An assault rifle is a selective-fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. Assault rifles were first used during World War II. Though Western nations were slow to accept the assault rifle concept after World War II, by the end of the 20th century they had become the standard weapon in most of the world's armies, replacing battle rifles and sub-machine guns. Examples include the StG 44, AK-47 and the M4-A1 rifle. -Wikipedia
That is the definition of an assault rifle, according to Wikipedia, in 2016. Here is what it says today: I've highlighted the changes in blue—
An assault rifle is a selective fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. Assault rifles were first put into mass production and accepted into widespread service during World War II. The first assault rifle to see major usage was the German StG 44, a development of the earlier Mkb 42. While immediately after World War II, NATO countries were equipped with battle rifles, the development of the M16 rifle during the Vietnam War prompted the adoption of assault rifles by the rest of NATO. By the end of the 20th century, assault rifles had become the standard weapon in most of the world's armies, replacing full-powered rifles and sub-machine guns in most roles. Some of the most successful assault rifles include the AK-47, M16, IMI Galil and Heckler & Koch G36. -Wikipedia
Flip on any news channel and you'll be hard-pressed not to hear the term “assault rifle.” Some people want to ban them (again) and others say there is no such thing.
I say, it's hard to even have a conversation on a topic, when no one can even define what it is they are talking about. I want to clear up how people commonly use the term “assault rifle,” and explain why that banning them is not only wrong, but ineffective and impossible.
The AR-15 Is NOT An Assault Rifle
The recent mass killings have kindled a ground swell of gun reform directed at assault rifles. Much of the rhetoric is being thrown at the AR-15 specifically. This is because the gun control advocates describe the AR-15 as “the weapon of choice” for mass killers. But is that accurate?
We did some research back in 2021 and looked at the guns mass killers used in their crimes. Of 14 mass shootings where the killer used a long gun (rifle or shotgun), the killer chose the AR-15, 10 times.
But out of 30 mass killings we looked at, killers used handgun 16 times, and AR-15s specifically, only 10 times. You can see all the data on the guns used by mass killers, and the (in)effectiveness of background checks here.
Now I'm not saying killers don't kill people with AR-15s. That would be a lie. My point is if we hope to have a worth-while conversation about banning “assault rifles,” we need to use actual data and agreed upon definitions.
But the firearms used in the two most recent shootings, the ones at the center of the re-ignited assault weapon ban debate, are not even assault rifles by the commonly understood definition!
That’s right. There are several major differences between the AR-15 and an assault rifle.
You may have heard someone say, “It’s right there in the name! AR stands for assault rifle!”
But it does not. The AR actually stands for Armalite rifle and 15 is the model number. Armalite being the company that created the AR-15.
News media and politicians are the best at spreading disinformation about guns. Either out of ignorance or on purpose, the motive is irrelevant.
So let's dispel the rumors and rhetoric, and look at the facts of AR-15s and assault rifles, so that we can see where the differences lie.
What Is the Difference Between the “AR-15 Platform” and Military Assault Rifles
The AR-15 is the civilian equivalent of the U.S. Army’s standard issue M4-A1 and both use the same 5.56mm rounds of ammunition, and look very similar to one another. That can sound a little dangerous to the average person on the street. Some people get nervous, then they hear the words “military weapon” and they see a gun that looks like the firearm used by the U.S. Army.
But what they don't realize is that while the AR-15 might look like the M4-A1, but they are not the same. If they were, people would just sell M4-A1’s.
No, there are several differences between the AR and the M4.
The major one, and the one that gets all the press, is precisely what disqualifies the AR-15 from being a military grade assault rifle.
The AR does not have the automatic firing capabilities of the three rifles mentioned in the assault rifle definition at the top of the page.
The AR-15 is semi-automatic, because that is what a U.S. citizen can buy legally, without the proper paperwork. According to an article Rational Basis Analysis of “Assault Weapon” Prohibition by David B. Kopel, written for the Journal of Contemporary Law:
In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically. Many civilians have purchased semi-automatic-only rifles that look like military assault rifles. These civilian rifles are, unlike actual assault rifles, incapable of automatic fire.
That is the major factor when looking at the difference between these two rifles. An assault rifle being a fully automated fire capable firearm vs. weapons like the AR-15, that while, by appearances, look like they could fire fully automatic, can not.
However, if you’re like me and want to do some fun reading about the schematics and really get into the nitty gritty of comparing the two firearms, AR15.com has a wonderful analysis showing the differences right here.
Then Can We Just Ban All Semi-Automatic Rifles Like the AR?
Understanding the difference between fully automatic guns and semi-automatic guns, you can more fully appreciate the challenge in trying to pass legislation to ban the AR-15 or similar rifles.
