COMMENTARY: What is an Assault Weapon?
By M. George Eichenberg, Ph.D.
Controlling definitions of key terms is perhaps more central to the gun rights debate than most gun owners (and writers) are aware. Nowhere is this more true than that aspect of the debate concerning so-called assault weapons. “Why do you need an assault weapon?’ is a not uncommon question. We usually (hopefully) attempt to respond to the question with a rational, well-reasoned explanation of why we want or need such firearms. Such a response ignores the fact that our interrogator probably thinks an assault weapon is a machine gun. In short, our response may not make sense to them because we are not addressing the same issue. A better response would be to ask them what they think is an assault weapon and gently correct any definitional errors on their part prior to addressing the legitimate uses of such firearms.
The average citizen is seemingly unaware that the term ‘assault weapon’ is, in fact, meaningless. The term appears to be a media creation seized on by the gun control industry to mislead the uninformed. Or perhaps it was created by the gun control lobby and seized on by the media, few of whose members know much about firearms. An assault rifle on the other hand, is defined by recognized experts such as Ian Hogg as a fully automatic rifle firing an ‘intermediate cartridge’; that is, a cartridge about midway in power between the rifle type cartridges fired by crew served machine guns and the pistol cartridges fired by sub-machine guns. Few people seem aware that machine guns, in any size, have been tightly controlled by the federal government since 1934. What has until recently been referred to by media and anti-gun types as an ‘assault rifle’ is a semi-automatic rifle firing an intermediate cartridge and physically resembling a true assault rifle. Other than cosmetics, such rifles have far more in common with a semi-auto hunting rifle than a true assault rifle; something that is likely viewed by the average citizen as far less threatening than a military weapon. Since any distortions arising at this stage are relatively easy to correct, enter the term, ‘assault weapon’.
A misuse of the term ‘assault rifle’ can be corrected using authoritative sources, and thus at least partially invalidate an argument for greater gun control. Since no recognized small arms expert or existing law defines ‘assault weapon’, the term can be defined as necessary to argue for greater controls on such arms. And this is where it gets complicated. When most people hear the term ‘assault weapon’ they probably visualize an AK-47 or an M-4. They won’t ask the definition of assault weapon but will define the firearm in question as an assault rifle based on the visualization likely created by long-term media misuse of the term assault rifle.
For example, a large anti-gun organization use to maintain a website implying that assault weapons had no use other than to murder law enforcement officers. They described the murder of a Texas DPS trooper by an assailant using ‘an assault weapon’. They repeatedly used the term ‘assault weapon’. The image in this writer’s mind was an AK. In truth, the firearm used was a lever action 30-30. One could easily refute the statement the trooper had been murdered through using an assault rifle; but not so easily refute it had been an assault weapon as the term ‘assault weapon’ is vague and undefined. But that, actually, is irrelevant anyway. Based on a barrage of distorted definitions, the average person likely consciously or subconsciously substituted ‘assault rifle’ for ‘assault weapon’ and assumed that a machine gun of some sort had been used to murder the trooper. In effect, rather than deliberately misleading the public, the anti-gun group set the average person up to mislead themselves, something far more insidious.
Both pro and anti-gun groups have been arguing essentially the same points since the 1960s. Neither side has created a compelling new argument. It is doubtful that such a new argument can be created. Locked in a stalemate for a number of years, the gun control lobby has sought to win the debate through a long-term propaganda campaign based on distortion of terminology. This is something we can work against through our greater technical expertise; most essentially, we understand the technical side of the argument and they do not. To win, however, we must bring that greater expertise to bear on the essential terminology of the debate something we have largely failed to do.