Second Amendment advocates frequently point out that many gun control activists' focus on assault rifles is largely superficial. What distinguishes a regular semi-automatic rifle from an "assault-style" rifle often comes down to whether or not gun control activists believe it looks "scary."
In a tweet that perfectly demonstrated this often superficial approach to what guns Americans should or shouldn't be allowed to own, in the heat of the gun control push following the horrific Parkland shooting, gun control activist Moms Demand Action president Shannon Watts tweeted out an image of an intimidating looking gun that she noted can be purchased at Sportsman's Warehouse:
But as those with a little more knowledge about guns quickly informed the activist, she unwittingly picked about the least threatening rifle she could've chosen:
That's a bolt-action .22, which yet another more informed responder noted is a type of gun that can be purchased in just about any country that allows gun ownership, even those countries with far more restrictive gun laws than the U.S.:
The point, noted Bearing Arms' Tom Knighton, is that Watts, like many gun control activists, repeatedly privilege the looks of the gun over its function, thus pushing the issue via optics rather than logic. "Shannon picked that particular gun because it’s scary looking," he wrote. "It has an M-Lok rail system like a so-called assault rifle, and it has a Picatinny scope base like many evil black rifles, and it has a magazine that’s a little too long for her tastes, so it must be an evil rifle."
Efforts to ban "assault rifles" ratcheted up again following the horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in February. Two weeks ago, Democrats proposed two different assault weapons bans that garnered the support of nearly 200 Democrats and zero Republicans. The Democrats' Senate bill quickly amassed over two-dozen sponsors. But the same central issue that has plagued past bans, like the failed 2013 bill, plagues the Democrats' latest attempts to crack down on the category of weapons: the definition of an "assault-style rifle" is largely arbitrary.
As the following excerpt from a legal analysis by David B. Kopel published in the Journal of Contemporary Law in 1994 demonstrates, "inconsistent" attempts to define "assault-style rifles" has always been the problem. First, as Kopel explains, the term is a misnomer, since true "assault rifles" as defined by the Defense Department, are automatic:
At this point, it should be stated that this Article will not discuss assault rifles. As the United States Defense Department's Defense Intelligence Agency book Small Arms Identification and Operation Guide explains, "assault rifles" are "short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges." In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically.
Weapons capable of fully automatic fire, including assault rifles, have been regulated heavily in the United States since the National Firearms Act of 1934. Taking possession of such weapons requires paying a $200 federal transfer tax and submitting to an FBI background check, including ten-print fingerprints.
Many civilians have purchased semiautomatic-only rifles that look like military assault rifles. These civilian rifles are, unlike actual assault rifles, incapable of automatic fire. For example, the AK-47 is an assault rifle formerly used by the Russian military, which now uses the AKM-74. Only a few hundred AK-47 firearms have been imported into the United States. On the other hand, tens of thousands of AKS (p.387)firearms (a Chinese semiautomatic rifle which looks like the AK-47, but cannot fire automatically) have been imported into the United States and sold to civilians. Similarly, the semiautomatic Colt Sporter rifle, of which tens of thousands have been sold, looks like the automatic U.S. Army M-16 assault rifle. "Assault weapon" legislation involves semiautomatic firearms, like the AKS and the Colt Sporter, but not automatic firearms, like the AK-47 or the M-16.
Other firearms manufacturers produce guns that do not look like an assault rifle, but that have a military appearance that some people find repugnant. Such guns typically have black plastic components, in contrast to the brown wood components found on more familiar firearms. The Calico M-900 carbine is an example of a gun which, although not related in design to any military firearm, has a military appearance. The TEC-9 handgun, not resembling a military gun, also has futuristic styling. Guns such as the Calico and the TEC-9 with futuristic styling are also singled out for prohibition by "assault weapon" legislation.
While the Defense Intelligence Agency's term of art "assault rifle" has a precise and technical meaning, the phrase "assault weapon" has a less certain meaning. No "assault rifle" (by Defense Intelligence Agency definition) is an "assault weapon" because all "assault rifles" are automatic, while no "assault weapons" are automatic. "Assault rifles" are used by the military, whereas no "assault weapon" is used by the military. "Assault rifles" are all rifles, but "assault weapons" include semiautomatic rifles, semiautomatic shotguns, revolver-action shotguns, semiautomatic handguns, and semiautomatic airguns.