Mutable quintessence: The parts that make an assault weapon

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In the days following nearly every mass shooting in recent history, the phrase “assault weapons” has echoed across the country, from the halls of Congress to the airwaves of T.V. news.

It’s come to be used as a catchall term for guns like the Bushmaster XM15-E2S used in Sandy Hook and the SIG Sauer MCX used at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando – guns that look similar to military weapons.

But what does “assault weapon” actually mean? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Variations in state gun laws mean the term can take on different meanings depending on where you’re located in the country.

Seven states – California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey – plus the District of Columbia have laws defining and banning assault weapons. Minnesota and Virginia don’t ban assault weapons, but they also have laws defining them.

Most of these laws include a list of specific weapons that are banned, as well as a collection of general features that, when added to certain kinds of guns, make the gun an assault weapon.

But even among states with assault weapons laws, defining the term is still difficult.

For example, Connecticut law bans certain kinds of rifles under 30 inches in length, but Massachusetts, a neighboring state also known for its strict gun laws, has no such length restriction.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the common terms used in defining assault weapons, along with a list of states in which those terms are part of the legal definition.

Connecticut General Statutes section 53-202a (a)
California Penal Code section 12276.1
Washington, D.C. Code section 7-2501.01
Hawaii Revised Statutes section 134-1
Code of Maryland section 4-301
Massachusetts General Laws chapter 140 section 121
New Jersey Statutes 2C:39-1w.(2)
N.Y. Penal Law section 265.00(22)

What do you think?

  • Ian McCulloch

    This post was written rather well. There are some points that are incorrect, but all in all I appreciate the lack of any apparent bias, or trying to steer readers in a direction by making features sound more or less imposing. Cheers.

  • Joseph Brzezinski

    The post covers assault weapon terminolog very well. Much too much emphasis is placed on targeting assault weapons by politicians and the media. Historically, all US political gun “incidents” have not involved assault weapons. Those have been Lincoln, Garfield, both Roosevelts, the Truman years’congressional shootout, Wallace, 2 Kennedy’s, Brady, Reagan, Ford, anď Giffords. Admittedly, rapid high volume fire rifles have been involved in the worst incidents involving largest number of fatalities per incident but most fatalities with 4 or fewer casualties do not involve such weapons. Moreover, the potential is there for pistols, though rifles with longer ranges may be preferred if the perpetrators intend some shootout with authorities.
    I am not a gun owner and have not fired weapons since military service. I have friends that do and all are safe responsible owners and users. Consequently, some consideration is warranted for their rightful usage while restraining and reducing fatal gun violence.