A gun glossary: What’s an assault weapon, anyway?



Will Michael of Homer, La., examines a Bushmaster M4 A3 Carbine 300 AAC Blackout rifle at the Bushmaster exhibit during the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Tradeshow, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in Las Vegas. Michael, whose family owns a sporting goods store, said while his gun sales focus primarily on bolt action hunting rifles, he and his clients have taken an interest in assault rifles over the last five years because of an expanding wild hog problem in his region. The National Shooting Sports Foundation was focusing its 35th annual SHOT Show on products and services new to what it calls a $4.1 billion industry, with a nod to a raging national debate over assault weapons. AP/Julie Jacobson

WASHINGTON — Even Americans who have never touched a gun are probably familiar with the looks and names of a few — the military M16, the action-movie’s Uzi, the historic Colt .45. The terms thrown around in the national debate over gun control can be harder to fathom.

What’s a high-capacity magazine? Which guns are “military style”? Why would a person use an assault weapon?

A primer on some key terms in the debate over President Barack Obama’s gun-control proposals:


There are all sorts of semi-automatics — they can be pistols, rifles or shotguns — and they are popular sellers. They fire a bullet each time the trigger is pulled, with no need to manually move the next round into the firing chamber. That means they can fire again as fast as a person can release and pull the trigger, so long as the gun’s got more ammunition at the ready. Semi-automatic weapons are popular with hunters, sport shooters and gun enthusiasts.

The sale and manufacture of some semi-automatics deemed to be “assault weapons” was banned for a decade. That law expired in 2004.

The shooters used semi-automatic rifles in the Aurora, Colorado. movie theater attack in July that killed 12 people and injured 70 and in the slaying of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in December.

Full Automatics

They are on the battlefield and show up in action movies, but fully automatic weapons aren’t common among civilians in the United States.

While a semi-automatic can fire one bullet per trigger pull, an automatic keeps firing bullets as long as the trigger is pulled once. Full automatics range from the Prohibition-era machine guns used by gangsters and federal agents to modern rifles, pistols or shotguns.

Sales of full automatics are restricted by federal law — buyers need a special permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That requires an extensive background check and paying a $200 tax. Some states and local governments prohibit private ownership of full automatics.

Assault Weapons

In 1994, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law a ban on some semi-automatic rifles and handguns that were deemed “assault weapons.” Defining the term was tricky then and remains controversial today.

Under that now-expired law, some new guns were banned by name, including the Uzi, the AK-47 and the Colt AR-15, which is similar to the military’s standard issue M16.

The law also covered some other semi-automatic rifles that are used with detachable magazines — devices that hold ammunition and feed the bullets into the firing chamber automatically. Such rifles were banned only if they had two or more additional characteristics listed in the law, such as a folding stock or a pistol grip.

Guns already sold to buyers before the ban were exempt and could be resold. Meanwhile, manufacturers skirted the ban by producing similar guns under new names or making minor design changes, such as removing a bayonet mount.

Obama says he wants Congress to ban what he calls “military-style assault weapons,” but he hasn’t defined the term, so it’s unclear which guns would be covered. He describes his plan as reinstating and strengthening the 1994 assault weapon law.

That 1994 law, however, wouldn’t have covered the military-looking Bushmaster .223 rifles used in the Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, shootings, had it still been in place in 2012. The old law did apply to another aspect of those shootings — high-capacity magazines.

Why would a person use an assault weapon? They are considered by some people to be fun to shoot; they can be used for hunting, depending on the weapon and the size of the animal; and because they resemble military rifles they can appear particularly menacing when used for personal defense or home protection.

High-Capacity Magazine

Obama wants to reinstate the ban on sales of new high-capacity magazines, defined as those that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

These magazines allow a shooter using a semi-automatic weapon like the Bushmaster .223 to fire more bullets before pausing to reload. Police said Connecticut school attack suspect Adam Lanza had several 30-round magazines with him. In the Colorado theater attack, police have said suspect James Holmes used a 100-round drum magazine.

Gun owners

More than a third of Americans — 36 percent — say someone in their household owns a gun, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Jan. 10-14.

Millions use guns for hunting, sport and target shooting. Hunting guns include an array of shotguns and rifles of various types and sizes, including semi-automatics and the traditional bolt-action rifles. The prey and a hunter’s personal preference determine the weapon and the kind of ammunition used.

Some people keep guns solely for protection. Carrying a concealed handgun is legal in every state but Illinois under certain conditions; for example, the gun owner might need to pass a background check first. Some states require safety classes. Some state and local laws, including in California and New York, make it difficult if not impossible to get a license to carry a concealed weapon. Illinois law bans carrying concealed weapons, but a federal appeals court overturned that law in December. The ruling is likely to be appealed.

Federal laws prevent the government from tracking how many guns are sold every year and who buys them, so there are no definitive statistics.

Roughly 310 million guns were owned or available for sale in the United States in 2009, according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That’s about 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.

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  • Mamang Pulis

    assault weapons are not an issue here in mindanao—we have tommy guns, BAR’s, .30, .50 , M1carbines–in effect–WW2 weps.—we have heavy weapons too! take your pick on mortars, RPG’s, RR90’s

    we also have your typical dysfunctional cretin that you can find in any patch of earth—although–most of these are checked because—we employ corporal punishments to ‘pasaway’ kids–the fear of god—and all the old school discipline….we do not have children shooting children–but! we have adults–drug crazed shooting children, we have foreigners doing a dirty harry inside a court room–we have ‘amaw’ politicos killing en masse journalist, their equally ‘amaw’ patriarch chain sawing their perceived enemies; we have rebels liquidating DPA’s and police patrols

    and the finale–we have police officers who does not know the words ‘collateral damage’ —-and mind you–it is a legitimate shoot out.

    • batangpaslit

      hahaha….am amused, Bro, of your blog. pag Mindanao, free for all eh pag dating sa weaponry

      • Mamang Pulis

        the word ‘assault’—to us indios in mindanao is the ACT——-weapons can range from a ‘barong, pira, kris to a bushmaster made in marawi city—

        these americans are so lame–they connote a politically correct label to everything–

        —palibasa hindi na sila pinapalo ng magulang nila noong batang paslit pa sila…kaya ayan–puro pasaway!

  • Juan Delacruz

    You just remove “something” and it becomes automatic. For me the effectivity and quality of professionalism of law enforcement is the key to stopping people from stacking weapons. Lets face it when you watch the news and most of the news is dominated by crimes commited to civilians minding their own business theres no way I am going to criticize those who want to protect themselves. The chaos of metro manila driving attitude makes me wish that I am driving a tank and when I get out of my car with my family I wish I am arm like those in desert storm.

    • batangpaslit

      chuckles….if you’re driving a war tank, you won’t be worried of reckless drivers crusing the streets in Metro Manila. on the contrary, the reckless drivers would drive away from you.

    • Mamang Pulis

      ‘dre—ako takot ako mag maneho sa metromanila–mas maraming tarantad0 kaysa dito—-

      dito sa amin–kabaw,kambing,baboy at manok iilagan mo–kapag nasa isla pa ako, sa Sulu,–yun kape na inilatag sa kalsada na pinatutuyo ang iiwasan ko at siguradong semplang ang motor ko…

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