What the heck is an assault weapon!


The New York Times tries to explain: Is anyone in the nation more faux than our own Lawrence O’Donnell?

We don’t know how to answer your question. That said, the Newtown killings seem destined to produce a debate about various gun control measures.

In theory, that’s good—but will we the people have any idea what we’re talking about? This morning’s New York Times made us wonder.

In our hard-copy Times, exactly half of page A26 is devoted to a graphic which asks a very good question: “What Makes An Assault Weapon?”

“What Makes An Assault Weapon!” That’s what the headline asks on this morning’s graphic. The graphic runs from the top of page A26 all the way to the bottom. But uh-oh:

But because it doesn’t appear on-line, we can’t link you to it!

On-line, the Times has replaced the graphic in our hard-copy paper with this different graphic. Go figure! They do this all the time.

That said, the graphic at which we’re currently staring appears in our hard-copy Times. It tries to explain what an “assault weapon” is.

It tries, and in our view it fails. But then, what else is new?

The New York Times graphic features a large photo of a “Colt AR-15-type rifle”—a rifle which “is similar to the one used by Adam Lanza.” According to the Times, “It would have been an illegal assault weapon in the United States from 1994 to 2004, but it now can be purchased legally.”

That last sentence is a bit misleadingly written. But let's move right along.

At this point, the Times tries to explain what makes a rifle a (potentially illegal) “assault weapon.” We were glad to see this large graphic, because we’ve been trying to figure that out, based in part upon confused TV discussions.

Alas! This is the start of the New York Times’ explanation:
NEW YORK TIMES (12/18/12): Under Connecticut law and the national ban that lapsed in 2004, an assault weapon is a semi-automatic rifle with a removable magazine that also has two other military-style features.

But omitting enough if these military-style features—pictured in GRAY below—renders this weapon legal.

The [pictured] rifle is SEMI-AUTOMATIC, which means it automatically chambers a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again. Some variants of the military’s M-16, which this weapon resembles, allow you to fire continuously as long as the trigger is held down. Such AUTOMATIC weapons are illegal.
The New York Times does it again!

According to this explanation, an assault weapon must be semi-automatic. We’re then told what semi-automatic means: It means the rifle “automatically chambers a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again.”

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no clear idea what that means. We asked a focus group at the bagel joint.

Our focus group didn’t know either.

Here’s the problem: What sort of gun doesn’t “automatically chamber a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again?” We don’t exactly know, and neither did our focus group.

One wag began to pantomime a Hollywood-style flintlock rifle, with Mel Gibson pushing a ball down into the barrel with a very long stick. But no one knew what kind of gun does not behave in the manner described, although for ourselves we could pretty much guess. (We're saying this hours later.)

Presumably, some Times readers do know what that explanation means. But explanations are generally meant for readers who don't know. And by the way:

On TV, pundits often bat this question around. As a general matter, it’s abundantly clear that they have no idea either.

Based upon our focus group, the Times, as usual, faltered or failed. This is the way our public discourse has worked for a great many years.

Final point about semi-automatics: In the graphic which now appears on-line, the Times doesn’t even try to explain what “semi-automatic” means.

Given the skills of this famous great paper, it may be better that way.


  1. Here’s the problem: What sort of gun doesn’t “automatically chamber a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again?” We don’t exactly know, and neither did our focus group.

    A revolver won't. You have to depress the trigger again to chamber and fire another round, so it isn't a semi-automatic. The same can be said for many shotguns and rifles. I think the Times could have explained this better, but it should be obvious to people who have spent some time around fire arms.

  2. " It means the rifle “automatically chambers a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again." Do you have a problem with reading comprehension? That's clear English, learn how to read.

    1. +1, helpful (not)

      -1, douchey, yup.

    2. Re: Anon 11:45 - An objective reader has to ask what inspires this kind of nasty response to a post meant to improve the national discourse. I wonder if you realize how petty your remarks come across - and if this embarrasses you in any way?

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  3. Well, obviously, the "semi-automatic" part doesn't make it illegal under Connecticut law, so why spend sleepless nights worrying whether the NYT has explained it well enough for us obviously incredibly stupid people.

    As for me, I would define "assault weapon" as any weapon whose sole practical purpose is to "assault" human beings. Then we can argue about which ones we really need.

  4. From what I gather from Wikipedia, weapons that aren't automatic or semi-automatic do not chamber a round after the shot. The round is chambered by pulling the trigger for the next shot. It's the pulling of the trigger for the next shot that chambers the next bullet, not the pulling of the trigger for the preceding shot.

