An Inconvenient Truth about Assault Rifles

Let’s start by clearing up a few misconceptions about so-called “assault rifles”. Technically speaking an assault rifle is a selective fire (selectable among either fully automatic, burst-capable, or, sometimes, semi-automatic modes of operation) rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine.

This means that an assault rifle must contain 3 distinct features: * Selective fire control between fully automatic, burst-capable, and single shot modes of operation AND * Use of an intermediate cartridge AND * Use of a detachable magazine

Now that we’ve established what constitutes an “assault rifle” let’s look at each of these items in greater detail.

Selective Fire

A selective fire firearm has at least one semi–automatic and one automatic mode, which is activated by means of a selector which varies depending on the weapon's design. Some selective fire weapons utilize burst fire mechanisms to limit the maximum number of shots fired automatically in this mode. The most common limits are two or three rounds per trigger pull. Fully automatic fire refers to the ability for a rifle to fire continuously until the magazine is empty. "Burst-capable" fire refers to the ability of a rifle to fire a small yet fixed multiple number of rounds with one trigger pull. Semi-automatic refers to the ability to fire one round per trigger pull. The presence of selective fire modes on assault rifles permits more efficient use of rounds to be fired for specific needs, versus having a single mode of operation, such as fully automatic, thereby conserving ammunition while maximizing on-target accuracy and effectiveness.

Intermediate Cartridge

An intermediate cartridge is a military assault rifle cartridge that is less powerful than typical full power battle rifle cartridges such as the 7.62x54mm Rimmed, UK .303 or US .30-06 Springfield, but still significantly more powerful than pistol cartridges. As their recoil is significantly reduced compared to high power rifle cartridges, fully automatic rifles firing intermediate cartridges are relatively easy to control. However, even though less powerful than a traditional rifle cartridge, the ballistics are still sufficient for an effective range of 250–500 metres (270–550 yd), which are the maximum typical engagement ranges in combat. This allowed for the development of the assault rifle concept, which is a selective fire weapon that is more compact and lighter than rifles firing full power cartridges. The first intermediate cartridge to see widespread service was the German 7.92x33mm Kurz. Other examples include the Soviet 7.62x39mm used in the AK-47 and AKM series, and the .280 British round developed for the EM-2. The 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge is also an intermediate cartridge.

Detachable Magazine

A detachable magazine is a self-contained mechanism capable of being loaded or unloaded while detached from the host firearm. They are attached via a slot in the firearm receiver usually below the action but occasionally to the side (Sten, FG42, Johnson LMG) or on top (Madsen machine gun, Bren gun, FN P90). When the magazine is empty, it can be detached from the firearm and replaced by another full magazine. This significantly speeds the process of reloading, allowing the operator quick access to ammunition. This type of magazine may be straight or curved, the curve being necessary if the rifle uses rimmed ammunition or ammunition with a tapered case.

So now that we’ve identified what features are needed to make an “assault rifle” let’s do a visual test.

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

So which of these 3 examples is an “assault rifle” according to the definition above? All three of them look very similar. But do they adhere to the definition?

  • Example A while using both an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine does not have a selective fire control.
  • Example B uses both an intermediate cartridge, a detachable magazine, and is capable of selective fire.
  • Example C has selective fire control, a detachable magazine but doesn’t use an intermediate cartridge. As a matter of record it’s not even considered a firearm as it’s an Airsoft gun.

So Example B is the only one with all 3 features and is the only “assault rifle” of the group. While they all look similar to one another they are not all “assault rifles”.

Let’s do one more visual test to see if we’ve learned anything.

Example 4

Example 5

Example 6

Example 7

So which of these 4 examples is an “assault rifle” according to the definition above? Sorry it’s a trick question. While all 4 have a detachable magazine none of them have selective fire or use an intermediate cartridge. So none of them is an “assault rifle”. As a matter of fact all 4 of them are the same firearm just with different stocks put into place. Some are just a bit more “scary” looking than the others. The issue is that “scary” looking doesn’t and shouldn’t define an “assault rifle”.

The fact is that what really constitutes an “assault rifle” is actually called “Selective Fire Weapons”. Selective fire weapons are regulated in the United States under the National Firearms Act of 1934; their new manufacture for the civilian market was prohibited by the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. Those still in circulation often command prices significantly higher than similar models still available to law enforcement and military agencies and are highly regulated by the ATF.

# But for the sake of argument let’s now agree that anything that looks like a military style weapon is an “assault rifle”.

The Statistics about Assault Rifles

Let’s take a look at the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI to determine how deadly or how often an “assault rifle” is used in homicides.

Take another look at the data of murder by weapon type. Notice what’s missing? Assault rifles. They barely chart - to the point that where to measure them they have to get included into the rifles group. Let’s actually chart that data to get a better visual representation of what that data is telling us.

Rifles account for 1,874 homicides from 2007-2011 out of a total of 68,720. That accounts to be 2.73%. Now how many of those 1,874 homicided were commited by an ‘“assault rifle’”? Well we really don’t know. But let’s extrapolate some raw numbers.

A November 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that, as of 2009, there were approximately 310 million firearms in the United States: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns.

In 2009, in a declaration made as part of the court case Heller v. District of Columbia, which challenged D.C.’s assault weapons ban, NRA research coordinator Mark Overstreet reported that, from 1986 to 2007, at least 1,626,525 AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles were produced and not exported from the United States. Overstreet suggested that you could use trends in NICS background checks to project future sales of AR-15-style rifles. As of Nov. 30, 2012, the total number of NICS background checks increased by 50.4 percent since the end of 2007. If the number of AR-15 rifles increased similarly, then that means there are at least 2,446,294 AR-15 rifles currently available in the United States.

