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Clarification of Gun Terms: Semi-automatic, Assault, Machine gun

Many news reports and programs equate "semi-automatic" with "assault" guns. People are led to believe that a semi-automatic can shoot several rounds per second. We hear news commentators calling for a ban of semi-automatic weapons.

Federal Assault Weapons Ban: “Semi-automatic firearms, when fired, automatically extract the spent cartridge casing and load the next cartridge into the chamber, ready to fire again. They do not fire automatically like a machine gun.”

Probably most hunting guns are semi-automatic, requiring a separate trigger pull for each round; that doesn't make them assault weapons. Of course, a victim can reasonably claim “assault” even if only one shot is fired at them (assault: a crime that involves causing a victim to apprehend violence).

“Assault weapon (semi-automatic) refers primarily (but not exclusively) to firearms that possess the cosmetic features of an assault rifle (which are fully-automatic). Actually possessing the operational features, such as 'full-auto', changes the classification from an assault weapon to a Class 3 weapon. Merely the possession of cosmetic features is enough to warrant such classification as an assault weapon.”

If a weapon has certain cosmetic features of an assault rifle (e.g. pistol grip, high capacity magazine etc ) it’s classified as an assault weapon.

Note that fully-automatic operation (hold trigger - several rounds per second) is not an assault weapon but a Class 3 weapon (e.g. machine gun) regulated by National Firearms Act).

What if a semi-automatic gun has not only cosmetic features, but also operates as a Class 3 rifle?

A popular conversion product provides that:
It's approved by BATF:
Apparently the product is “OK” because the operator controls the action.

This weapon provides an advantage; but may be less accurate / continual auto may damage barrel.

  • Dec 26 2012: In general, I tend to be more technical, looking for details about how things work.
    For example, I’m truly amazed at the process of “genes to proteins”.

    When I heard the tragic news from Sandy Hook, of course I felt very sad for the loss of those children and teachers.
    But as time passed and hearing reports of a Bushmaster .223 weapon, I learned what “semi-automatic” operation looks like in a firearm. The “six-guns” used by cowboys were the predecessor; they could shoot six times by merely pulling the trigger six times (“double-action”). Then someone invented magazines (“clips”) to store more rounds and make it easier to reload.

    If a criminal from the days of Roy Rogers days wanted to kill a bunch of people, he could fire 12 rounds, using both hands. Then he would need to reload.
    Or he could get a Gatling gun that enabled rapid fire.

    Here’s a question.
    Did the shooter at Sandy Hook have a gun that operated like a “six-gun” revolver used by Roy Rogers?
    Or did the gun operate more like a Gatling gun?

    Many news programs claim that it was a “military assault rifle” that could shoot many rounds per second.

    The website “Federal Assault Weapons Ban” says:
    “The Act addressed only semi-automatic firearms, that is, firearms that fire one shot each time the trigger is pulled. Neither the AWB nor its expiration changed the legal status of fully automatic firearms, which fire more than one round with a single trigger-pull; these have been regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.”

    This statement is misleading. In the Sandy Hook example:
    The news reports say a semi-automatic gun was used. (weapon covered by AWB)
    But automatic fire was used. Weapon Not covered by AWB; therefore, the AWB would have no effect on the crime…

  • Dec 25 2012: Is there a classification for guns that kill children?
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      Dec 25 2012: No sir. That classification applies to people, not to equipment.
      • Dec 29 2012: No, guns don't kill people - by themselves.
        Guns must be utilized by people.
        And the classification of people using guns to destroy innocent lives seems to be increasing.
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          Dec 29 2012: I am not familiar with the statistics for what you assert, but they will not change the fact that there is no classification of firearms for killing children. The deadliest US school massacre happened in 1927 and did not involve guns. The greatest destruction of innocent human lives does not involve guns and is legal. Man's inhumanity to Man is not about guns. It is about Man himself.
  • Dec 29 2012: @edward long: Altho it's off-topic slightly, thanks for mentioning this incident that I and many others had not known.

    The 1927 Bath school disaster caused many student deaths.
    The main weapons were dynamite, pyrotol, and firebombs.

    But wouldn't you agree that guns are more popular in our day?
    Seems to me, it's easier to obtain, transport, and operate a gun than explosives.
    A technical mistake with explosives could "end it" prematurely, not producing the desired result.