Okay, let's ask this question… “Can we ban all semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15?”
You can't do that either… unless you suggest we should ban nearly every popular hunting rifle and shotgun.
Furthermore, most handguns sold today, and a large majority of shotguns and other rifles also have semi-automatic firing systems. This makes it impossible to go down that road. Here is a clear illustration of the point:
Now that is fine, and hopefully you have some material to look and see for yourself what makes up an assault rifle, at least on a historical standpoint.
However, understanding definitions and how a firearm works will not put the debate to rest.
With the subject of defining assault rifles, much debate rages, and has done so since 1994 when the federal ban on assault rifles was first brought to congress.
What is the 1994 Assault Rifle Ban
In 1994, Congress passed a law at the federal level called the Assault Rifle Ban of 1994.
The law outlawed a variety of guns, including rifles and “high-capacity” magazines. It had a 10 year provision and if there was not enough support to renew it, it would expire in 2004. When the government looked at the effect of the law, there was no evidence to show that it had any effect at all on stopping crime, so it ended.
Here is how the law defined its prohibitions:
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act was a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Its rules for defining what an “assault weapon” was were as follows.
Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Bayonet mount
- Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
- Grenade launcher mount
Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
- Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
- Barrel shroud safety feature that prevents burns to the operator
- Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
- A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Detachable magazine
Now that language appears to be straightforward, however, the definition is based primarily on attachments or modifications to the rifle.
If there was a manufacturer at the time whose weapons did not adhere to these restrictions, what would you do? Close up shop? No. Of course not. You would adhere to the new laws and alter productions, and that is just what happens with newer models of the AR-15.
Look at the chart that I posted earlier from ar15.com and see these modifications on an M4-A1, but not on an AR.
So the manufacturers listened to the demands of congress, followed the law, and made AR-15s that did not violate the new law.
Guess what happened? All shootings stopped. No, of course they didn't, because those cosmetic modifications didn't affect the function of the gun or stop people from carrying out evil deeds. So shootings continued and instead of acknowledging this, and looking at ways to improve people's lives, they deflected and found a scapegoat.
They stuck the blame on the firearm companies.
Over time, the public realized that it made little sense, and didn't help public safety, to ban a gun just because you could adjust the butt stock. It became clear that “assault weapon” bans were completely arbitrary and ineffective. So the plan shifted, and they needed a new term, “military style.” At one point President Obama even called into question all “military styled” weapons, without giving a definition of what he meant.
Consider that the Columbine High School shooting happened during the 10 year assault weapons ban. The perpetrators used rifles that met the legal standard within the law. Despite being limited to 10 round magazines and certain makes of rifles being illegal; these students carried out their evil plot.
So What Are We To Do?
Every time someone brings up a new amendment to the definition of an assault rifle, the debate essentially starts from scratch. Beyond the dictionary definition or even that which I posted at the beginning of this article, assault weapon is nothing more than a set of words.
It has become painfully obvious that, even with a ban on specific firearms or specific modifications, these tragedies continue to occur. Maybe that’s because banning a single class of weapon isn’t an adequate solution to the problem of “gun violence” in this country.
And considering the very AR-15 that is, at many times, the center of this assault weapons debate, isn’t even the type of firearm congress is attempting to ban by their own definition of “assault rifle.”
So what do we do? Some want to keep the focus on the gun, gun manufacturers and gun owners who've done nothing wrong. They want universal background checks, more red flag laws, mental health screenings, restrictions on ammunition and the number of guns someone can purchase. Some even have called for the actual repeal of the Second Amendment. Recently, 3 Democratic members of congress proposed amending Title 18 to give the Federal Government complete power to regulate the individual's right to purchase any firearm, not just “weapons of war” whatever that means.
None of this worked in the past, and won't work.
If we really wanted to understand the problem, we would try to understand what causes a person to murder groups of humans. We would try and do what we could to see why these killers, mostly men are so evil, angry and violent. They don't become violent just because they have a gun. They are violent with or without a gun. People drive cars into crowds and kill old ladies and grandmothers during a Christmas parade if they don't have a gun.
The question shouldn't be over which gun laws killers will follow. The real question should look at the reasons people seem to commit more and more acts of evil towards one another. Maybe it's because we don't want to acknowledge that men can do horrific things to others, and it's quite difficult to predict who, when, or understand why.
That very well may be a debate to come, but it apparently isn’t the one people are having today.
We would encourage you to be a voice of reason. Share this article with others when you hear them talk about “military style weapons” that have no place in the hands of citizens.
*We updated this post which originally published back in August 20016*