Assault rifles are not the same as assault weapons

Dennis Dietrich /


Published Jan 5, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

A recent headline in The Bulletin referred to an “assault rifle ban.” The headline was over a well-written Dec. 20 article by Associated Press writer Steven DuBois.

KOIN Local 6, the Salem Statesman Journal and many other news outlets headlined: “Kitzhaber Open to Restrictions on Assault Weapons.”

The Bulletin, however, changed the headline into “Kitzhaber open to assault rifle ban.”

Why is this important? Although the evolution of many decades of firearms-related laws has generated some confusion on terminology, there remains a significant difference in the common understanding of what “assault weapons” are, which the article was about, and “assault rifles.”

An assault weapon was defined by the (now expired) federal Assault Weapons Ban in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 as one with a pistol grip, collapsible stock, detachable multi-round magazine and other mostly cosmetic features. Assault weapons fire single rounds with each pull of the trigger, just as do hunting rifles. After a round is fired, a new one is pushed into the chamber. However, such assault weapons are often frowned upon because they are black, have a similar appearance to a restricted assault rifle, and look dangerous and scary to some people.

Assault rifles (a.k.a. “machine guns”) are generally defined as rifles capable of “selective fire.” They have a switch that allows them to change from single fire (pull the trigger once, it fires once) to fully automatic (pull the trigger once, it fires repeatedly until the trigger is released or the ammunition is exhausted).

Civilian ownership of assault rifles has been heavily restricted in the United States since 1986 when the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act amended the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 by, among other things, prohibiting “the transfer or possession of machine guns ...” except by “... government agencies, and those lawfully possessed before ... May 19, 1986.” Machine guns, or selective fire rifles, can otherwise only be owned and used by the military and police organizations.

Kitzhaber cannot ban them more than federal law already has.

The current national discussion regarding firearms is occurring in many places, from the White House to the halls of Congress, from television to the print media, from Web-based news reports to social media. In any one of these forums, you can observe people using terms they clearly do not understand, and making statements about firearms and the laws that are completely wrong. If we are to have an intelligent, meaningful national discussion on this issue, it is incumbent on each of us, especially the media that has vast influence on what people understand and believe, to understand the topic and be completely accurate.

The Bulletin’s use of the term “assault rifle” instead of “assault weapon” was likely an innocent change in terminology. Many others make such mistakes: President Barack Obama has committed similar misspeaks, as has Brian Williams on NBC. Then the wire services pick it up and publish things in print that are simply wrong. Then members of Congress grab hold and opine incorrectly. Being thus influenced by the correct or false opinions of others is known as an informational cascade, and lately the dissemination of bad information by these cascades has been particularly rampant.

I am sure no news organization wants to deliberately mislead their readers or viewers, especially during the current national crisis and debate. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (www.atf.gov) has a wealth of information on their website, and one particular document, which the above quotes were taken from, should be required reading by anyone reporting on or writing headlines on this issue: The National Firearms Act Handbook.

In the current difficult times the country is going through, accurate and factual reporting is more important than ever. The Bulletin could focus on being a leader in breaking the false informational cascades, and make sure they do not contribute to them.