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So What Is an 'Assault Rifle' Really? We Look at the Definitions and How the Term Is 'Demonized

So What Is an 'Assault Rifle' Really? We Look at the Definitions and How the Term Is 'Demonized

"Make a promise to yourself that you will stop calling rifles assault weapons."

"Make a promise to yourself that you will stop calling rifles 'assault weapons.'"

That's what Glenn Beck said on his morning radio show Thursday as he discussed AR-15s. But why? Is an AR-15 not an assault rifle? Does the "AR" in AR-15 not stand for "assault rifle"?

A man with an AR-15, which is a semi-automatic rifle allowed for civilian ownership. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

It doesn't. In fact, it doesn't mean "automatic rifle" either, as many might think. AR actually stands for ArmaLite rifle, which is the company that first developed it in the 1950s.

It seems that there is a lot of confusion as to the difference between military rifles and those designed for civilian ownership, especially because of the language often used to describe the latter. The most popular terms to describe the weapons at the center of the recent gun control debate are "military-style" and "assault." These words have long been used to to describe civilian firearms like the AR-15, but some consider it an inappropriate association that is deliberately being made to "demonize" the guns.

As Beck radio producer Stu Burguiere put it on the show Thursday, "they are targeting these weapons because they think the public is confused enough that they can get away with it -- and they are."

With what seems to be little understanding or agreement on the definition of what constitutes an assault rifle and the difference between civilian and military arms, TheBlaze went searching.

Military vs. Civilian Rifles -- What's the Difference?

For the purpose of this article, we'll focus on AR-15s since it is what CBS calls "the most popular rifle in America" and one often designated an "assault" rifle. An AR-15 is the civilian equivalent to the military's M-16. So what's the difference?

Kelly Alwood, a firearms trainer and consultant, told TheBlaze the only difference is that one is fully automatic and the other is semi-automatic. It's a small yet simultaneously big distinction. Firearms for use by the military are able to shoot continuously with one pull of the trigger, machine-gun style. Civilian firearms, on the other hand, only allow one shot per trigger pull.

M-16, a military automatic rifle. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Chris Parrett, a firearms enthusiast, pointed out that modifying a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one is not only highly illegal with extreme penalties but also no easy feat.

What Constitutes an 'Assault' Rifle?

Merriam-Webster Dictonary defines "assault rifle" as "any of various automatic or semiautomatic rifles with large capacity magazines designed for military use." The keywords here are "designed for military use."

If that definition doesn't quite cut it for you, here's how David Kopel (via the Washington Examiner) describes it in an article in the "Journal of Contemporary Law" based on a definition from the Department of Defense (emphasis added):

As the United States Defense Department’s Defense Intelligence Agency book Small Arms Identification and Operation Guide explains, “assault rifles” are “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges.”[21] In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically.[22]

Weapons capable of fully automatic fire, including assault rifles, have been regulated heavily in the United States since the National Firearms Act of 1934.[23] Taking possession of such weapons requires paying a $200 federal transfer tax and submitting to an FBI background check, including ten-print fingerprints.[24]

Many civilians have purchased semiautomatic-only rifles that look like military assault rifles. These civilian rifles are, unlike actual assault rifles, incapable of automatic fire.

Based on these two definitions, since AR-15 is designed for civilian use, it therefore doesn't fit with the definition of an "assault" weapon. This then begs the question why the association is being made in the first place.

"It was the Left who needed a term to call them," Beck said on radio Thursday. "They are trying to make you think ...'an AR-15, nobody needs that.' An AR-15 is just a rifle, unless it has a fully automatic switch on it and then it becomes a machine gun -- and you can't buy that."

(Editor's note: machine guns, or automatic weapons, are reserved for the military but they can be purchased for a relatively high cost after a very lengthy background check and licensing procedure. See David Kopel's definition we included above.)

"It's a way to demonize something for a political agenda and misconstrue [the guns] and the public on the Second Amendment," Alwood said.

Alwood, who the day he spoke with TheBlaze was traveling around helping police departments with their rifles, pointed out that all arguments for further gun control regulations or bans seem to go back the question "what would you possibly need this for?" Or rather, why would someone need the civilian equivalent to a military firearm?

Alwood said many gun control advocates would tie this question to hunting. In other words, why would a hunter need such a firearm? As the governor of New York Andrew Coumo said his State of the State address this week, "no one hunts with an assault rifle." To which Alwood would respond, 1) there are practical applications in hunting with a so-called assault rifle and, 2) "the Second Amendment wasn't designed for hunting," an association which he thinks started being made in the 1980s.

"We need these rifles because the government has them," Alwood explained.

He stopped there to say he realizes this is where gun enthusiasts and riflemen are made out to seem like anti-government "whack jobs" by the media, but that's just not true.

"I don't want people to think of me as anti-government. Most gun owners are not anti-government," Alwood said.

He added that the Founding Fathers drafted the Second Amendment with protection of the citizens and their freedoms in mind.

"[Without the Second Amendment] there is no way to resist the government, voiding all other amendments," Alwood said. "Why should [the government] continue to give you your freedom of speech if there is no one to stop them. It's the only safeguard we have to protect us from a tyrannical government. ...Look at all countries in trouble with dictators, they have absolute gun bans."

The conservative publication Townhallrecently called out two countries with a similar sentiment to this in mind:

Neither the Venezuelan nor Chinese governments have particularly good track records when it comes to human rights. By maintaining a government monopoly on guns, both can ensure that further abuses are carried out with less protests from the citizenry. Overall, it is sad to see two dictatorial governments making it easier to abuse their citizens as they please while also squelching the possibility for resistance.

Watch the segment on Thursday's radio show where Beck takes on the use of the term "assault":

Editor's note -- The author of this post discussed this story during our live BlazeCast on Friday afternoon:

This story has corrected the spelling of Kelly Alwood's last name.

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