    Gun technology is the subject of this Conversation, but I'm interested in your statement:
    "The greatest destruction of innocent human lives does not involve guns and is legal."
    Please explain.
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      Jan 1 2013: You are correct sir, we are way off-topic when we debate which method of slaughtering innocent young people is more popular at what point in history. The greatest destruction of innocent human lives takes place every day when women exercise what they euphemistically call "choice". "Choice" is the word these folks choose as the antithesis of "life". Now we are way off-topic and the storm clouds are gathering. Let's stop.
  • Dec 28 2012: As a rule of thumb I'd say: if it has ever been used by a military as a standard service rifle, personal defense weapon or light machine gun (or the manufacturer tried to sell it to a military for those uses) within the last 70 years, then it's probably something that would be banned by any sensible assault weapons ban.
  • Dec 26 2012: ... more about the AWB

    However, the AWB also includes a ban on weapons that have certain *cosmetic* features of a machine gun, such as a pistol grip and high-capacity magazines. Therefore, AWB would have an effect…

    But then there’s the issue of guns stolen from the owner. AWB would Not have an effect…

    Note: If you agree with the AWB to provide some effect (it’s not perfect), do you see it needs to address newer products or devices (e.g. SSAR-15) that result in a weapon capable of rapid automatic fire, as in a machine gun? Certainly these weapons provide an advantage similar to a Gatling gun. Should the BATF retract its approval of SSAR-15, or require Class 3 license?
    • Dec 28 2012: George,

      The shooter used a semi-automatic gun, meaning one round fired per trigger squeeze. the majority of modern pistols are semi-automatic. The "action" is a bit more complicated to explain but almost irrelevant when talking pistols.

      Arguably, if you keep the same magazine capacity (at 30), the same short range and the same 20 minutes shooting window, this guy would have, unfortunately, done the same with the glock he was carrying. As for revolvers, those have rapid loaders that can put 6 shots back in the drum in seconds. If you are curious go to you tube and find some rapid shooting or reloading and you will be surprised.
      • Dec 28 2012: The previous assault weapons ban banned high capacity magazines, so would a new one. With only pistols he would less often hit moving people more than a few metres away, his bullets would cause less damage to his victims and not penetrate some types of cover that a rifle bullet would pentrate. People would still be killed but over time the number of people killed in mass shootings would decline.
        • Dec 28 2012: John,

          You are trying to split hairs. A ban in assault weapons won't solve anything. In a classroom sized space there is no viable cover that can stop 9mm, .40 or .45. Magazine capacity is irrelevant if the lunatic has 20 minutes to shoot and plenty of extra magazines. Take the The Virginia Tech shooter who used handguns, moved a lot more than this lunatic did and killed 30 people with 28 head shots. How long did he have? 12 minutes and a lot of moving targets.

          There is a level of sensationalism associated with this tragedy, we need to peel of the emotion associated with it in order to make the right decisions. I agree in spirit that certain weapons should be banned from civilians but that is not the solution nor a start. Police response should be looked at, gun free zones security should be reassessed, weapons permits, magazines size and mental illness should also be included.
      • Dec 29 2012: The State Police reported that the main weapon was a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic.

        In the Piers Morgan Tonight show last week, he had been calling the weapon a "military-style assault rifle".
        It may have had a high-capacity magazine and looked like an M16.
        On Thursday 12/20, he kept asking a guest "How many rounds can the AR-15 shoot in one second?" This implies automatic fire.

        Do you know of any final police reports that the rifle may have been converted to have "automatic fire"?

        If yes, this raises another issue that people should be aware of. Just a few years ago, it was stated that "automatic fire" was impossible for semi-automatic firearms.

        If the weapon did not have an option for automatic fire, Piers Morgan Tonight and other reports were giving a false picture.
        • Jan 1 2013: George,

          These people need to find something to talk about. They get paid for being loud, obnoxious and for taking a side. All of them, Morgan, O'Reily, Olberman, Maddow are to be trusted with a big BUT in the end. This whole assault rifle ban is virtually cosmetic, except for the magazines.

          I don't know if the shooter converted the rifle to full-auto. I am sure it's doable and I am sure there are plenty of sources on the internet or in ranges all over the country. A gun is not a complicated thing.
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    Dec 25 2012: George,

    I am curious to know what your intent is with this debate? The information you provide regarding classification of weapons is available on line. I also suspect that when certain guns are banned, those who author the regulations will be knowledgeable enough to know what they are talking about, why they are banning certain guns, and they will make that clear in the written law. I'm sure you know that we HAD a ban on assault guns not too long ago?
    • Dec 25 2012: Despite the information being “on line”, I’m curious about the misinformation on news programs. For example, “Piers Morgan Tonight” has been talking about the dreadful event at Sandy Hook. I think it was the Thursday program (12/20) in which Piers asked a guest several times: “How many rounds a second can an AR-15 fire?” – giving the impression of a military machine gun. For some reason, the guest did not answer.
      The next day, Piers started the show with a video showing operation of an AR-15-type with “automatic” fire.

