Paramilitary weapons are just the latest topic in the ongoing debate over the role of specific categories of firearms in American society. Unfortunately, there is often confusion among the press and publicï¿½and even among handgun restriction advocatesï¿½regarding the various types of firearms. In an article published in the April 1987, American Rifleman, National Rifle Association staff member Paul Blackman writes, “When a reporter calls a semi-automatic rifle, pistol or shotgun a ‘submachine gun’…He may just not know any better.” Blackman’s right. He points out that The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual incorrectly defines a “submachine gun” as “A lightweight automatic or semiautomatic gun firing small arms ammunition.”
Recognizing this, descriptions of the various categories of firearms are as follows:
Firearms refer to weapons that use a powder charge to fire a projectile. (Airguns such as BB and pellet guns use a burst of air to fire their projectiles and hence are not considered firearms, although they are capable of inflicting severe or fatal injuries.)
Firearms have been broken down into essentially two groups: long guns and handguns. Long guns are weapons designed to be fired from the shoulder. According to ATF standards, to qualify as a rifle, the shoulder-fired weapon must have a barrel length of 16 inches, 18 inches for a shotgun. Handguns are firearms designed to be fired from a single hand and are usually defined as having an overall length of less than 18 inches. Repeating firearms are those that allow the shooter, by operating a mechanism on the gun, to load another round into the gun after a shot has been fired. Manually operating the bolt, lever, pump, or other mechanism extracts and ejects the empty case after the cartridge has been fired. It then reloads a fresh shell or cartridge from the magazine into the chamber and cocks the gun. Semi-automatic guns do this automatically when they fire. With each squeeze of the trigger, the semi-automatic repeats the process of firing, ejecting, and reloading. Although a semi-automatic will fire only one cartridge per trigger pull, an automatic will continue to fire cartridges as long as the trigger is pulled. An automatic is also known as a machine gun. More than 119 million rifles and shotguns have been produced in the U.S. since 1899. It is estimated that the majority of these weapons remain in circulation.
Handguns can be either revolvers or semi-automatic pistols. Revolvers have a round cylinder that is actually the magazine and acts as a chamber when properly aligned with the barrel. In double-action revolvers, each time the trigger is pulled the weapon fires and the cylinder advances to the next chamber. Single-action revolvers require that the hammer be manually cocked before each shot. A revolver’s cylinder usually holds six cartridges. Instead of a revolving cylinder, a semi-automatic handgun (also known as a pistol) carries its extra cartridges in a magazine usually located in the handle of the handgun. Spring pressure forces the cartridges upward in the magazine. Each time the weapon is fired, a new cartridge is moved up and is loaded into the chamber. Pistol magazines usually hold between 14 and 17 cartridges. Pistols are often known as “automatics” although they do require a separate trigger pull for each shot. Pistols that are fully-automatic, that is, that will continue to fire as long as the trigger is pulled, are known as machine pistols.
Handguns with barrel lengths of three inches or less are known as “snubbies.” Snubbies are preferred by criminals because of their increased concealability. A subcategory of snubbies are Saturday Night Specialsï¿½inexpensive, inaccurate snubbies made of inferior materials. Because of their low quality and inaccuracy, these weapons have no sporting purpose and are best suited for criminal use. There are an estimated 35 to 40 million handguns in America.
Assault firearms are semi-automatic (firing one bullet per trigger pull) and fully automatic (the weapon will keep on firing as long as the trigger is depressed) anti-personnel rifles, shotguns, and handguns that are designed primarily for military and law enforcement use. With muzzle velocities that are often greater than standard long guns, and high-capacity ammunition magazines, assault weapons are built to kill large numbers of human beings quickly and efficiently. Most assault weapons have no legitimate hunting or sporting use. Assault rifles and shotguns often have pistol grips and folding stocks, and are typically lighter and more concealable than standard long guns. Some assault pistols have threaded barrels for the easy attachment of silencers. Many assault weapons are merely semi-automatic versions of military machine guns, making them easier to convert to fully automatic machine guns.
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