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Bullet Hoses

Semiautomatic Assault Weapons—What Are They? What's So Bad About Them?

Ten Key Points about What Assault Weapons Are and Why They Are So Deadly

This study documents the following 10 important key points.

1. Semiautomatic assault weapons (like AK and AR-15 assault rifles and UZI and MAC assault pistols) are civilian versions of military assault weapons. There are virtually no significant differences between them.

2. Military assault weapons are "machine guns." That is, they are capable of fully automatic fire. A machine gun will continue to fire as long as the trigger is held down until the ammunition magazine is empty.

3. Civilian assault weapons are not machine guns. They are semiautomatic weapons. (Since 1986 federal law has banned the sale to civilians of new machine guns.) The trigger of a semiautomatic weapon must be pulled separately for each round fired. It is a mistake to call civilian assault weapons "automatic weapons" or "machine guns."

4. However, this is a distinction without a difference in terms of killing power. Civilian semiautomatic assault weapons incorporate all of the functional design features that make assault weapons so deadly. They are arguably more deadly than military versions, because most experts agree that semiautomatic fire is more accurate—and thus more lethal—than automatic fire.

5. The distinctive "look" of assault weapons is not cosmetic. It is the visual result of specific functional design decisions. Military assault weapons were designed and developed for a specific military purpose—laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone, also known as "hosing down" an area.

6. Civilian assault weapons keep the specific functional design features that make this deadly spray-firing easy. These functional features also distinguish assault weapons from traditional sporting guns.

7. The most significant assault weapon functional design features are: (1) ability to accept a high-capacity ammunition magazine, (2) a rear pistol or thumb-hole grip, and, (3) a forward grip or barrel shroud. Taken together, these are the design features that make possible the deadly and indiscriminate "spray-firing" for which assault weapons are designed. None of them are features of true hunting or sporting guns.

8. "Spray-firing" from the hip, a widely recognized technique for the use of assault weapons in certain combat situations, has no place in civil society. Although assault weapon advocates claim that "spray-firing" and shooting from the hip with such weapons is never done, numerous sources (including photographs and diagrams) show how the functional design features of assault weapons are used specifically for this purpose.

9. Unfortunately, most of the design features listed in the 1994 federal ban—such as bayonet mounts, grenade launchers, silencers, and flash suppressors—have nothing to do with why assault weapons are so deadly. As a result, the gun industry has easily evaded the ban by simply tinkering with these "bells and whistles" while keeping the functional design features listed above.

10. Although the gun lobby today argues that there is no such thing as civilian assault weapons, the gun industry, the National Rifle Association, gun magazines, and others in the gun lobby enthusiastically described these civilian versions as "assault rifles," "assault pistols," "assault-type," and "military assault" weapons to boost civilian assault-weapon sales throughout the 1980s. The industry and its allies only began to use the semantic argument that a "true" assault weapon is a machine gun after civilian assault weapons turned up in inordinate numbers in the hands of drug traffickers, criminal gangs, mass murderers, and other dangerous criminals.

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The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.