What, exactly, is an assault weapon?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 16 2004 5:14 PM

What Is an Assault Weapon?

At last, you can get a semiautomatic rifle with a bayonet.

Free to arm
Free to arm

After a decade on the books, the federal assault-weapons ban has expired, to the delight of the gun lobby and the consternation of gun-control advocates. Now that the prohibition is over, exactly what weapons can citizens add to their personal arsenals?

For starters, consumers can now purchase one of the 19 firearms specifically outlawed by the 1994 ban, including such action-movie staples as the Uzi, the TEC-9, the Kalashnikov, and the Street Sweeper shotgun. The law's authors had to be as precise as possible in crafting the ban, since the phrase "assault weapon" isn't really part of the gun-making vocabulary. Rather, it's a catchall term that gun-control advocates define as covering any firearm designed for rapidly firing at human targets from close range. The 19 guns called out in the ban are all semiautomatic in nature: They can eject spent shell casings and chamber the next bullet without human intervention, but only one round is fired per squeeze of the trigger. Not coincidentally, the verboten 19 were largely the sorts of high-profile guns that even gun neophytes have heard of, either through watching the nightly news or by reading Tom Clancy novels.

On top of the Big 19, the ban also included a few formulas for forbidding less well-known armaments. A semiautomatic rifle was considered an illicit assault weapon, for example, if it featured a detachable magazine, as well as at least two of the following five attributes: a folding or telescopic stock; a conspicuous pistol grip; a bayonet mount; a flash suppressor or threaded barrel (i.e., a barrel that can accommodate a flash suppressor); or a grenade launcher. The checklist for semiautomatic pistols includes guns weighing more than 50 ounces when unloaded, and those featuring a "shroud" on the barrel to prevent a shooter's non-trigger hand from being burned.

The ban also outlawed the manufacture of magazines capable of carrying more than 10 rounds. That meant supplies of high-capacity magazines were limited to pre-1994 models, and gun dealers charged a pretty penny for these relative antiques. So in addition to purchasing semiautomatic rifles with bayonet mounts and grenade launchers, consumers may also outfit their new firearms with newly affordable 100-round clips. Residents of California, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York may be excluded from the bonanza, though, as those seven states have their own assault-weapons bans in place.

Regardless of where they live, gun enthusiasts will still have a difficult time purchasing machine guns, which keep firing as long as the trigger is depressed. The sale of machine guns has been heavily regulated since 1934, when the National Firearms Act made it illegal for private citizens to own one without the hard-to-obtain permission of the Treasury Department. Then, in 1986, the Firearms Owners' Protection Act outright prohibited the ownership of new machine guns; the only ones that may now be in private arsenals are those that were manufactured prior to the act's passage.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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