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Is that an assault rifle?

A history lesson to help inform the national debate

Feb. 14, 2013 - 04:31PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 14, 2013 - 04:31PM  |  
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You may have heard them called "black rifles" or "modern sporting rifles."

The National Rifle Association is sticking with "semi-automatic firearm."

But is it really fair to call the most cherished prize in your gun safe an "assault weapon"?

The civilian version of the military's M4 has taken center stage as lawmakers wrestle with how to respond to the Newtown, Conn., massacre in December. Just don't call the Bushmaster XM15 the Newtown killer used an "assault rifle" at least according to the NRA. The association says the term assault rifle should refer only to military and law enforcement weapons with "selective fire" that can switch between one-shot, semi-auto mode and pull-the-trigger-and-it-keeps-firing automatic mode.

That's been our experience of what assault rifle means in military circles, although a recent edition of Military Review, the journal of the Army's Combined Arms Center, made the case that a good assault rifle is more about the knock-down power of the round it fires than the "spray and pray" capability of automatic fire.

At least one thing does appear to be official about the phrase assault rifle: The term arose from Hitler propaganda.

A 1945 article in the War Department's Tactical and Technical Trends said the dictator "personally designated the ‘Assault Rifle 44' (Sturmgewehr 44)."

"The much-touted ‘new' weapon is actually the familiar German machine carbine with a more chest-thumping title," according to the journal. It's unclear whether the German army supplied the English translation or whether Hitler would agree that only a gun capable of full-auto could ever be called an assault rifle.

Fast-forward 44 years, and assault weapons are part of the national dialog.

President George H.W. Bush was the first to start placing restrictions on semi-automatics, telling federal agents to "suspend importation of certain so-called assault weapons."

Of course, the National Shooting Sports Federation prefers you use "modern sporting rifle" to describe many of the military-style semi-autos for sale today, although the term hasn't been universally embraced.

Author and academic Gregg Lee Carter, a lifelong hunter and son of a Marine, calls the federation's preferred term "a ridiculous euphemism that the industry has been trying to get people to use instead of ‘assault rifle.‘"

Like the Supreme Court justice who once defined pornography with a pragmatic "I know when I see it," the same could be said about modern military-style weapons, Carter says.

Whatever you call them, Bush was the first president to begin banning them. His halt on the importation of some military-style semi-automatics came after another school massacre that left dozens of children dead and wounded in California.

Sales of certain firearms deemed assault weapons ceased in 1994, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law a ban on some semi-automatic rifles and handguns.

Under that now-expired law, some new guns were banned by name, including semi-auto versions of the Uzi, AK47 and AR15. The law also applied to other semi-automatic weapons that used detachable magazines and had at least two of five additional characteristics, such as a folding or retractable stock, bayonet mount, threaded barrel for flash suppressor, pistol grip or grenade launcher. Guns already sold to buyers before the ban were exempt and could be resold.

President Obama wants Congress to ban what he calls "military-style assault weapons," but he hasn't defined the term, so it's unclear which guns would be covered. He describes his plan as reinstating and strengthening the 1994 law.

Reports say the military-looking Bushmaster .223 rifle used in the Newtown, Conn., shootings, would not, in fact, have been covered under the 1994 ban. Officials in Connecticut have said the gun was legal under a similar state law still in effect.

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