With all this talk about assault weapons, let's look at what they are talking about. Just what makes something an 'assault weapon' and how does this term compare to the concept of what lawmakers are looking to regulate.
Assault Rifles and Guns
The first true assault rifle was born in 1943 Germany. Invented by firearms engineer Hugo Schmeisser, it was a select-fire (either full auto or semi-auto at the flick of a switch) rifle that fired an intermediate caliber round (larger than a pistol but shorter than a rifle round), and had a large detachable magazine that could be changed quickly. This gun was dubbed the StG44 or 'storm rifle model 44' and was a crucial addition to the German arsenal in the end of World War Two. This rifle was very popular and the Soviets soon had a modified version they adopted a few years later as the AK-47. The current assault rifle of the US military is the M4A1 carbine, which has a select-fire trigger, 14.5-inch barrel, and can fire at 750-rounds per minute until its ammunition is exhausted. For a private citizen to own one of these types of weapons, it has to be made before 1986 as the Hughes Amendment banned production of select-fire weapons for private sales that year. Even if a 'pre-86' gun is available, they run upwards of $10K and take 3-6 months to transfer from a Class III dealer after an extensive ATF approval process that includes a $200 tax stamp.
AKS-74U 'Krinkov' of the Russian Army. It is 19-inches long with a 8.3-inch barrel and fires 30 rounds of 5.45x39mm at about 700 rounds per minute. Its a true assault rifle.
Incidentally, don't use the term 'assault gun' when speaking about any hand-held gun as this term is for a turret less tank body that held a large artillery piece. These vehicles, typified by the Sturmgeschtz III (StuG III) and SU-76 (Samokhodnaya Ustanovka 76) were large mobile artillery common in the last half of World War Two in the German and Soviet Armies.
The 1994 'Assault Weapons Ban'
Although a lot of left-leaning politicians and gun control advocates won't hear it, no firearm classified as an 'assault weapon' under the Title XI of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Subtitle A (the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act), better known as the Assault Weapon's Ban, was an assault rifle. The code listed 19 specific arms, which included the Colt AR-15, and a number of AK-inspired rifles.
All of these were semi-automatic only, while as discussed above an assault rifle is select-fire.
None of these rifles had a barrel shorter than 16.5-inches, which would require a tax stamp to transfer as a 'Short Barreled Rifle'. Almost all modern assault rifles use barrels between 8-14 inches long.
The ban classified any semi-automatic firearm with a detachable magazine as a assault weapon if it had two or more of the following:
- Folding or collapsible buttstock
- Bayonet Mount
- Flash Suppressor or threaded barrel
- Pistol grip
- Attachment for firing rifle grenades (such as on the French MAS49 or the Yugo SKS)
The ban also affected handguns with barrel shrouds and all detachable magazines that held more than 10-rounds when fully loaded. In 1997, the ATF added the capability to have a detachable magazine at all as one of the points to the list. This left such legacy arms as the M1 Garand legal (although it had a bayonet lug) while the M-1 carbine of the same era (since it had a detachable 15 or 30 round magazine and bayonet lug) was banned. Other oddities such as buying an extended magazine for your Ruger 10/22 was illegal, but having a Marlin Model 60 with its 17-shot tubular magazine was not because the Marlin's magazine was fixed and not detachable, made no sense. The funkiness of the bill ushered in only slightly modified rifles, pistols, and shotguns that dropped minor features and were soon selling again.
The tenets of the ban disappeared when the AWB sunsetted in 2004 as federal law although a few states such as California kept it as state law, with even more restrictions. Whereas the AWB only had 19 guns specifically mentioned, California currently has 75.
A recent Gallup poll, held just after the horrific Newton School attack, found that 63% of respondents felt that 'banning the sale of assault and semi-automatic guns' would help prevent mass school shootings.
You can bet the definitions are subject to change as this is being written.