  5. If it's a breech-loading musket or pistol, it's not a semi-automatic. If it's a shotgun you have to cock manually or break to reload, it's not a semi-automatic. If it's a revolver, requiring you to cock the hammer before shooting, it's not a semi-automatic.

    That's the extent of my knowledge. Often a gun affectionately termed an "automatic" is in fact a semi-automatic. As far as I know, if you can pull the trigger and the gun keeps shooting bullets as long as you keep the trigger depressed, that's an automatic weapon, or a machine gun.

    Semi-automatic: reloads after each shot. Automatic: reloads and fires, reloads and fires, reloads and fires. Take that, Bambi!

  6. What sort of gun doesn’t “automatically chamber a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again?”

    Lever-action rifle? Not that I know anything more than what I see on the teevee.

  7. What does any of this have to do with Campaign 2000?

  8. What sort of gun doesn’t “automatically chamber a new round after a shot but will not fire until the trigger is pulled again?"

    Any gun that requires a manual operation by the shooter to chamber the next round. i.e.: Bolt action, lever action, pump action or single shot. Revolvers are sort of a hybrid in that each bullet has its own chamber in the cylinder and the act of firing a bullet automatically rotates the cylinder so that the next chamber is lined up in front of the firing pin on the hammer. I think a better discussion would be "What differentiates assault weapons from hunting weapons?". For example, what is the difference between the Bushmaster semi automatic rifle used at SHES and say a Remington model 750 semi automatic deer rifle. One difference is that all six calibers available for the 750 are larger than the 223 used in that Bushmaster. Another is magazine capacity. There are no 30 round magazines for the 750. Looks or style is an obvious difference. Everyone would have a much better idea of what Congress might attempt to do if we had that discussion.

  9. Earlier comments have done a good job of explaining "semi-automatic". A point to emphasize is that semi-automatic has long been the most common loading basis for pistols and rifles. So, it's confusing to focus on that feature as if it were something special.

    "Assault weapon" has no meaning except as some law chooses to define the term. It's a matter of cosmetics. An "assault weapon" is merely a rifle that looks like a military rifle in whatever ways the law specifies. But, "assault weapons" are no more deadly than ordinary rifles. That's why banning assault weapons doesn't do any good.

    1. Right. That's why the preffered weapon of mass shooters is the .22 caliber single action rifle. No less deadly than an AK-47 with a 30-round magazine.

  10. Maybe the Times should have spent it's time explaining the difference between semi-automatic and automatic weapons. I have seen any number of personages recently beclowning themselves calling for a ban on "automatic" weapons when such weapons are already heavily regulated and extremely difficult for the average citizen to obtain.

  11. As I understand it, an assault weapon is one which uses a high volume ammunition magazine. A magazine containing 30 bullets would qualify.

    1. What defines an assault rifle is the selectibility of it's rate of fire. Its user can choose single shot, 3 round burst or continuous fire (full auto). While the so-called "assault weapons" the general public can purchase may look like the military versions, seeing as they are only capable of single shot fire they hardly qualify as real assault rifles.

  12. The difference between a dangerous "assault weapon" and a much safer "forceful conversation weapon" is that the assault weapon has features that make it look "mean," "cool," "dangerous" or otherwise "tactical."

    With the exception of high-capacity magazines, most of the features regulated under the '94 AWB were purely cosmetic, is what I'm saying.

    The funny thing is that sniper rifles are very commonly bolt-action, and thus not assault weapons.

    Frankly, Bob's post bespeaks a crushing ignorance of guns. I figured some familiarity was expected given how important they are in our culture and current events...

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  13. Actually, Wikipedia says nothing about magazine capacity in the AWB...

    You know, these laws are so often just a wedge issue used to please the base. Back before it was white people getting killed, being anti-gun was an easy way to show you were on "Team Urban" without actually taking a position which would threaten the status quo.

    Of course, now that it's white kids dying we might see a law with some teeth.

  14. When's the last time a sane person pulled one of these stunts? Without a mental health effort commensurate with the frequency of psychos committing these crimes, the AWB will accomplish nothing. For one thing all existing guns and magazines will be grandfathered.

  15. As another poster has mentioned, there are many different mechanisms that have been devised for re-loading a handgun or rifle or shotgun. A quick look at wikipedia at 'handguns' and 'rifles' and 'shotguns' will show the differences between them.

  16. Here is a guide for people unfamiliar with fire arms:


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