The problem with ‘assault weapons’

What, exactly, is an assault weapon? The answer is that it depends on whom you ask.

To some, an assault weapon is a semi-automatic rifle with a pistol grip and a folding stock. To others, it is a firearm with a detachable ammunition clip that doesn’t require a tool to remove. Some focus on the size of the clip itself, arguing it defines the level of damage that a weapon can do. 

Obama exhorted Congress on Wednesday to “restore a ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10-round limit for magazines.”

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But he described the type of weapon that he would like to see banned only as one that can “pump out as many bullets as possible, as quickly as possible, to do as much damage, using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage.”

The rest of the details, which would form the substance of a ban, were left to lawmakers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is crafting a revised and stricter version of the 1994 assault-weapons ban in an attempt to prevent gun manufacturers from modifying their weapons to meet federal standards while still giving a shooter the same power to carry out a large-scale attack.

This time around, Feinstein appears to be directly targeting the characteristics that make an assault weapon deadly in the wrong hands, instead of focusing on cosmetic appearances that have little to do with a gun’s capabilities.

The 1994 law banned semi-automatic rifles that used detachable — typically high-capacity — magazine clips and had at least two of the following traits: a pistol grip, a flash suppressor for the muzzle, a folding or telescopic stock to make it more concealable or a bayonet mount.

Gun companies quickly realized they could stay within the law and continue to make rifles with high-capacity magazine clips if they steered away from the cosmetic features mentioned in the law.

Feinstein says that loophole won’t be repeated, and has vowed to set precise standards in her legislation, which is set to be introduced next Thursday.

“It won’t give manufacturers the latitude to make minor cosmetic changes and continue to sell assault weapons,” said Kristen Rand, the legislative director at the Violence Policy Center.

According to a summary of the legislation, Feinstein’s bill will focus on banning 120 specific assault weapons, in addition to semi-automatic rifles, handguns and shotguns that have detachable magazines or fixed clips that carry more than 10 bullets. It will also eliminate bayonet mounts and flash suppressors from the list of qualifiers while banning “thumbhole stocks” and “bullet buttons.”

In Feinstein’s home state of California, gun manufacturers worked around the state’s assault-weapons ban by creating “bullet buttons” that used a bullet as a tool to detach the magazine clip. The California law defined an assault weapon as being any rifle that did not require a tool to remove the clip.

But many Republicans and some conservative Democrats are concerned that an assault-weapons ban could go too far.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who will likely orchestrate initial debate on a proposed ban, said on Wednesday that lawmakers need to be very careful about how they word legislation.

“Most modern hunting rifles and handguns of all kinds are semi-automatic, and therefore to attempt to say you’re going to ban them based on how they look … that doesn’t draw any distinction between that and other semi-automatic-type weapons. So I don’t think that’s a meaningful way to address the problem,” Goodlatte said in an interview with C-SPAN.

The assault weapons available in the United States were originally designed for the military to use in combat, but gun manufacturers saw an open and untapped market with civilians. 

Gun makers modified their weapons to no longer fire in an automatic setting, meaning that every bullet requires the shooter to pull the trigger a separate time. This also has kept gun manufacturers in step with the 1986 ban on machine guns, which is still in effect.

So when Obama described “military-style assault weapons,” he was not referring to machine guns, but rather firearms that are nearly identical to military-grade assault rifles, without being automatic.

“A lot of times the semi-autos are described as ‘military-style,’ ” said Rand. “They have all of the military characteristics of military assault weapons except they can’t fire full[y] automatically. Otherwise they’re identical.”