The History & Definition of “Assault Weapons”

A client recently asked me to define “assault weapon”.  In light of the repeated and careless use of the phrase in the media and particularly, on the internet, I am not surprised at her confusion.

“Assault weapon” is primarily a label invented by the liberal media to stir the emotions of the uninformed.  In my gun law practice, I rarely come across the phrase in statutes or case law.  “Assault weapon” is not defined in the National Firearms Act or the Gun Control Act.  The laws of the states where I practice are devoid of the phrase, and in fact, only a handful of states in our country define or use it.

I have only become familiar with “assault weapon” because on a now daily basis it is tossed about by persons attempting to gain ground on the political battlefield.  It is used to promote a ban on firearms by inciting fear in the minds of persons wholly unfamiliar with the design, function, and capability of various firearms.  These same persons repeat the phrase because of their perceived definition:   “assault” must mean the firearm is more deadly than other, “normal” firearms; they must be the cause of unnecessary and senseless deaths, such as the deaths of schoolchildren.  The AR-15 is consistently targeted as a horrifying assault weapon, in part because of the misunderstanding of the “AR” designation by gun owners and non-gun owners alike, who use it as an acronym for “assault rifle” rather than understanding the true history of the AR rifles and their development by Armalite (hint:  AR as in ARmalite).

What began as a U.S. military definition of “assault rifle”, defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as a fully automatic rifle used for military purposes, has morphed into political propaganda.  The left finally succeeded in codifying “assault weapon” on a national level when Bill Clinton signed the federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 (known by AWB and no longer in force due to its expiration on September 13, 2004).  18. U.S.C. 921(a)(30).  I have copied the text of this law below.  The AWB  itemizes specific firearms as assault weapons, and includes firearms that possess certain cosmetic features including detachable magazines, pistol grips, and telescoping stocks.  These features were seemingly deemed by the proponents of the law to somehow make a firearm more dangerous than other firearms.  However, most of the defining characteristics do not affect a firearm’s effectiveness or accuracy.

The first state ban and definition of “assault weapons” was passed in California in 1989: the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which together with California Penal Code Sections 30510 and 30515 itemize California’s designated assault weapons.  The California Attorney General publishes a pictorial “Assault Weapons Identification Guide”, which can be reviewed at

California’s list, if reviewed by knowledgeable firearms experts, would in most opinions include firearms that are neither military rifles nor more deadly than firearms not deemed to be “assault weapons”.  All firearms can kill as intended or accidentally, as can a host of other objects willingly used by human beings for sport, recreation, or to accomplish common acts of daily living (tobacco, alcohol, and automobiles still top the list as implements of death).  Tossing around a phrase to incite emotion and rob lawful citizens of a constitutional right does nothing to address our real societal problems.

While the definition of “assault weapon” remains elusive, use of the phrase does not.  A good lawyer will not sling words without understanding the meaning of those words.  Any intelligent person should adhere to the same rule.  To quote the eloquence of Mark Twain:  The difference between the almost right word and the wrong one is really a large matter – it is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.

Text of the former Assault Weapons Ban
18 U.S.C. 921(a)(30):
(30) The term `semiautomatic assault weapon’ means–
`(A) any of the firearms, or copies or duplicates of the firearms in any caliber, known as–
`(i) Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (all models);
`(ii) Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil;
`(iii) Beretta Ar70 (SC-70);
`(iv) Colt AR-15;
`(v) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC;
`(vi) SWD M-10, M-11, M-11/9, and M-12;
`(vii) Steyr AUG;
`(viii) INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9 and TEC-22; and
`(ix) revolving cylinder shotguns, such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12;
`(B) a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of–
`(i) a folding or telescoping stock;
`(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
`(iii) a bayonet mount;
`(iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and
`(v) a grenade launcher;
`(C) a semiautomatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of–
`(i) an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;
`(ii) a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer;
`(iii) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the nontrigger hand without being burned;
`(iv) a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded; and
`(v) a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm; and
`(D) a semiautomatic shotgun that has at least 2 of–
`(i) a folding or telescoping stock;
`(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
`(iii) a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds; and
`(iv) an ability to accept a detachable magazine.’.