Assault Weapon. The US military definition of an assault weapon is a small arm which is capable of semi-automatic (one round fired for every trigger manipulation) as well as full-automatic (rounds fire as long as the trigger is “pulled” back until released or the ammunition is expended).
US politicians batted around various terms in the 1980s and 1990s before coming up with a definition of their own.
Then, in the 1990s there was an assault weapons ban. However, this was a misnomer. What it did was name certain firearms but ultimately the ban required a combination of “function or attachments.” First, the firearm had to be semi-automatic capable of accepting a high capacity magazine AND had two of the following: a pistol grip, a folding or sliding stock, a flash hider, a bayonet lug. So essentially, this bill was about cosmetics.
The Assault Weapons ban was confusing to many, including members of law enforcement and justice system.
In addition, there was a ban on the sale of any high capacity magazines (over 10 rounds) manufactured after a certain date (I believe it was 1994). All high capacity magazines had to be stamped “Restricted Law enforcement/military.” This did not ban the ownership or sale of magazines manufactured and in circulation prior to this ban.
In turn, in the late 2000s, the assault weapon and high capacity magazine ban expired.
Then it was legal to sell (including magazines formerly stamped restricted) to the general public.
During the years of the high capacity magazine and assault weapon ban, very few people were prosecuted federally for violating this law (there were certain statutory enhancements on other crimes such as using a firearm in the commission of a federal crime of violence or drug crime).
Some have posted that the firearm used was the reason the shooter in Orlando killed so many. However, even if they had been armed with 6 shot revolvers or shotguns they would have done as much damage. Why? The time.
According to CNN here is the timeline of events:
2:02 am—shooting erupts at Pulse in which an off duty officer working at Pulse and two other officers nearby respond and exchange gunfire with the shooter. The shooter enters Pulse.
2:09 am – Pulse pastes a warning on Facebook.
2:22 am – Shooter calls 911.
5:00 am – Orlando SWAT made entry into the Pulse nightclub.
So from approximately 2:03-5:00 am, almost 3 full hours, the shooter had time to shoot his victims at leisure. 3 hours. 180 minutes. Did a long gun and plenty of ammunition allow this person a higher body count? Definitely. However, I would argue that in a confined space, a .22 caliber rifle and the same ammunition amount or a shotgun would have wreaked as much havoc.
Politicians are saying that we “need to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.” That is agreed. That is also the hardest thing to legally do. Why? 18 USC 922(g)(4) is the federal firearms law prohibiting mentally ill people to own firearms. However, it is a very narrow legal definition: 18USC922(g)(4) Any person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” is prohibited from shipping, transporting, receiving or possessing any firearm or ammunition.
Do you think that sounds straightforward? Well, then we have to go to the two terms “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution.” This means that a board, court or commission has to determine someone is mentally defective and officially adjudicate that way.
The “committed to a mental institution” means that a lawful entity (usually court) has to commit someone to a mental institution. The definition specifically excludes voluntary commitment and excludes a time period for “observation.” Usually these are the most common ways people go to mental institution in the criminal justice system. They get arrested and sent to a mental facility for observation (a “hold”) and after that time period the majority are released and no further action by the court or the medical field happens.
In other words someone can be crazy as a loon and never meet the definition of “mentally defective” and barred from possessing firearms.
The second reason that this is so hard to prove? Health Privacy Laws (HIPPA). Even if a court adjudicates someone as mentally defective those records are sealed and it is very very rare that those records are unsealed or released to law enforcement. There is no vehicle to marry up individuals who are mentally defective to the NICS (National Instant Checks System) when a person goes to buy a firearm.
PERSONS ADJUDICATED AS A MENTAL DEFECTIVE OR COMMITTED TO A MENTAL INSTITUTION
With that said, it’s time to point out that the U.S. currently has over 20,000 laws on the books that govern firearms, including the law that prohibits convicted felons from possessing or receiving firearms. The law also prohibits and punishes people who use guns while committing crimes.
It’s already against the law to murder someone. It’s against the law to assault. It’s against the law to speed. It’s against the law to sell drugs. It’s against the law to poison someone. It’s illegal to rape, rob, steal, and it’s even against the law to ride a horse on the highway while intoxicated (the rider, not the horse). But having laws on the books does not stop people from breaking them. And yes, people sometimes ride horses on the highway while drunk.
The trouble with gun laws—any law, actually—is that, believe it or not, bad guys ignore them, meaning that only honest, law-abiding citizens obey the rules by completing necessary paperwork, submitting to background checks, etc. We could add new laws to the books—20,000 new ones, if desired—, but not one would stop a bad guy from using a gun or any other tool to kill if that’s what he wanted to do.
Back to the assault weapons …
So, the basic difference between an “assault rifle” and your grandpa’s hunting rifle is what? Magazine capacity? Barrel length? Stopping power? Let’s take a quick one-question quiz to see how well you know your firearms.
Which of the following are “assault rifles” and which could be found in Papa’s hands during deer season? These should be easy to spot, I hope.
How well do you think you did?
Actually, they’re all the same rifle—mini-14’s, one of the rifles that, when the look is altered, people assume they’re “assault rifles.” The only differences in the rifles pictured above, though, is the added bling—grips, stock, etc. Basically, its the appearance that’s different. There’s nothing added that could increase the power of the rifle. There’s nothing about either of those rifles that makes an “assault” by one any more deadly than Pop’s target rifle, which could be, by the way, any one of the rifle’s pictured above.
Pull the trigger and they each fire only one round. Thats one round/bullet per pull of the trigger. They are not fully automatic (not machine guns). Again, the shooter must pull the trigger each time he/she wants to fire the weapon, just as one would do when firing a revolver or other handgun. It’s illegal, by the way, to possess a fully-automatic machine gun without first obtaining a special permit, approval that’s not easy to obtain.
Appearance – Think of a circus clown. They’re just like anyone else until they apply makeup. The cosmetics do not change the person, of course, but they certainly change his or her appearance. The same is true for the rifles in question.
So, did you get it right?
*Above image – geofferyandmika.me
Speaking of appearances, let’s now take a look at the first three weapons pictured above, from the top image down to the 3rd.
Nope, they’re just a few of the many rifles sold at Walmart or other such outlets, except these are either pellet guns or BB guns. The rifles often enjoyed by kids who like to shoot tin cans and paper targets out on the family farm.
Who remembers these?
Well, the rifles at the top of the post are the modern day cousin to them.
The top image is of a Benjamin Armada Air Rifle.
Number two = a Crossman M4 Pump Air Rifle.
Number three = Umarex BB Air Rifle.
They are not firearms, but they look menacing, right? It’s all about cosmetics, though, and the same is true about the rifles many refer to as assault rifles. They may look scary to some people, but they’re nothing more than a regular rifle dressed up with fancy attachments. As you can clearly see, it’s possible to dress up a BB gun to make it appear as something it’s not.
By the way, the revolver pictured above, it’s also a a BB gun. You can purchase one at Walmart for less than $50.
This piece is strictly factual, not opinion-based, nor is it an attempt to sway your opinions one way or another. It was written to help those who visit this site to better understand the firearms often written about in novels.
The tragedy that took place in Orlando was a despicable act committed by a despicable person … a terrorist. But that’s not the focus of this particular article.
As always, I welcome comments and questions, however, this blog is not the place for a debate on gun control, race, immigration, cops, politics, etc. Nor is this the place for profanity of any type. I thank you for maintaining a professional and courteous discussion.
*This article was a joint effort, with most of it written by a top expert who must remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak about the Orlando shooting.