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When Is an Assault Pistol Not an Assault Pistol?

Now that 2023 seems to have a come in with a whole bunch of mass shootings (58 killed or wounded in 4 events in LA, CA, Fl, AL), we get the usual ‘thoughts and prayers’ on the one hand, and the usual search for explanations on the other. But this time around, thanks to a comment made by the Sheriff at the Monterey Park shooting, a third discussion has also broken out.

When Sheriff Robert Luna was asked to describe the weapon that was used to kill 11 and wound 9 at the Star Dance Studio, he called the gun an ‘assault pistol, not an assault rifle,’ which set off all kinds of tongue-wagging on the internet, because there’s no such thing as an ‘assault pistol’ and, for that matter, the term ‘assault rifle’ is also a phrase which means nothing at all.

So, what I’m going to try and do in today’s column is explain what these terms mean and don’t mean, if only to attempt to bring a little bit of clarity to the current gun debate. I’m not assuming I’ll be successful in trying to make sense out of what has been and continues to be nonsense, but I’ll give it a try.

Until the last year of World War II, every combatant on both sides of the conflict carried and used a semi-automatic gun. Whether it was a rifle or a pistol, the bottom line is that every time a soldier wanted to shoot his weapon, he had to pull the trigger.

Now in fact guns which fired multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger had been around since the middle years of the nineteenth century, but the early guns, like the Gatling gun, were bulky, heavy and therefore not suited to be carried or used by individual troops. The Thompson sub-machine gun, popularized by Al Capone’s gang, was also produced both for military and civilian use but was never issued to troops in the field.

Now we come up to 1944 and the German weapons engineers come up with a small, lightweight and fully automatic gun which really works which they call the Sturmgewehr 44, which means ‘assault rifle’ (sturm = assault or attack, gewehr = rifle) and the assault rifle is born.

The Russians then developed their version of the assault rifle, the AK47, in 1947, and the United States gets into the full-auto act with the AR-10 in 1955. For any gun-nut reading this page, you can get a quick and clear history of the AR right here, but the end result of the efforts made by Gene Stoner to design a small, lightweight and full-auto rifle was the gun produced by Colt and first released to the troops in 1964.

At the same time that Colt began delivering their gun to the military, which was called the M-16, the company also began to sell a semi-automatic version of the gun to the civilian market, which was first advertised by Colt as a ‘sporter,’ but other than the semi-auto versus the full-auto firing mode, the sporter was exactly the same gun as the M-16: same size, same weight, same everything except it wasn’t a full-auto gun.

What makes the assault rifle so deadly and is the favorite weapon used by most shooters who want to kill lots of people as quickly as they can, is the way in which the gun loads the ammunition it fires, which is a magazine stuck into the bottom of the gun. A top-loading gun, like the venerable M-1, can only take 8 or 9 rounds before it needs to be reloaded because a larger magazine would stick out above the gun’s frame and make It impossible to aim the gun.

On the other hand, if the gun’s ammunition is held in a magazine which sticks out below the gun’s frame, you can use magazines which are able to hold thirty, forty, fifty or even one hundred rounds.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that because the civilian version of today’s assault rifle only fires in semi-automatic mode, that this is a handicap for the shooter in terms of how quickly the gun can be fired. The kid who killed 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shot off more than 90 rounds in three minutes or less.

The reason that Sheriff Luna referred to the weapon used to kill and injure 20 people in Monterey Park as an ‘assault pistol’ was because the gun used in that slaughter had a barrel which was less than 16 inches in length. And the federal government defines rifles and pistols by one characteristic and one characteristic only, namely, whether the barrel is 16 inches or longer, which makes the gun a rifle, or what is referred to as a ‘long gun,’ versus the barrel being less than 16 inches, which makes it a pistol or a handgun.

For all of the gun-nut purists out there, who have spent the last thirty-odd years telling us that no semi-automatic weapon can be considered an assault gun, let me break the news to you gently. The current battle rifle issued to our troops can be set either to fire a 3-shot burst or to fire in semi-automatic mode.

This design feature has been incorporated into the military gun because it has been determined that a lightweight, semi-automatic gun is more lethal than a full-auto gun when the trooper finds himself in a public space where mobility and point-of-aim will determine how many human targets will be shot and killed.

If that’s not the definition of an ‘assault,’ regardless of the gun’s barrel length, then obviously I don’t know how to use a vocabulary which I learned in the 3rd or 4th grade.

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