The Semantics of Disarmament

The Semantics of Disarmament

by Andrew Glidden

In the wake of numerous mass shootings in 2012 – many of which involved rifles – gun control advocates have called for national attention to private gun ownership, with assault rifles squarely in their sights.  Or, they would be, if assault rifles weren’t already illegal.  Confused?  So are gun rights activists.

President Obama takes a targeted approach on gun rights.

President Obama takes a targeted approach on gun rights.

The issue is the result of a decades-long gun control effort to demonize legitimate civilian arms by labeling them as “assault weapons.”  Those without significant shooting experience are likely to conflate “assault weapons” with “assault rifles,” which are another thing entirely.  This gives opponents of gun rights a huge advantage in the policy debate, because they can use the erroneous association to cast “assault weapons” as far more dangerous and uncontrollable than they actually are.

An assault rifle is a rifle characterized primarily by selective fire, meaning that the shooter can select between firing modes such as burst and fully-automatic. Burst means that the firearm will fire a few times (typically 2-3) for each depression.  Fully-automatic means that the firearm will continue firing for as long as the trigger is held down.  An assault rifle is thus a type of light machine gun, and has been illegal to own in the United States since 1986.

In contrast, assault weapon is a uniquely American legal term describing a firearm – including handguns, rifles, and shotguns – with particular features.  It had never been used in law until the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

Many have asked, “Why would anyone need an assault weapon?” and “What is the legitimate civilian purpose of an assault weapon?”  The former question enters the dangerous territory of the government dictating what people do or do not need. The latter question is best answered by defining exactly what an assault weapon is.

The defining feature of an assault weapon is semi-automatic firing mode – meaning it shoots exactly one bullet each time the trigger is pulled.  Alternative mechanisms to semi-automatics are revolver, bolt-action, and lever-action.  While semi-automatics do permit slightly faster shooting, the greatest difference to an experienced shooter is simply the amount of manipulation of the firearm between shots. In some cases, skilled shooters are able to fire more bullets and do more damage with lever- and bolt-action rifles than others could with a so-called “assault weapon.”

The “legitimate civilian purpose” of a semi-automatic mechanism is ease-of-use in everything from sport shooting to home defense.  Manually chambering each cartridge takes effort and practice to do quickly, taking time, attention, and energy away from more important skills such as marksmanship.  To a sport shooter, doing away with semi-automatics would be a significant inconvenience, but in home defense, it is a matter of life and death.  A shooter without this extensive experience would have an extremely slow rate of fire and likely poor marksmanship, allowing an assailant to attack more quickly.

An assault weapon also must have a detachable magazine, unless it is a shotgun.  This means that the magazine – where cartridges are loaded – can be removed and reloaded by pressing a button.  The alternative is a fixed magazine, which can only be removed and reloaded with a tool.  The civilian purpose of a detachable magazine is obvious: requiring a tool to reload can be life threatening in a dangerous situation.

Finally, an assault weapon must have two or more additional characteristics, which are purely cosmetic or extraneous features that do not affect the operation of the firearm.  For rifles, these are:


  • A folding or telescoping stock.  A folding stock makes a firearm more compact during storage and transportation, while a telescoping or extendable stock enables the length of the firearm to be adjusted.
  • A pistol grip.  This allows a shooter to hold the firearm with the hand oriented vertically, like a handgun, instead of horizontally.  This feature makes the firearm easier to hold, and reduces wrist strain.
  • A bayonet mount.  The name is deceiving – this actually refers to Picatinny rails, which are a standardized mounting platform for accessories such as scopes, an essential tool for hunting, or tactical flashlights, which can be used to see targets at night or disorient assailants instead of resorting to lethal force.
  • A suppressor, or a threaded barrel that can be used to attach one.  A suppressor reduces the sound and light produced by a firearm. A suppressor is merely an accessory to help protect the hearing of shooters and the people around them, not a way to stealthily assassinate people, as Hollywood would have people believe.
  • A grenade launcher.  While there’s nearly universal agreement that these shouldn’t be in civilian hands, its association with other “assault weapon” features is ludicrous.  What is Congress trying to say, that having a grenade launcher is fine so long as it doesn’t also come with a flashlight?  A grenade launcher ban should stand by itself.

            The 1994 law also regulated “high capacity” magazines, which were arbitrarily defined as holding more than 10 rounds. This makes magazine capacity for everyday people potentially a life-or-death issue, as they would often need more than 10 rounds to defend themselves.  Armed assailants generally come prepared with extra magazines and spare firearms, making magazine restrictions a mere inconvenience to aggressors.

Most importantly, it should be noted that hunting and recreation have nothing to do with the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  As any scholar of the Second Amendment will agree, “militia” was understood to mean all civilians capable of bearing arms in defense of the country.  These civilians were expected to have their own firearms so that the country could quickly mobilize against any external or internal threat, from invasion to insurrection.  The most important “civilian” purpose of any firearm is its martial purpose.  To suggest otherwise is to betray a gross ignorance of the Constitution and the rich history and intellectual tradition behind it.

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