Definitions are extremely important to being factual, as are the sources of those definitions. When in doubt, it is best to refer to either government or military sources, scientific studies and journals. Other sources may include firearm history books, or firearm industry publications. Wikipedia, though it is not preferred in academia, is usually accurate and can be used if expediency is necessary, which usually is the case when it comes to news reporting, but be sure to check the citations.


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Assault Rifles 

Alternative uses: Assault-type rifles, assault-type weapon, machine gun, assault weapon

The first definitions that are the most important to understand is the difference between ‘assault rifles’ and ‘assault weapons’. Assault rifles, as defined by the ATF as well as the UN Small Arms survey of 2013 are, “light, self-loading rifles that are chambered for intermediate calibre cartridges, such as 5.56×45 mm or 7.62×39 mm. Designed to engage targets at ranges rarely exceeding 400 metres (around 1,300 feet), they are primarily selective-fire weapons, enabling the user to switch between single-shot, fully, automatic, and (in some models) burst-fire modes of operation,” according to the United Nations.

These fully automatic firearms are highly regulated by the federal government and banned by a number of state governments. The 1986 FOPA bill (Firearms owners protection act, 1986) restricted the number of fully automatic firearms (FA firearms) so that no new ones could be produced and sold to civilians after May 19th, 1986. This limited the number of FA firearms to around 250,000, increasing their value due to supply and demand so that the firearms that can be legally transferred between private citizens ranges from $5,000 to over $100,000. In order to legally transfer an FA firearm, a buyer must fill out an ATF Form 4, pay a $200 tax, and register the firearm in the state where it is legal to own.  People can often confuse the ‘AR’ in AR-15 to mean ‘Assault Rifle’-15, this is not the case. The ‘AR’ stands for Armalite Rifle, the company who first produced the firearm.

To understand the difference between fully automatic, burst mode, and semi-auto functions on an AR-15 please watch this video:

It’s important to understand the rarity and expensive nature of FA firearms when talking about their usage in crime. According to Dr. Gary Kleck, a criminologist and authority on gun crime in the US, there have been less than 10 crimes committed with legally owned machine guns since 1934 when they were first regulated by the National Firearms Act, and slightly more crimes committed with illegally owned or modified FA firearms (Kleck, 1997, p. 108). This makes the likelihood of a firearm being used in a crime being FA extremely unlikely, so before reporting, one should verify with the police that the firearm was actually fully automatic instead of a semi-auto firearm.

Fully Automatic or Machine Gun

It is important to note that ‘Assault Rifles’ are a subset of machine guns. The ATF defines a machine gun as, “Any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger” (ATF, 2015). Machine guns can range from machine pistols, to assault rifles, to medium and crew served heavy machine guns.

Examples where ‘Assault Rifle’ is used incorrectly:

Examples where ‘Assault Rifle’ is used correctly:

Assault Weapons

Alternative uses: Assault-type weapon, assault rifle, assault pistol, assault shotgun, tactical rifle, tactical pistol, tactical shotgun

‘Assault Weapon’ is a much more confusing term that has its origins in political activism which then lead to some federal and state laws regarding the banning of certain functional and cosmetic features of semi-auto rifles, pistols, and shotguns. While there is no set, official definition, it varies based on the few states that do have assault weapons laws. Josh Sugarmann, executive director and founder of the Violence Policy Center is one of the people credited with coining the term in his paper Assault Weapons and Accessories in America (Sugarman, 1988). The descriptions in this paper and others were used to draft the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and modified versions of that were eventually used to pass state legislation in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and certain municipality bans in the District of Columbia, Illinois and Indiana. The definition of ‘assault weapon’ varies according to each state and municipality, so what may be defined as an assault weapon in one may not be an assault weapon in another.

The qualifying factor is whether the law allows for one or two features which can include, “Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following: Folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one, grenade launcher mount. Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following: Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip, threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor, barrel shroud safety feature that prevents burns to the operator, unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more, a semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm. Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following: Folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, detachable magazine” (Violent crime control and law enforcement act of 1994, p. 203). During the period between 1994 and 2004, any firearm that had two or more of these features was considered an assault weapon, Federally. In the 7 states and 4 municipalities/counties with their specific legislation, a firearm may qualify as an assault weapon. To illustrate how small differences in construction can lead to confusion, take the following picture for example:

This picture shows two different models of the exact same rifle, the Ruger Mini-14. Under the 1994 and other AWB’s, the top version is compliant because it has a fixed, wood stock, no pistol grip, and no threaded barrel, while the bottom version is not because it has a telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a threaded barrel and a flash suppressor. Both versions fire the same round at the same rate and are capable of accepting magazines with capacities of 10 rounds or more, but one is banned and the other is not. The best way to be accurate when referring to ‘assault weapons’ is to put it in the context of the state where the specific firearm is. If it is in a state that has an assault weapons ban and the firearm does not comply with state law, it is an assault weapon. If it is in a state that does not have an assault weapons ban, it is not an assault weapon. Another terms that have been conflated with assault weapon is “assault-style weapon”, this is incorrect.

Another Guide for Understanding the Subject of Assault Weapons:

Examples when ‘Assault Weapon’ is used incorrectly:

Examples when ‘Assault Weapon’ is used correctly:

  • Example 2 – correct use of assault weapon, incorrect use of assault rifle.

