What Right-Wing Media Won't Tell You About Assault Weapons

Conservatives in media have adopted the false National Rifle Association claim that the term “assault weapon” was invented by proponents of assault weapons bans in order to arbitrarily single out certain firearms for further regulation. However, before the gun industry trade association attempted to rebrand assault weapons as “modern sporting rifles” in 2009 -- a change in terminology also adopted by the NRA -- the gun industry and firearm publications routinely used the term assault weapon to describe the very military-style semi-automatic rifles that would be covered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons ban.

As Sen. Feinstein prepares another hearing on gun violence for later this month, members of right-wing media are now dishonestly attempting to hide the history and special capabilities of assault weapons. 

In a February 4 appearance on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight, Ted Nugent, a NRA board member who uses his Washington Times column to argue against strengthening gun laws, covered up how assault weapons have been marketed when he claimed that President Obama's proposal to reduce gun violence “still calls personal defense weapons assault weapons, which is a nomenclature created by the anti-gun agenda.”

As Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich, who writes about gun policy for the conservative Townhall website, put it, “the term 'assault weapon' is a made up political term.” Washington Times senior opinion editor Emily Miller has also attempted to rewrite history, recently claiming, “President Obama and his allies, such as Mrs. [Dianne] Feinstein, deliberately misuse the term 'assault weapon' to confuse the public. Assault weapons are machine guns, automatic rifles that continue to fire until the trigger is released.”

On the January 19 edition of Fox News program Fox & Friends Saturday, Miller claimed that the term assault weapon was invented during the 1980s by gun violence prevention organizations for “fearmongering” purposes:

Pundits like Miller and Pavlich are merely adopting the NRA screed on this subject. Miller's claim about the origin of the term assault weapon mirrored a January 14 press release from the NRA's lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislative Action, that claims gun violence prevention advocates coined the term during the 1980s.

During January, NRA News host Cam Edwards frequently spoke about the definition of an assault weapon on his Cam & Company show. According to Edwards, the term assault weapon is “a made up phrase” and assault weapons can be defined as "gun I'm trying to ban" or alternately "gun I want to ban."

In some instances, even traditional media has adopted the NRA terminology. A January 30 New York Times article about a Senate Judiciary Hearing on gun violence used the term “so-called assault weapons” to describe efforts to ban military-style semi-automatic rifles. The same “so-called” modifier is often seen in NRA press releases and op-eds written by chief NRA lobbyist Chris Cox.

The truth is that military-style semi-automatic rifles were called assault weapons because that is what gun manufacturers and gun enthusiasts called them. The term has played a key role in the ongoing effort of the gun industry to rebrand and market military-style weaponry to civilians. Now, as legislation supported by a majority of Americans has been proposed to ban these weapons, the NRA and its gun industry and media allies are using semantics and terminology arguments to downplay the dangers of a class of weapons often associated with horrific mass shootings and law enforcement killings.


1944: Nazi Germany develops the first mass produced assault rifle, the Sturmgewehr 44.

1947: The fully automatic AK-47 -- which will become the basis for a large class of civilian assault weapons -- is released into the arms market.

1962: The military begins to conduct field trials on a recently designed rifle known as the AR-15. The rifle is given the designation M16 and goes on to become the Army's standard issue rifle. The M16 was capable of fully automatic, burst, and semi-automatic fire.

1963: Colt, after acquiring the design for the AR-15 from ArmaLite, begins to sell a semi-automatic AR-15 assault weapon on the civilian market.

1968: The Gun Control Act of 1968, which established categories of persons prohibited from owning firearms, gives the executive branch the authority to ban the importation of non-sporting weapons. 

1980s: The military issues the M16A2 rifle, which allows for semi-automatic and burst fire, but not automatic fire. The elimination of automatic fire from most weapons makes the military assault weapon more similar to the civilian version. A later version of the M16 often used by Special Forces, the M16A3, is equipped with the option for automatic fire, however the more widely issued M16A1 predecessors, the M16A4 and the M4 carbine, are not typically equipped with automatic fire capabilities.

1980s: Semi-automatic assault weapons become widely available on the civilian market. According to the Violence Policy Center, gun manufacturers began to heavily market these weapons to make up for declining handgun sales.

1982: Guns & Ammo magazine publishes a guide to semi-automatic assault weapons simply titled, Assault Rifles.

1984: A Heckler & Koch advertisement for the “HK 91 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle” depicts the common survivalist theme seen in assault weapon advertisements. The ad notes that the rifle pictured for sale is “derived directly from the G3” and adds, “Leading military operations and law enforcement agencies rely on firearms that bear the H&K name. Your choice is equally clear. You can carry an ordinary weapon. Or own the most uncompromising firearm in the world.” The H&K G3 is an assault rifle used by numerous militaries since its invention in 1959. Also in 1984, the H&K 94 Carbine, a rifle with a shorter barrel, is described by its manufacturer as “a direct offspring of HK's renowned family of MP5 submachine guns.”

