In the United States, assault weapons were legally categorized for the first time when President Bill Clinton signed the federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) into law in 1994.
While the term “assault weapons” has long been used globally to describe a broad variety of military and non-military weapons, those weapons were not defined by specific characteristics in America’s legal system until Congress approved the AWB.
The Basis for an Assault Weapon Classification
Most nations do not use the term “assault weapon” to classify civilian weaponry. In the United States, the term was rarely used before gun control political efforts emerged in the 1980s. In 1989, California became the first U.S. state to identify and outlaw assault weapons.
Also in 1989, the U.S. prohibited several types of semi-automatic rifles from being imported. Those rifles were among the weapons that would eventually be banned by the AWB in 1994. Many of them were a version of the Russian military’s AK-47. Several thousand of those semi-automatic rifles, which were manufactured in China, had been purchased by American gun owners.
The term “assault weapon” was a spin-off of the U.S. military’s definition of assault rifles. The U.S. Department of Defense has long defined assault rifles as fully automatic rifles used for military purposes.
Fully-automatic weapons have been prohibited in the U.S. since the National Firearms Act of 1934. Fully-automatic firearms can spray fire with a single pull of the trigger, while semi-automatic guns fire one shot with each pull of the trigger.
A Broadened Category of Assault Weapons
While civilian ownership of automatic weapons has been heavily regulated in the U.S. since 1934, most semi-automatic weapons remained legal until 1994.
The AWB defined a broad category of semi-automatic rifles, handguns and shotguns with military-style characteristics as being “assault weapons.” The law made it illegal to make those weapons in the U.S. for a 10-year period. In 2004, the AWB expired when Congress did not vote to renew it. As a result, it became legal to produce and own those firearms once again.
In general, the AWB defined any firearm with a detachable magazine and at least two of certain other characteristics as an assault weapon.
For rifles, those characteristics included:
- Telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Bayonet mount
- Grenade launcher
- Flash suppressor
- Telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- A capacity to hold more than five rounds
- Threaded barrels made to attach a barrel extender, handgrip or flash suppressor
- A barrel shroud that can be used as a handhold
- Weight of at least 50 oz. when unloaded
Nineteen models of firearms were specifically named in the legislation as assault weapons, while other models were included under the umbrella of the law’s definition of assault weapons.
A Weapon No More Dangerous…
Opponents of the AWB claimed that assault weapons are generally no more dangerous than many other readily available firearms.
Most of the defining characteristics included in the AWB do not hinder or enhance the weapons’ effectiveness or accuracy. While semi-automatic weapons can be fired faster than other firearms, a large number of semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns remained legal in the U.S. after the adoption of the AWB.
The AR-15, one of the rifles that became an assault weapon with the passage of the AWB because of its physical characteristics, is a .223 caliber. The .223 is smaller and less lethal than many rifle calibers. In most states, a .223 is not permitted for hunting big game because of the caliber’s ineffectiveness at bringing down animals such as deer and elk.
Assault Weapons Defined By States
Prior to the passage of the AWB in 1994, three U.S. states — California, Connecticut and New Jersey — had passed their own ban on certain firearms defined as assault weapons. New York and Massachusetts have since added assault weapon bans.
In each state, assault weapon definitions loosely follow the defining characteristics included in the 1994 federal legislation. In Connecticut, the law applies only to firearms specifically named as assault weapons, while in each of the other states the law applies to any firearm meeting the definitions set forth by statute.
Availability and Usage of Assault Weapons
The exact number of legally owned firearms falling under the general assault weapons definition in the U.S. is unknown. Estimates range from four million to 10 million. Either way, that number is a small fraction of the 230 million firearms legally owned in the United States, according to the National Rifle Association.
Research by noted firearms researcher David B. Kopel shortly before the AWB was implemented in 1994 revealed that assault weapons were used in less than one percent of gun crime in the U.S.
Shortly after the law was allowed to sunset in 2004, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study of the AWB, in which it found “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness” of the law for reducing crime rates.
Expanding the Definition of Assault Weapons
Political efforts in the years since the AWB expired have sought to expand on the definition of assault weapons.
In 2007, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-New York, introduced legislation that would renew the AWB and expand the law to include other guns by reducing the number of qualifying characteristics from two to one. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, introduced legislation the following year that would have reauthorized the AWB for 10 years with only minor expansions of the assault weapons definition. Neither bill advanced past a subcommittee of the House of Representatives.