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)