Nobody Really Knows What an "Assault Rifle" is, So How Are We Supposed to Ban Them?


"Everybody," according to some polls, wants to get rid of "assault weapons" like the scary and intimidatingly named Bushmaster .223.

Nobody, however, knows what one is.

I have challenged many PolicyMic commenters and pundits to define the term "assault rifle." As yet, not a single person has been able to do it. Not a big surprise since there is really no such thing as an "assault rifle." (And, the term "assault weapon" is sort of redundant. A weapon, by definition, is a tool used to harm or destroy an enemy, prey, equipment, or structure. All of which sounds like "assault" to me.)

Here's one of many Bushmaster .223 models, by the way:


Take away the over-sized hand-guards on the barrel and the stock and you've got your basic AR-15, a very old design which was not universally well-liked by members of the United States armed forces due to the difficulty of cleaning it and the weapon's propensity to jam when exposed to ambient conditions, like air.

Note the scary Bushmaster logo, shown in this close-up:

Yikes! Scary ... But no more deadly by virtue of having a snake engraved onto the receiver than any other rifle.

Since nobody can tell you what an "assault rifle" is, here's the next best thing. Direct from the text of the the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, rifles meeting the following criteria were banned: "any semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine and at least two of the following five items: a folding or telescopic stock; a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; a bayonet mount; a flash suppressor or threaded barrel (a barrel that can accommodate a flash suppressor); or a grenade launcher."

This is straw grasping at its most laughable (and I'm being kind when I say that). Semi-auto rifles aren't banned unless they accept 10+ round magazines and have not one but at least two of these seemingly arbitrary features.

A folding or telescoping stock (a prominent feature of the Army's current M4 rifle) has no bearing on the weapon's lethality. It makes the weapon slightly easier to deal with in cramped military vehicles and aircraft but that's about it; it's not like you could fold one up and hide it in your pocket. See the stock? (That's the triangle-shaped thing to the left in the photo.) It slides in and out. That's it. Sliding it in makes the weapon about 4" shorter but no more lethal.

Pistol grips which protrude conspicuously? So, if they aren't "conspicuous," they don't count, right? One day I'll do a case search to see if any prosecutor anywhere was fool enough to raise this one in court. Regardless, a pistol grip also has no bearing on the lethality of a weapon. Many gun owners don't even like them. The pistol grips on the rifles in these photos are fairly conspicuous, but that doesn't make the rifles any more lethal. You could, in fact, take the pistol grips off and not affect the rifle's function at all.

Bayonet Mounts. Yes, they still make them. In a desperate wartime situation, a bayonet gives you something somewhat more effective than a raised middle finger when you've run out of bullets and the enemy is over-running your position. A bayonet is a knife. A rifle with a bayonet is essentially a spear. Many people have tried to convince me that "you can't kill as many people as fast with a knife as you can with an assault weapon." Yet the ability to mount a knife on the business end of a rifle is one of the criteria for an "assault weapon?" I'm getting a bit dizzy from the circular reasoning on this one. You don't actually have to have a bayonet to meet this criteria. Just that little metal part under the front sight where you could potentially mount a bayonet. Very dangerous, that little bit of metal must be!

Flash Suppressors. These are designed primarily to prevent the shooter from being blinded by the muzzle flash when firing in the dark, a problem that arises only with shorter rifle barrels. As I recall, most mass shootings have been committed in broad daylight or well-lit areas. The notable exception is the Batman incident in Aurora, Colorado, but I really don't think the shooter was sighting in on his targets; a flash suppressor is of little use when shooting from the hip. Might be fairly useful when hunting, however, since much hunting is done either at a ridiculously early hour or a very late one.

A Grenade Launcher! That's right. If you have a grenade launcher on your rifle, you may own an assault weapon. They do make rifle-mounted grenade launchers. The M203 was an M16 with a grenade launcher attached. I rarely see these for sale at Gander Mountain or anywhere else. But, of course, virtually every mass shooter has used one, right?

Other than the grenade launcher, the features outlawed by this law have no bearing whatsoever on how many people you could kill. Even the magazine size limit is easily defeated using well-known infantry tricks like taping two magazines together for fast loading. These are largely cosmetic features. They make rifles look scary. That's it.

A ban on "assault rifles" ... however you define them ... will be arbitrary at best and extreme in over-reach at worst. Such a ban would also be about as useful as trying to charge a large, ugly, tattooed biker with intimidation simply because of his appearance.

Side Note:

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, also specifically banned the following 19 makes and models of firearms which were arbitrarily deemed to meet the cosmetic threshold: the Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (all models); Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil; the Beretta Ar70 (SC-70); Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC; SWD M-10, M-11, M-11/9, and M-12; Steyr AUG; INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9 and TEC-22; and all "revolving cylinder shotguns," such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12. And, of course, the Colt AR-15.

To the best of my knowledge, most of the guns on this list would have been banned by the criteria set forth above.