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Guns matter in the gun debate:  Assault rifles

So where do assault rifles fall in these practical and relevant uses for guns? It is important to understand the history and development of assault rifles, as well as what makes an assault rifle different than other guns or even other rifles.

The first assault rifles were developed and used in World War II. Though slow to gain acceptance by the military of many nations, assault rifles drastically changed warfare and infantry tactics. Compared to previous infantry-issued weapons, the assault rifle gave the individual infantryman an easily controlled and quickly reloaded machine gun, with twice the ammunition capacity. These assault rifles were essentially the culmination of decades of battlefield development.

Today, the most recognizable and common assault rifle in the world is the AK-47. By contrast, the AR-15, one of the many variants of the M16, is most popular in the United States. Both of these weapons systems are available in a semi-automatic only version in the American commercial market, for just about anyone to purchase.

They both share similar “assault weapon” characteristics, making them optimal weapons for causing the maximum amount of damage to as many targets as possible in as quick a time as possible. Additionally, both weapon systems have seen drastic changes and upgrades in recent years.

There is no clear and accepted modern definition of an assault rifle. Borrowing from the U.S. Army, federal, and state laws defines an assault weapon as, “a selective-fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine.” This clinical definition does little to help the public understand the differences between assault rifles and regular hunting rifles. Examining the definitions and other significant characteristics are important to understand the differences. 

“Select-fire” means that the shooter can quickly select between safe, semi and full automatic. “Safe” mechanically blocks the trigger from being pulled and places the weapon in a safe capacity. “Semi” (short for semi-automatic) allows the shooter to shoot one round per pull of the trigger. “Full automatic” allows the shooter to continuously shoot one round after another while the trigger is depressed until the trigger is released.

An intermediate cartridge/round is one that is not so powerful as to create a lot of recoil, but also not so weak as to cause little damage to a person. A detachable magazine allows the shooter to more effectively carry ammunition and reload quickly. Additionally, the intermediate cartridge is optimal for the magazine to hold more ammunition. Another common difference is a dedicated pistol grip that allows the shooter to maintain positive control over the gun especially when shooting and moving into an “enemy assault” capacity. 

Modern upgrades and versions allow most assault rifle versions to be highly modified for different missions. Various accouterments can be added to increase the weapon’s capabilities and the shooter’s effectiveness. Different kinds of optical sights can be added allowing the shooter to acquire targets faster, see in the dark, or magnify a target at longer distances. Various laser targeting systems can be added, allowing the shooter to react quicker and fire more accurately in confined spaces. Different combinations of attachments to the barrel and stock can be added to further lessen the already low recoil, allowing the shooter to shoot faster and more accurately. 

Does this make a difference in mass shootings and if so, are they significant differences?

Medical professionals not involved in the political debate have been raising the alarm at an increased rate. But unlike other areas of medicine, these professionals can only evaluate the report on the trends they see, on an individual basis. Heather Sher, a radiologist with 13 years of trauma experience, describes the problem facing medical professionals:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the appropriate agency to review the potential impact of banning AR-15-style rifles and high-capacity magazines on the incidence of mass shootings. The agency was effectively barred from studying gun violence as a public health issue in 1996, by a statutory provision known as the Dickey Amendment. This provision needs to be repealed so that the CDC can study this issue and make sensible gun-policy recommendations to Congress.”

Despite the lack of quantitative medical data, working in one of America’s busiest trauma centers, Sher chronicled some of her personal experiences in her February 2018 article, What I Saw Treating the Victims From Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns. Sher observed and diagnosed handgun injuries almost on a “daily basis”. “a [handgun] bullet leaves a laceration through an organ such as the liver… it appears as a linear, thin, gray bullet track… There may be bleeding and some bullet fragments.”

She compared this to what she saw in a CT scan of one of the Parkland students, “The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively.”

Similar injuries to other Parkland victims were very often fatal, explained Sher. “…trauma surgeons only found shreds of the organ hit by a bullet from an AR-15…nothing could be done to fix the problem.”

Sher contrasted this experience with another she had a year prior, “when a gunman opened fire at the Fort Lauderdale airport with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun, hitting 11 people…” Sher realized the victims were from a mass shooting when she diagnosed “the handgun injuries that I diagnose every day; only their rapid succession set them apart.” All six victims transported to the trauma center that day survived. 

Veterans who have extensive experience with these firearms are also starting to sound the alarm regarding assault weapons. In the NBC News, Think column, U.S. Army and Gulf War veteran Michael E Diamond surmises, 

“The fact that the Dayton shooter was killed within 30 seconds of firing his first shot — and yet was still able to kill nine people within that short period of time, injuring dozens more — makes plainly visible what military veterans like myself have long understood: Assault rifles are uniquely lethal because they’re designed to kill as many humans as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Diamond’s Aug. 6, 2019 article, Dayton shooter’s gun is the reason he killed 9 in 30 seconds—and gun makers know it, showcases how military training and discipline are key to the safe use and professional respect of an assault rifle’s lethality on the battlefield.

“The message for [civilian] consumers is clear: If you want to be a badass, all you need to do is buy a semi-automatic assault rifle with a high capacity magazine. You can pretend that you’re a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger without suffering the inconvenience of early morning wake-ups, tough training and demanding standards.”

One sure thing, in light of the information presented in these articles, change is coming. Parents and loved ones whose children and family members have been violently taken have already filed dozens of lawsuits against the gun-manufacturers and their supporting groups. With their most precious gift gone forever, it seems many of these families will never stop fighting against what does not make sense, nor could have been reasonably prevented.

There are several historical precedents to suggest that the more citizens ignore blatant warning signs from across the professional spectrum, the more likely they are to lose actual freedoms when action is finally taken.


To read earlier articles on Guns and the Gun Debate:

Guns and the Gun Debate: An introduction to our three-part series

Guns and the Gun debate: Part 1

Guns and the Gun Debate: Part 2