      But when you see a person shooting a semi-automatic rifle at target practice (accuracy most important), he/she pulls the trigger to fire one round. It appears to take one second for the body to absorb the shock and get ready for another attempt. From the factory, the semi-automatic AR-15 apparently enables only that operation. Am I incorrect on that?
      (My only personal experience with guns is with a .22 rifle my dad and older brother used for hunting, some 60 years ago.)

      When I found information about the SSAR-15, a light came on. It explained how a semi-automatic rifle could be transformed into another kind of weapon. Perhaps there are other ways to do it. There is evidence from Sandy Hook that automatic fire was used (many rounds in each victim). During a murder trial, details are exposed by ballistics experts and eye-witnesses. But when the perpetrator commits suicide, there is no trial. Apparently the type of gun is an important issue. Shouldn’t we know if the semi-automatic rifle was a modified version?

      I find it difficult to understand:
      >> The SSAR-15 product is approved by the BATF, the resultant weapon having a “machine gun” operation.
      >> Nobody talks about it.
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        Dec 25 2012: George,
        I cannot understand focus on EXACTLY how many rounds per minute or second a gun fires....whether or not it is automatic or semi-automatic....unless it is for the purpose of figuring out how fast and how many people we can shoot. There are certain guns, with certain criteria that are catagorized "assault weapons", and one can get that information on line.

        To me, it doesn't matter how "many rounds" there were "in each victim". Those who are dead, are dead, and the person who shot them mis-used the weapons against innocent people. It feels odd to me to be debating the number of rounds in each of those victims
        • Dec 25 2012: Fully -auto (military style) weapons have the potential to pierce body armor along with the higher % of hitting parts of the body that are not covered. That is one of the main reasons they are considered more threatening. I would like to point out again that those type weapons are only available to persons with a class 3 weapon permit as talked about in the main subject.
        • Dec 25 2012: Colleen,
          As I mentioned initially, even one round from a gun is an assault on the victim.
          Rifles used in 1776 inflicted fatal wounds as modern “semi-automatic” guns do today. The effect is the same. As you say, the person is dead.

          In this case, it was the news reports and programs that reported the “number of rounds” information and concluded that a military assault rifle was used, implying automatic fire. And that’s a problem, because we’re told that the shooter’s gun was a semi-automatic.

          The difference between semi-automatic and automatic operation is explained and demonstrated here:
          "The Truth About Semi-Auto Firearms" (Uploaded on Jan 8, 2007)

          At 3:22, the retired police officer says the “automatic rifle” is sold only to policemen and law enforcement.
          Towards the end, they say it's impossible to convert a semi-automatic to automatic operation.
          Has something changed since 2007?

          Why do Piers Morgan and other people report that a (military) automatic firearm was utilized at Sandy Hook?
          What was the police evidence?
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        Dec 26 2012: Dear George,
        As I also mentioned, even one round from a gun is an assault on the victim.....on that we agree.

        I am aware that weapons have changed since 1776.

        News reports, are news reports George, and we know that information is sometimes inaccurate.

        Yes, I believe something has changed since 2007. To the best of my knowledge, in the past 6 years, new guns have been designed, manufactured and used.

        If you want to find out why people report certain information, you need to ask the person you are questioning or his/her representative. I have noticed that more information is available as the Sandy Hook investigation continues. Generally, ALL information is not available to the public until AFTER the investigation is finished.
  • Dec 25 2012: Why are the "M16-like weapons" a problem? They fire at the same speed and kill with the same potential. I apologize if that reads in a disrespectfully meaner it's not intended to be. I personally don't understand the reasoning to ban a weapon based on looks, not to mention who would be appointed the judge of a weapons cosmetics features
    • Dec 29 2012: Guns (even M16 weapons) do not kill other people!
      However, the federal government recognizes that they're more lethal.

      Why are weapons such as M16 rifles considered to be more dangerous?
      Is it because they look scary?
      Would it be beneficial to ask the federal government who invented "Class 3":
      Why are the M16 and "M16-like weapons" a problem?

      To what extent should citizens be permitted to bear arms?
      Should citizen Joe be allowed to own a grenade launcher, or a Gatling gun?
      Should billionaire citizen Bob be allowed to build a small nuclear bomb?
    • Dec 29 2012: Yeah, all guns are the same and the reason all militaries in the world use weapons that are similar to what is considered an "assault weapon" is merely coincidental, surely it has nothing to do with their relative lethality. Imagine what a strange criterium that would be for a military...
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    Dec 25 2012: There is indeed confusion over the semantics of the issue, but I don't believe the same confusion can be applied to the weapons themselves. I assume that everyone can tell the difference between a hunting rifle and an m16, and its the m16-like weapons that are the issue.