Survey: Public Confused About What Assault Weapons Really Are

ReasonWhat’s an Assault Weapon?

A Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey conducted this month suggests such misconceptions are common. After asking the 1,000 respondents if they thought people should be “prohibited from owning assault weapons,” the survey (which is sponsored by my employer, the Reason Foundation) asked half of the sample to “describe an assault weapon.” The answers are illuminating.

About two-thirds of the respondents described “assault weapons” as guns that fire rapidly, guns that can fire a large number of rounds without reloading, guns with a lot of “power,” or guns used by the military. More than a quarter described them as “machine guns,” “automatics,” or the equivalent (e.g., “multiple rounds with just one pull of the trigger”).

That sounds right. I’ve had some discussions with friends on Facebook recently and several of them thought that the so-called assault rifles being talked about are full auto.

When debating an assault weapons ban, it’s worth mentioning that assault weapons being discussed are semi-automatic, not fully automatic. They fire one shot per trigger pull.

Restrictions on full auto weapons

  • Full auto weapons have been heavily regulated since the National Firearms Act of 1934. You could still buy them, but there was a $200 tax stamp and lots of paperwork to buy and register them.
  • The National Firearms Act of 1968 prohibited the import of fully automatic weapons for civilian ownership.
  • In 1986 the Hughes Amendment closed the registry for fully automatic weapons. can still transfer pre-86 guns, but you can’t couldn’t order new ones from the factory.
  • Due to supply and demand the price of pre-1986 full auto weapons has gone through the roof. A cheap one is $6,000. More desirable ones like a full auto M16 are two are three times that or more.
  • Transferring a full auto – whether it’s being sold or given away, e.g., from a parent to child – requires paying the $200 transfer tax and processing ATF paperwork through a licensed gun dealer.
  • The person receiving the gun must submit their fingerprints and a photograph.
  • The ATF does an extensive background check on the applicant.
  • Paperwork processing by the ATF takes two or three months and sometimes more.
  • Not all gun dealers can do the transfer paperwork. They must be a Class III dealer.
  • Full auto weapons can’t be transported to another state without prior approval from the ATF.
  • About a dozen states prohibit the ownership of fully automatic weapons.
  • Last I heard, no legally-registered fully automatic weapon has ever been used to commit a crime.

4 Responses to Survey: Public Confused About What Assault Weapons Really Are

  1. Pingback: SayUncle » Well, that’s the idea

  2. Mr Evilwrench says:

    Oh, they would certainly regret interviewing me, as I’d go into endless pedantic detail over the terms, their true meanings, their history and distinctions, until they started drooling and blood issued forth from their ears. CDO: it’s like OCD, but in alphabetical order, as it should be.

  3. Skeptical_Realist says:

    According to, there has only been one confirmed murder with a legally owned machine gun since 1934. In 1988, Roger Waller, a law enforcement patrolman, killed an informant with a MAC-11. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. So the only confirmed homicide with a TRUE assault weapon in the US was commited by a cop.

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