1985: According to the Violence Policy Center, an advertisement for the semi-automatic Colt AR-15A2 assault weapon read:

Survival means different things to different people. For a rancher in the high country of Wyoming, being self-sufficient can mean keeping varmints from his sheep. For a rugged individual in the wilderness, it means being prepared for any eventuality. For both these men, and thousands like them, there's only one gun. The Colt AR-15A2. The reasons are as simple as they are plentiful. First, it's the rifle they're already familiar with. The AR-15A2 Sporter II is the civilian version of the battle proven and recently improved U.S. military M-16A1... 

1986: Duncan Long, an expert on firearms who wrote a widely referenced technical book on the AR-15/M16 rifle, writes in his book Assault Pistols, Rifles and Submachine Guns, “The next problem arises if you make a semiauto-only model of one of these selective-fire rifles. According to the purists, an assault rifle has to be selective fire [has the ability to switch between automatic and semi-automatic fire]. Yet, if you think about it, it's a little hard to accept the idea that firearms with extended magazines, pistol grip stock, etc., cease to be assault rifles by changing a bit of metal.”

1987: American Rifleman, a publication of the National Rifle Association, describes the Calico M-100 carbine-style assault weapon as “certainly not a competition gun, hardly a hunting gun, and is difficult to visualize as a personal defense gun.”

1988: Guns & Ammo writer Jan Libourel defines an “assault pistol” as, “A high-capacity semi-automatic firearm styled like a submachine gun but having a pistol-length barrel and lacking a buttstock.”

1988: report issued by the Violence Police Center notes that, “In their marketing of assault weapons, manufacturers often focus on their police or military functions, their ruggedness and dependability, and the cache of a lone man and his gun against the elements, crime, or the unstated threat of post-nuclear survival.”

1989: Guns & Ammo reviews the “Partisan Avenger .45 Assault Pistol,” stating that the firearm “is fired rapidly from the hip, its swivelling [sic] front grip makes for easy and comfortable control of the recoil,” and that the “forward pistol grip extension of this powerful assault pistol not only helps point it instinctively at the target but goes a long way to controlling the effects of recoil.”

1989: President George H.W. Bush uses executive action to ban the importation of foreign-made semi-automatic assault weapons, directing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to only allow the importation of firearms “generally recognized as particularly suitable for, or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”

May 1994: Former presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter write a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives urging the enactment of an assault weapons ban. In the letter, the former presidents write, “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety ... We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”

September 13, 1994: A federal assault weapons ban is enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. An estimated 1.5 million assault weapons already in circulation are exempted from regulation by a grandfather clause. The ban is hampered by loopholes allowing gun manufacturers to make cosmetic changes to banned assault rifles in order to continue to market those weapons to the public.

1995: About one in ten of the 74 law enforcement officers murdered during 1995 are killed with assault weapons.  

1998: President Bill Clinton bans the importation of more than 50 types of assault weapons, specifically variations of the AK-47 and UZI firearms. 

1998-2001: Between January 1, 1998 and December 31, 2001, at least 41 of 211 -- or approximately one in five -- law enforcement officers murdered in the line of duty are killed with assault weapons.

1999: Gun authors fearmonger about consequences of the Y2K computer glitch. Barrett Tillman wrote in a column in American Handgunner, “But since the Have Nots won't hesitate to break in and take from the Haves, plan on close contact. And plan on being outnumbered. High capacity rifles, pistols and shotguns are obvious choices.”

August 2001: Gun World magazine highlights how gun manufacturers have been able to skirt the 1994 assault weapons ban, writing, “In spite of assault rifle bans, bans on high capacity magazines, the rantings [sic] of the anti-gun media and the rifle's innate political incorrectness, the Kalashnikov [AK-47], in various forms and guises, has flourished. Today there are probably more models, accessories and parts to choose from than ever before.”

2001 - 2009: The Bush administration does away with previous executive actions restricting the importation of foreign-made assault weapons.

October 2002: John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo use a Bushmaster XM15 M4 A3 assault weapon to kill 10 and injure three in the Washington, D.C. area. The weapon used by the shooters was legal at the time because Bushmaster made a cosmetic change to the rifle to skirt the 1994 assault weapons ban. Bushmaster advertised the gun as a “Post-Ban Carbine”:

September 13, 2004: The federal assault weapons ban expires

November 2009: The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group, releases a memo attempting to rebrand assault weapons as “modern sporting rifles.” Not all publications would follow suit. Gun World, for example, uses the term assault rifle throughout an article about the Ruger Mini-14 in the magazine's August 2010 edition.

2012: High-profile shootings involving assault weapons -- including a massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school and a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater -- heighten public interest in the reauthorization of an assault weapons ban. 

January 24, 2013: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduces legislation for an expanded assault weapons ban that prohibits the “sale, transfer, manufacturing and importation of” 157 named assault weapons, along with any rifles or pistols derivative of the AR-15 or AK-47. The legislation also bans rifles with the ability to accept a detachable magazine that also have one or more military features including a “pistol grip; forward grip; folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; barrel shroud; or threaded barrel.”