What are assault rifles?

Assault rifle is a well-defined technical term. For a rifle to qualify as an assault rifle, it must meet at least the following partial list of criteria:

Given the first point of the definition, assault rifles are a type of machine gun - that is, according to the ATF, a gun that fires more than one round each time the trigger is pulled.

AR-15s are not assault rifles (machine guns)

The following picture shows two functionally-identical Ruger 10/22s, which are small-caliber (.22LR) semi-automatic rifles used for plinking and hunting small varmints such as squirrels:

10/22 wooden stock vs plastic

These guns are functionally identical, sharing the exact same internal parts that fire the bullets in a semi-automatic fashion and accept the same type of magazine. The rifle on the bottom only differs from the one on the top by external cosmetic accessories like its black plastic telescoping stock, rail mount, and flash hider, none of which affect the firing capability of the rifle.

In fact, it is possible to rapidly swap out these components and entirely change the gun’s aesthetic on a whim (again, without affecting its actual functionality), as this video demonstrates:

None of these guns are assault rifles. Regardless of cosmetic changes, the action of these firearms are restricted to semi-automatic firing; they are incapable of selective fire so cannot meet the definition of assault rifle.

In the exact same manner, AR-15s like this one are also not assault rifles:

The firing mechanism of an AR-15 is no different from any other semi-automatic sporting rifle, including typical hunting rifles. In fact, AR-15s make excellent hog hunting rifles, and can also be used for hunting larger game such as deer with a change of barrel to accommodate a more powerful cartridge. Having a black plastic stock with “tactical” attachments does not an assault rifle make.

Are assault rifles (machine guns) legal?

In most states, yes. Assault rifles, being machine guns, are legal at the federal level but strictly regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (further amended by the Gun Control Act of 1968 and Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986). However, states may choose to add their own restrictions, and some states such as California and New Jersey have banned civilian ownership of machine guns.

Although legal in most states, the process for obtaining a machine gun is very arduous. It involves the following:

Violating this process is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison, a $100,000 fine, and the inability to own or possess firearms in the future.

In addition, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 closed the machine gun registry to new machine guns, only allowing civilians to transfer machine guns that were already on the registry. Therefore, any machine guns created after 1986 are automatically unavailable for civilian ownership as they cannot be added to the registry. Due to this artificial supply limitation, the cost of machine guns is very high; M16s for example (which are true assault rifles) sell for over $20,000 today. Government agencies - both federal on down to local police - are completely exempted from this restriction.

Are assault rifles (machine guns) used to commit crimes?

No. There are nearly half a million legally registered machine guns in the United States, but the amount of crime committed with legal machine guns is non-existent. There is possible evidence of only one homicide committed using a legally registered machine gun by a civilian (not police) since 1934.

What about "assault weapons?"

Assault weapon is a nebulous, non-technical but legal term (which varies amongst various legislation it’s defined in) that was created by lawmakers to pass legislation banning firearms and accessories based upon an emotional appeal to their cosmetic features.

It began in California with that state’s Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, eventually culminating in the federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) of 1994, a federal law which banned cosmetic features such as folding or telescoping stocks, threaded barrels, certain magazine capacities, pistol grips, barrel shrouds, amongst others. As illustrated in the above video, changing the cosmetic features of a rifle has no effect on its firing ability.

The federal AWB expired in 2004 after 10 years of legality, and was unsurprisingly found to have had no statistical effect on crime. Meanwhile, California’s ban on “assault weapons” remains standing to this day, while several other states have enacted their own bans on “assault” weapons (with varying definitions on what assault means).

Why is this important?

Regardless of your position on firearms, terminology is very important when having an informed discussion. It wouldn’t be acceptable to call a motorcycle a semi truck when discussing vehicles, so the same standard should apply to firearm discussions. Precise terminology is doubly important when discussing a subject that is constantly targeted for legislation such as firearms.

The motivation for this page’s creation has been the uptick in the misuse of the term assault rifle by many with loud voices, including the media and government representatives such as ATF agents, FBI agents, and U.S. Attorneys. This seems to have created a cycle of confusion that needs to be swiftly corrected.