These data only include firearms manufactured in the United States. In his declaration, Overstreet notes that, since 1986, “U.S.-made firearms have accounted for roughly three-fourths of all new firearms available on the commercial market in the United States.” So if you increase the above number to account for foreign-made, AR-15-style rifles, you get 3,261,725 total rifles.

Overstreet derived his numbers by examining the sales figures of companies that only produced AR-15-style rifles. He didn’t include sales data from America’s three largest gunmakers—Remington, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm-Ruger—because these three produce multiple lines of rifles, and he couldn’t break down the data.

Let’s estimate those figures on our own.

According to Sturm-Ruger’s 2011 annual report, sales of rifles accounted for $83.4 million in revenue that year out of $324.2 million in total net firearms sales—about 26 percent of revenue. Sturm-Ruger produced 1,114,700 firearms in 2011. Assuming that every gun cost the same amount—this is certainly incorrect, but we’re just making a back-of-the-envelope calculation here—26 percent of 1,114,700 is roughly 290,000 rifles. According to Overstreet, AR-15s accounted for 14.4 percent of rifles produced in 2007. If that statistic remains true, then Sturm-Ruger produced close to 42,000 AR-15-style rifles in 2011. Walk that number back through the years, and extrapolate it out to the other two manufacturers, and you’re possibly looking at anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 more AR-15-style rifles.

Add everything together, make all the necessary caveats, carry the two, and we reach the conclusion that there are somewhere around 3,750,000 AR-15-type rifles in the United States today.

If we round up once more that means that there are close to 4 million assault weapons in the U.S., which amounts to roughly 1.29% of the total gun stock of 310,000,000 firearms.

The Impact

If we accept the above numbers as not wildly inaccurate then we can extrapolate that approximately 1.29% of all homicides that occured between 2007-2011 were at the hands of someone wielding an assault rifle. This comes out to be 24.17 people during that span or 4.83 a year.

In comparison, during that same time period, 4,058 people were beat to death by hands, fists and feet. Or approximately 812 people per year. This means that you’re approximately 168 times more likely to be beaten to death by someone using their hands, fists and feet than to be killed with an assault rifle.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that 50% of Homicides committed using a rifle were ‘“assault rifles’”. This comes to equal approximately 187.4 homicides per year over that 5 year term or 1.36% of all Homicides.

In reality you’re:

  • 1,365 times more likely to be murdered with a handgun
  • 370 times more likely to be murdered with a knife
  • 120 tiimes more likely to be murdered with a blunt object
  • 84 times more likely to be murdered with a shotgun
  • 19.35 times more likely to be murdered by fire
  • 8.8 times more likely to be murdered through the use of narcotics
  • 1.75 times more likely to be murdered through the use of poison
  • 1.25 times more likely to be murdered through the use of explosives

At least that’s what the numbers tell us.

In reality, Assault weapons are not the weapons of choice among drug dealers, gang members or criminals in general. Assault weapons are used in about one-fifth of one percent (.20%) of all violent crimes and about one percent in overall gun crimes.

The 2nd Amendment

Some people will argue that since the founders and framers of the Constitution only had access to muzzle loading black powder rifles then that’s literally what they meant, and therefore the 2nd Amendment no longer applies.

This is a seriously malformed argument on many points, but there are people who earnestly posit such a statement. Of course we could preface the beginning of any statement accordingly in an attempt to disregard any of the rights in the Constitution.

For example: let’s apply that logic to the 1st Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Due to the lack of electronics during the time that the Constitution was written we can state that your right to freedom of speech only applies to spoken word or printed word when that printed word was hand written since the framers didn’t have a word processor, ink jet/laser printers, email, cellular phones, facebook and twitter.

How ridiculous does that argument sound now?

Now let’s apply some of that logic to the 5th Amendment.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Now the 5th Amendment deals with Double Jeopardy and the wording states ‘“nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb’”. Since some crimes don’t have the punishment of losing either your life or a limb does that mean you can be tried over and over again until the government is happy with the outcome? Of course it doesn’t.

Like it or not the 2nd Amendment is law. The law cannot be ignored because one considers the practices of lawmakers at the time disagreeable or immoral by today’s standards. By the same reasoning, if our President or members of Congress commit immoral acts, is the legislation they passed suddenly invalid? No it isn’t.

Whatever the vices and imperfections of the Founders, they were masters at establishing a republican form of government.


There is a chance that if you are trying to change someone’s mind about guns by spouting statistics about gun violence or gun accidents or crimes thwarted by guns that you might as well be manipulating your butt cheeks to modulate your farts into a Skrillex track; sure, it may impress a crowd at parties, but it’s not going to change anyone’s mind. This is what people who aren’t from America, or who grew up somewhere like Berkeley or whatever, don’t get: America’s love of guns has nothing to do with actually using them.

The huge gap suggests President Obama’s call for new firearm restrictions would do little to reduce the number people murdered each year – even if a reluctant Congress were to pass all his requests. His proposals don’t really addresss handguns.

Assault rifles are not America’s biggest problem. Elimination of assault rifles won’t address the problem as that will only address 1.29% of the issue. What about the other 98.71% of homicides? Are they now acceptable by comparision?

No they aren’t. So pull your head out of your ass and let’s start addressing the problem (which is people) and not the tool.