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The Truth About So-Called “Assault Weapons”

Gun control advocates bring up “assault weapons” time and time again. It seems almost impossible to a have discussion about Second Amendment rights without hearing the term. And yet, what many Americans who aren’t familiar with guns don’t know is — it’s not even a real term.

How the Term “Assault Weapon” Came to Be

Gun control advocates adopted the term “assault weapon” from the military in an effort to deliberately confuse the public and advance the political cause of gun control. They now use it to mischaracterize a broad range of firearms used by law-abiding civilians.

The origin of “assault weapon” stems from the term “assault rifle,” which the U.S. Army defines explicitly as a selective-fire rifle chambered for a cartridge of intermediate power. The term “assault rifle” only applies to automatic firearms rather than the semi-automatic firearms that gun control advocates are focused on banning today.

The key difference is that semi-automatic firearms, such as AR-15s, only fire a single round each time the trigger is pulled. Automatic firearms — including military assault rifles — discharge continually when the trigger is pulled. Although they are often used in the Armed Services, these firearms are not readily available for sale to the general public. To purchase a fully-automatic firearm requires an extensive FBI background check including fingerprints and photographs, as well as registration of the firearm at the federal level.

However, gun control advocates refer to semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms interchangeably — in a deliberate effort to confuse voters and advance their broad agenda.

In 1984, a group called Handgun Control, Inc. first used the term “assault weapon” in reference to a rifle in a newspaper advertisement.

A few years later, in 1988, the term rose in prominence after Josh Sugarmann, a gun control advocacy group’s communications director, stated in a Violence Policy Center paper [1]:

“The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons - anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun - can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

This statement by a prominent gun control lobbyist outlined their intentions clearly. The goal behind popularizing the term “assault weapons” was always to deliberately mislead the American people in order to pass anti-gun legislation.

The use of the term "assault weapons" exploded in the years to follow, eventually catching on in the mainstream media, who used the adopted phrase to cause further confusion.

It helped gun control advocates garner support to pass the 1994 federal “assault weapons” ban — and the plan succeeded. The ban lasted for ten years until it expired in 2004 after Congress determined the ban had no impact on reducing crimes committed with guns.

Since then, gun control advocates have continued to push for additional bans. However, they now struggle to agree on a definition for their made-up phrase.

Gun Control Advocates Can’t Define “Assault Weapon”

Gun control advocates’ definition of “assault weapon” varies depending on the source because they cannot collectively agree on how to define it.

This even applies to politicians who could have potentially banned our firearms. Just look at David Chipman, for example.

Joe Biden nominated Chipman to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the government agency in charge of enforcing gun laws. Chipman couldn't even nail down a definition during a May 2021 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

During the hearing, Senator Tom Cotton asked the simple question, “What is an ‘assault weapon’?”

Chipman tried to avoid a response before hesitantly stating [2]:

“Any semi-automatic rifle capable of accepting a detachable magazine above the caliber of .22, which would include a .223, which is, you know largely the AR-15 round.”

Cotton pointed out that would "basically cover every single modern sporting rifle in America today.” It would also include a number of collectible rifles.

Chipman is just one example of how gun control advocates struggle or even refuse to define the firearms that they are seeking to ban.

And rifles aren’t the only firearms they’ve tried to put under the umbrella of “assault weapons.”

Gun control advocates have also targeted handguns, such as pistols that hold ten rounds. Biden himself said he would push to ban 9-millimeter pistols. He stated:

“I'm the only guy that ever got passed legislation, when I was a senator, to make sure we eliminated assault weapons. The idea you need a weapon that can have the ability to fire 20, 30, 40, 50, 120 shots from that weapon, whether — whether it's a 9-millimeter pistol or whether it's a rifle, is ridiculous. I'm continuing to push to eliminate the sale of those things.”

Again, gun control advocates are willing to refer to any firearm as an “assault weapon” if it suits their needs. But there is rarely any consistency in which firearms they decide to include.

This 1994 “assault weapons” and “large capacity magazine” ban named prohibited guns specifically but then tried to more broadly define the term to include several cosmetic features such as pistol grips and folding stocks. [3] These cosmetic features had little or nothing to do with whether certain firearms were more likely to be used in a crime.

In short, gun control advocates will use any definition of “assault weapons” that suits their political motivations, and they’ve shown that over time.

Why Should “Assault Weapons” Not be Banned

The 1994 federal “assault weapons” ban shows us why a similar ban wouldn’t work today. Simply put, it had no impact in curbing violent crime.

A 1997 congressionally-mandated study looked at the effects of the first 30 months of the 1994-2004 federal “assault weapons” ban and found it had no impact on crime. [4] And a follow-up study found that “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” [5]

Later research conducted in 2018 also found no evidence that “large capacity magazine” bans and “assault weapon” bans affect mass shootings. [6]

Studies and research are helpful indicators as to why another federal “assault weapons” ban wouldn’t work, but let’s also consider some commonsense points:

  • Rifles overall are responsible for a very small fraction of violent crime. More people are killed with fists and knives than with rifles every year. [7]
  • Semi-automatic rifles like AR-15s are some of the most popular firearms used in home defense and in marksmanship competitions.
  • Law-abiding Americans own an estimated 11 million AR-15s — yet violent crime has not taken over the country as gun control advocates suggested. In fact, it’s gone down.

“Assault Weapons” Moving Forward

Gun control advocates will undoubtedly continue to push the narrative that semi-automatic firearms are dangerous “assault weapons." Biden even campaigned on the promise to reenact a federal ban, once again relying on scare tactics to gain support.

But there are steps you can take to help combat misinformation and preserve our Second Amendment rights. You're already off to a good start by reading this article.

Educate yourself. Don't rely on the words of politicians. Instead, research firearms and form your own opinions about semi-automatic rifles. Some helpful links are listed in the section below. Be sure to encourage those around you to do their own research as well.

Get active. Reach out to your local government leaders and voice your opinion. Help NRA-ILA fight to protect your rights by making a contribution. Or join millions of other freedom-loving Americans and become a member of the NRA.

When it comes to American freedom and the safety of our citizens, so-called “assault weapons” pose far less threat than those who spread falsehoods in order to advance their own assault on our freedom.

Additional Resources

Facts About “Assault Weapons” and “Large Magazines”

Learn More About Gun Laws in Your State

Stay Up to Date with Gun Legislation

Subscribe to Voice of Freedom – Your Source For Second Amendment News


[1] Sugarmann, Josh. Assault Weapons and Accessories in America. Violence Policy Center, July 13, 2015.

[2] Chamberlain, Samuel, Biden ATF Pick David Chipman Botches Assault Rifle Definition At Contentious Hearing. New York Post, May 27, 2021.

[3] 103rd United States Congress. Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. H.R. 4296, 1994.

[4] Roth, Koper, et al., Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997.

[5] Koper, Christopher S., An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003, Report to the National Institute of Justice, June 2004.

[6] Rand Corporation, The Science of Gun Policy: A Critical Synthesis of Research Evidence on the Effects of Gun Policies in the United States, p. 66, 2018.

[7] FBI, Expanded Homicide Data Table 4: Murder Victims by Weapon, 2012–2016. Crime in the United States 2016. May 8, 2017.


Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.