assault rifle”, it is constantly misused by politicians, the media, and the public at large. US Representative Brian Mast, a Republican from Palm City, FL, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting called for a ban on future sales of assault rifles, like the one he carried in Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

There are two problems with his statement:

1) An assault rifle was not used in the Parkland shooting. True assault rifles have been used in only a handful of gun crimes, and several of those were committed by individuals such as police officers with legal access to such weapons. Nikolas Cruz used a semi-automatic AR-15, a rifle with a detachable magazine and chambered for the intermediate .223 Remington cartridge, but not capable of full automatic fire. As a side note, the AR in AR-15 does not stand for assault rifle, but ArmaLite, the designer of the original weapon in the 1950’s.

2) Assault rifles have been heavily regulated in the United States since 1934, ten years before Hugo Schmeisser invented the assault rifle. The 1934 National Firearms Act imposed a $200 dollar tax on automatic weapons, a prohibitively expensive sum for the time. Congress banned importation in the 1960’s, and in the 80’s a total ban on domestic production came into effect.

Today, automatic weapons are rare, very expensive, require extensive background checks, and written authorization from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives (ATF) to even transport them over state lines. Just for clarification, a machine gun and assault rifle are two different weapon types though both must be capable of automatic fire.

Rep. Mast has conflated, knowingly or not, an assault rifle with a semi-automatic weapon that resembles a military assault rifle but does not qualify as one. As a combat veteran and staunch 2nd Amendment advocate, you would think he’d make the distinction to better bolster his argument. Context and meaning are important, not just in this debate but any debate.

  • Assault Weapon

The term “assault weapon” dates back at least to the 1980’s and has been used by both gun control advocates and the gun industry, although the latter not so much in recent years. The popularization of the term rests primarily with the 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, part of the larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It banned numerous specific weapons as well as guns with a bayonet mount, flash suppressor, grenade launcher mount, and any semiautomatic version of an automatic weapon.

It would almost be easier to describe them by stating what they are not. Some, like the ability to accept a grenade launcher or bayonet are simply silly. Other specifications refer to nothing more than the appearance of the weapon. A “semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm” is just a semiautomatic rifle and nothing more. A replica Shelby Cobra AC is not a real Cobra, it’s a kit car. Imitation crab meat is not crab though the taste and textures are similar. There is nothing in the legislation referring to any gun or gun characteristic that actually affects its lethality such as muzzle velocity or cartridge size.

semiautomatic "AK-47"
A semiautomatic “AK-47”: Looks nearly identical to an actual AK-47 but appearances aren’t important. This is not an assault rifle- it lacks the capability for fully automatic.


A true AK-47. Looks similar to the one above but looks can be deceiving.

Senator Diane Feinstein (D) of California introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2017 that seeks to reinstate many of the prohibitions of the 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, which ended in 2004 as a result of a sunset provision. The proposed legislation specifically lists 205 weapons, i.e. specific models made by specific companies that would be banned, as well as numerous accessories that make no difference in the lethality of a rifle.

The simple fact is there is currently no precise definition of “assault weapon”; it is a nebulous term with no definitive, consensus-accepted meaning. Too many proposed bans in her legislation are nothing more than arbitrary decisions based on little more than “this gun looks dangerous, let’s get rid of it”. Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine best elucidated the innate contradictions in the bill, writing:

To give you a sense of how silly Feinstein’s distinctions are, her bill specifically exempts the Iver Johnson M–1 Carbine and the Ruger Mini-14, but only when they have fixed stocks. Adding a folding or adjustable stock to these rifles transforms them from legitimate firearms into proscribed “assault weapons,” even though that change does not make them any more lethal or suitable for mass murder. That’s the sort of nonsensical line drawing that must be defended by any honest and well-informed advocate of a renewed “assault weapon” ban, assuming such a person exists.

The Ruger Mini-14 at top would be legal under the proposed Assault Weapons Ban of 2017. The Ruger Mini-14 under it would be illegal. Same bullet, muzzle velocity, and range but the one below has a collapsible stock and a pistol-style grip, neither of which make it any more lethal.


The confusion, conflation, and sometimes outright misuse of these terms have made honest gun control debates the victim, leaving many Americans unsure how to understand and interpret the issue, no matter what their position.

A recent report from KOMO News in Seattle perfectly encapsulates the confusion. The headline states, “’Absolutely insane’: Wash. law enforcement agencies selling assault rifles [emphasis mine]” yet the very first sentence reads “When law enforcement agencies in Washington and other states sell guns they’ve confiscated during criminal investigations, they’re not just selling pistols and hunting rifles, they’re also putting assault weapons [emphasis mine], including AR-15s, back on the street.”

The second paragraph affirms that police departments across Washington have sold dozens of assault weapons including AK47’s. Well, either it was a genuine fully automatic AK47 or, much more likely, a semiautomatic version of a Kalashnikov weapon. The story also lists an “SKS assault rifle” sold in 2012. The problem here is that the WWII-era Russian SKS is, and always has been, a semiautomatic rifle.

Further down the page there is this paragraph:

Assault rifles are the weapons of choice in mass shootings. An AR-15-style assault rifle was used in this month’s deadly shooting at a Florida high school, as well as mass shootings at a Las Vegas music festival; a Texas church; an Orlando, Florida, nightclub; a San Bernardino, California, social services center; a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school; and an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

This is also not true. None of the shootings above involved a single assault rifle. What were involved, depending on you term of choice, were assault weapons or semiautomatic rifles. If you are not well-versed in small arms (and I mean lack even a basic understanding of guns) this story is a nightmare. Assault weapons, assault rifles, the AK47, and semiautomatic rifles are all conflated to the point of interchangeability.


The problem we face today in too many debates is the overwhelming instinct to shut our eyes, poke fingers in our ears, and refuse any new opinions. By laying out my concerns for misused and meaningless terminology there are many people who would instantly label me a gun nut. By the same token, Second Amendment absolutists run for the hills screaming at even the mildest suggestions for gun control policies, much less even a debate. We cannot keep this up.

While I personally support the Second Amendment, it does not make reference to anything other than the right to own and bear arms. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. There is no mention of machine guns, assault rifles, magazines, bayonets, grenade launchers, or anything, save the right to own and use them. Consider the issue of mass shootings.

The perception is strong and oft-repeated that mass shootings are on the rise but this is not the case. What has changed is the casualty rate from such events, which has risen over the past couple of decades.

Here’s a great opportunity to have a polite, rationale debate about detachable magazines, semiautomatic action, and cartridge sizes, free from hyperbole and senseless discussion over how a weapon looks. A ban on detachable magazines or perhaps even semiautomatic rifles could be a (partial) solution to the problem, if we’re willing to come to the table.

If we can’t even see eye-to-eye on even basic terminology, debate will continue on as a shouting match to the point where it escalates from Yankees vs Red Sox to a full-blown soccer riot.


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