Why do states define assault weapons differently?

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Is a gun with a bayonet mount an assault weapon? The answer is something people from both sides of the gun control debate agree on: probably not.

But then what does make an assault weapon?

Putting that idea into legislation is difficult and has resulted in a patchwork of state laws that don’t agree on what an assault weapon really is.

First attempts

The first state to pass a ban on assault weapons was California in 1989.

Earlier that year, a drifter named Patrick Purdy had used an AK-47-style rifle to kill five children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California.

After it was discovered that Purdy managed to fire more than 100 rounds into the schoolyard in three minutes, California’s legislature set out to ban rifles with high firepower that could shoot many rounds very quickly.

Graphic: What parts make an assault weapon?

Graphic: What parts make an assault weapon?

The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 didn’t try to make a general definition for the term “assault weapon” – it just gave a list of guns that the California legislature believed fell into that category.

The law explicitly said it didn’t want to ban hunting and recreational guns – only weapons whose features made their use as a recreational gun “substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.”

Karen Rand, who is the legislative director for the gun control advocacy group Violence Policy Center, said today’s assault weapon laws still try to target guns that can be used to shoot lots of rounds very quickly.

But that isn’t always easy to do.

A general definition

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the federal assault weapons ban. Like the California law, it had a list of banned guns, but it also made one of the first attempts at a general definition for assault weapons.

It defined assault weapons as guns that could use a detachable ammunition magazine and also had at least two of a list of banned features, Rand said.

In 1999, California updated its law to mirror the national definition, but Rand said these laws were easy for gun manufacturers to skirt.

“The gun industry could remove one of the features that wasn’t integral to its being an assault weapon and put it right back on the market,” she said.

By removing flash suppressors and bayonet mounts and pinning collapsible stocks into place, guns that were virtually the same as banned models become legal.

Gun rights advocates argued that the features included in the federal ban, like retractable stocks and vertical hand grips, were purely cosmetic and didn’t make the weapon any more dangerous.

“Basically, what they’re coming up with is the best way to cast the biggest net to ban certain firearms,” said Jake McGuigan, director of government relations for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group. “The functionality of a modern sporting rifle is no different than a pistol, no different than a shotgun.”

Rand agreed that some of the features included in the original ban, like bayonet mounts, weren’t effective in targeting dangerous weapons, but she said the ban did include some important features, like vertical pistol-style hand grips.

“The essence of an assault weapon is the ability to stabilize the gun while you’re firing,” she said. “These characteristics were essentially driven by the needs of troops in combat.”

Rand said states began changing their laws to better reflect things that contribute to a gun’s deadliness, doing away with regulations on bayonet mounts and adding regulations on other things, like forward hand grips.

She also said some states modified their laws to require only a single banned feature instead of two.

Differences between states

Though the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, seven states – California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey – plus the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws.

Minnesota and Virginia don’t ban assault weapons, though they do have laws defining them and imposing restrictions on things like sales to minors.

But though these states all have legal definitions for assault weapons, almost no two are the same.

For example, Connecticut law stipulates that certain kinds of rifles under 30 inches in length are assault weapons. But Massachusetts, a neighboring state also known for its strict gun laws, has no such length requirement.

That means a gun that is perfectly legal in one state could be considered an assault weapon in a neighboring town across the state line.

Rand said these differences might stem from how closely states followed the model of the federal ban in creating their own laws.

“I think some of these bans were just inspired by the federal ban and didn’t take as careful an approach as I think Connecticut did in figuring out what makes an assault weapon an assault weapon,” she said.

Connecticut’s assault weapon law mirrored the federal ban until April 2013, when a new law was passed after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The new law made required that a gun have only one banned feature to be considered an assault weapon, and changed the list of features to include forward hand grips.

Rand said having a one-feature test that includes removable magazines, vertical grips and forward hand grips is the best way to focus assault weapons laws on guns that are actually more dangerous.

But many gun rights activists argue that any use of the term “assault weapon” in reference to civilian guns is a misnomer.

“When you hear ‘assault weapon,’ it should be referring to a fully-automatic military firearm,” McGuigan said.

The guns regulated by assault weapon laws are all semi-automatic, which means they only shoot one bullet per trigger pull. Fully automatic guns that can spray many bullets with each trigger pull have been regulated under the National Firearms Act since 1934.

McGuigan said that distinction confuses many people.

“People don’t understand what semi-automatic means,” he said. “They think you’re just shooting and spraying bullets.”

For a more detailed breakdown of how different states define assault weapons, you can read this story.

What do you think?