5 things you should know about 'assault weapons'

5 things you should know about 'assault weapons'

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Efforts are being made by lawmakers around the nation to address the issue of gun control. The proposed laws vary in impact, but all attempt to reduce gun violence and ensure that those with access to firearms are responsible.

The types of firearms most under scrutiny at this time are the so-called "assault weapons." However, the term assault weapon is often a vague term used in a variety of contexts. Critics of the term say it was made up to elicit fear in everyday citizens in an effort to curb gun rights. Proponents of the term, however, say it's an appropriate description for the scrutinized firearms.

Nevertheless, it's a term that is not going away, especially as lawmakers attempt to ban assault weapons.

Last week I wrote about Utah gun laws and received several requests to write a follow-up article about the various firearms definitions, including assault weapons, assault rifles and semi-automatic firearms. The following article will address the various types of firearms and the laws that govern them.


An assault weapon is the political and legal term used to describe semi-automatic firearms, but is often used as a blanket term to also describe automatic firearms, whether accurate or not. The controversial term was first legally used in 1989 when the California legislature passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, which banned more than 50 specific brands of firearms.


The state of California has one of the strictest laws regarding firearms, which includes the prohibition of many semi-automatic and single-shot firearms. As part of the California Penal Code, even the bare characteristic feature can bar a person from using a restricted firearm.

Five years after AWCA was enacted, the United States Congress passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the manufacture of certain semi-automatic firearms. The 10-year ban on assault weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton and banned all classified firearms after the date of its enactment. The ban expired in Sept. 2004, allowing for manufacturers to once again sell semi-automatic firearms.

President Barack Obama recently put forth a new proposal that would ban all "military style" assault weapons, would restrict ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds and would ban armor-piercing bullets. The White House released more details about the plan, saying "weapons of war" should be restricted, including those used in the Newtown massacre and the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. The proposed firearms ban would be similar to the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

"This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe," Pres. Obama said. "This is how we will be judged."

What is an "assault weapon?"


While the term is controversial for many, there is no clear definition about what an assault weapon is. Individual state laws classify firearms differently, but are generally referred to as semi-automatic firearms that possess certain features similar to those of military firearms. In its broadest terms, an assault weapon is generally a rifle, but can be a pistol.

In some states, even cosmetic similarities to an assault rifle will classify the firearm as an assault weapon. In seven states, the legal definition of an assault firearm is any firearm capable of fully automatic, semi-automatic or burst fire. The remaining 43 states refer to an assault weapon as a semi-automatic firearm.

When in effect, the federal assault weapon ban classified assault weapons as a firearm capable of a detachable magazine and two or more or the following:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel
  • Grenade launcher

Assault Rifle

Example of a semi-automatic firearm: Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine (Photo via Gun News Daily)
Example of a semi-automatic firearm: Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine (Photo via Gun News Daily)

An assault rifle is a selective fire — option to choose between fully automatic, semi-automatic and burst fire — rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. This type of firearm is a standard weapon for members of the military. Most civilians do not possess or use this type of firearm. Many semi-automatic firearms resemble an assault rifle, but do not share in the same characteristics, especially the selective fire option.

This type of firearm is heavily regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under the National Firearms Act of 1934, which stopped the manufacture of assault rifles to civilians. Civilians may purchase semi-automatic versions without having to go through the regulations placed on assault rifles.

Semi-Automatic Firearms

Many semi-automatic firearms are "civilian" versions of fully automatic assault rifles and may share external similarities. However, a semi-automatic firearm can only fire one round each time the trigger is pulled and most often have a detachable magazine. While a semi-automatic firearm can be converted to fully automatic, it would take extensive equipment and know how to convert the firearm.

5 things you should know about 'assault weapons'
Photo: U.S. Department of Justice; Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires manufacturers to make semi-automatic firearms in a way that cannot accept parts or modifications that would allow the firearm to be fully automatic. BATFE has set forth specific design requirements to ensure all firearms in the United States cannot be converted into a fully automatic firearm.

Utah laws

The Utah Constitution defines the right to bear arms as a means for "security and defense of self, family, other, property, or the state, as well as for other lawful purposes." As such, the state follows all federal laws, such as the laws regulating the control and use of assault rifles, which is defined in Utah as a "firearm which fires, is designed to fire, or can be readily restored to fire, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading by a single function of the trigger."

However, the state does not define an assault weapon. The state simply defines a firearm as a "pistol, revolver, shotgun, short barrel shotgun, rifle or short barrel rifle, or a device that could be used as a dangerous weapon from which is expelled a projectile by action of an explosive."

Because Utah is an open carry state, individuals may openly carry an unloaded firearm without a concealed firearm permit. A firearm is considered "unloaded" as long as a round is not in the "firing position" and has at least two "mechanical actions" from firing. The firearm cannot be concealed, but must be clearly visible at all times. If an individual wishes to conceal their firearm, they must obtain a concealed firearm permit.

Editor's note: Photo of Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine is courtesy of Gun News Daily.

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Josh Furlong


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