Semi-automatic assault weapons are civilian versions of military assault rifles (like the AK-47, UZI, and M-16) and pistols (like the MAC-10). Military assault weapons were designed so that soldiers could “spray-fire” a large number of bullets over a broad killing zone, without having to aim at each individual target. Their increased firepower is the result of their ability to accept high-capacity ammunition magazines (also known as “clips”) which can hold up to 100 rounds. When one clip is emptied, it can be ejected and replaced by the shooter with a fresh clip in seconds. Their ability to be spray-fired from the hip is the result of a set of features that allow a “point-and-shoot” grip and help control recoil so the shooter can “hose down” a wide area. Civilian assault guns maintain the key design features that make this deadly spray firing easy. These features include:
- pistol grips (including so-called “thumb-hole stocks” and magazines that function like pistol grips); and,
- barrel shrouds, vented tubes surrounding barrels (which can become too hot to hold during rapid fire), which remain cool enough to be directly grasped by the shooter.
Some assault guns also feature folding stocks, which make the gun more concealable and easier to hold in a from-the-hip firing position, grenade launchers, bayonet mounts, and threaded barrels for adding silencers and flash suppressors (to reduce flash from the muzzle at night).
The ability to quickly lay down a high volume of fire makes semi-automatic assault weapons particularly dangerous in civilian use, and explains why terrorists, mass killers, and violent criminals favor them. It also distinguishes them from true hunting or target weapons.
In its efforts to stop restrictions on the production and sale of semi-automatic assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has worked with members of America’s gun industry to deceive the American public as to the special threat posed by assault weapons. In this battle, four myths have been posited by the NRA and the industry:
- Gun experts say there is no such thing as a civilian assault weapon.
- Assault weapons merely “look different” than traditional semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and have been singled out for their cosmetic differences.
- A “true” assault weapon is a selective-fire military weapon, capable of full-auto fire.
- Assault weapons pose no threat to America’s police.
These four myths are easily refuted by the facts surrounding semi-automatic assault weapons and much of the information debunking these false claims actually comes from the NRA and the gun industry. Throughout the 1980s, the NRA, the firearms industry, and the gun press talked enthusiastically about “assault rifles” and “assault pistols” and openly acknowledged the guns’ differences from traditional sporting weapons. This changed in 1989 when legislative efforts to restrict assault weapons began in the wake of Patrick Purdy’s Stockton, California schoolyard massacre. Purdy, armed with a semi-automatic AK-47 assault rifle, killed five schoolchildren. Twenty-nine others, including a schoolteacher, were wounded. Writers and industry members who had proudly pointed to the guns’ military heritage and applications now reversed themselves and began portraying these weapons of war as misunderstood ugly ducklings. The reality is that assault weapons are treated differently than other semi-automatic firearms for a simple reason: they are different.
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