List Of States with Assault Weapons Bans: (see also state gun laws page)

  1. California
  2. Connecticut
  3. Washington DC
  4. Hawaii
  5. Maryland
  6. Massachusetts
  7. New Jersey
  8. New York

List of States and Regulate Assault Weapons:

  1. Minnesota
  2. Virginia


Alternate uses: Fully semi-automatic, automatic, rapid firing

Semi-automatic (SA), or self-loading firearms come in multiple designs across multiple platforms such as pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Generally, an SA firearm will fire once per pull of the trigger and the mechanism of the firearm will use the energy from the round being fired to expel the used casing and load the next round. While many revolvers fire one round per pull of the trigger, they are not considered semi-automatic, except for a few rare models, because the energy from the round being fired does not cycle the next round into battery, the mechanical force of pulling the trigger does. SA firearms, usually rifles, can be used in addition with specially made ‘bump-fire stocks’ to simulate full auto fire, but these accessories still require the user to pull the trigger each time and the use of these bump-fire stocks makes the firearm difficult to aim and control. Phrases that are often conflated with the concept of semi-automatic firearms are, “fully semi-automatic” and “automatic”. Other countries may use terms such as, “self-loading rifle,” “self-loading pistol,” or “self-loading shotgun”. These terms are accurate and acceptable.

The following video best demonstrates the internal workings of a semi-auto pistol:


Revolvers are usually pistols, but can also be riflesshotguns, even grenade launchers, which utilize a revolving cylinder with multiple chambers to hold ammunition. While some of the earliest examples in black powder date back to 16th century Germany, revolvers continue to be popular today. Revolvers typically used rimmed cartridges to aid in extraction from the cylinder, but there are specially designed revolvers that will work with auto cartridges as well. For a more in-depth description of the inner workings of a revolver, How Stuff Works does an excellent job of explaining.


Alternative uses: high-capacity ammunition clip, magazine clip


A clip is, “a separate cartridge container to hold cartridges or shells in proper sequence for feeding into a specific firearm. It is a magazine charger, and unlike a magazine does not contain a feeding spring. Sometimes improperly called a Magazine” (SAAMI, 2012). In other words, a clip is a storage device which holds ammunition for the purpose of feeding that ammunition into a magazine. Clips are generally used in older military firearms, such as those from World War I through Vietnam. Reporters will sometimes mistake pistol magazines for clips, or will combine terms such as ‘ammunition clip magazine’, which would be incorrect.

This is an example of a clip used in an old pistol:

This is an example of a clip used in an old rifle:

Examples when “clip” is used incorrectly:

Examples when clip is used correctly:


Alternate uses: magazine clip, clip, extended magazine clip



A magazine is, “A receptacle for a firearm that holds a plurality of cartridges or shells under spring pressure preparatory for feeding into the chamber. Magazines take many forms, such as box, drum, rotary, tubular, etc. and may be fixed or removable” (SAAMI, 2012). Magazines are the primary ammunition feeding device for most modern firearms and can range from as few as 3 to as many as 100 rounds. If a firearm is capable of accepting a removable magazine of a smaller size, they are generally capable of accepting a magazine of larger capacity. There are also firearms that have fixed magazines, which are usually not removable and have a set number of rounds that can be loaded.

Examples when “Magazine” is used incorrectly:

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Examples when “Magazine is used correctly:

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Bulletproof Vests

Alternate uses: body armor, tactical vest, assault clothing

There are a number of items that are and are not considered bulletproof, and the degree to which they are varies based on the materials used in their fabrication. One such item that is usually confused with being bulletproof is the tactical or load bearing vest.

Tactical vests, or load bearing vests, are garments usually made out of a nylon derivative that is designed to be used for carrying items such as magazines, pistols, and other equipment. While the vest may look military in style, it offers no ballistic protection whatsoever.

Body armor can be classified into either soft or hard categories, though some designs may combine both for optimal performance. Soft body armor is generally made with multiple layers of kevlar, a tightly woven synthetic fabric whose physical properties allow it to absorb the energy from some bullets.

Type IIA is rated for calibers up to and between 9mm and 40 S&W, Type II is rated for up to and between 9mm and .357 magnum, Type IIIA is rated for up to and between .357 SIG and 44 magnum. It is important to note that soft body armor is primarily designed to stop most pistol rounds. Though some pistol rounds can exceed the design specifications of a given rating, just about any rifle round will penetrate through soft body armor. Hard body armor, usually made from hardened steel, but sometimes with ceramics, begins with Type IIIA, which is rated for up to 7.62×51 (.308) ball ammo. Type III is rated up to 30.06 armor piercing (National Institute of Justice, 2008).

Understanding the different body armor ratings can help clarify news stories where there is confusion on whether a vest type is bullet proof, to what degree, and whether the ammunition used is specifically ‘armor piercing’ or not. For example, some news stories have listed smaller rifle ammunition as ‘armor piercing’ because it is able to defeat soft body armor. This is misleading because most rifle ammunition, regardless of design, will penetrate soft body armor. There are a few laws to keep in mind when writing stories that do involve body armor. 18 USC 931 states that it is illegal for a felon to own body armor (18 U.S. Code § 931, 2002) and Title 42, Section 3796ll-3 states that the presence of body armor during a commission of a crime is a felony (Swank, 2016, p. 393).

Examples when “bulletproof vest/Body Armor” is used incorrectly:

Example 1 – it was a load bearing vest

Examples when “bulletproof vest/Body Armor” is used correctly:

Example 1

Example 2

Armor Piercing Bullets/Cop Killer Bullets

These are terms that have been vilified through misunderstanding of basic physics and projectile design. According to the ATF, armor piercing bullets are:

  • A projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium; or
  • A full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.

Simplified, if a handgun bullet made entirely out of materials, described above, designed to penetrate armor. As explained in the body armor section above, there are different types of soft and hard body armor and different types of projectiles can pierce different levels of body armor. There are some pistol caliber cartridges, which are specifically designed this way, that are legal to purchase and possess by the general public, but illegal for retailers to sell. While there are a few specific caliber and use exemptions, any ammo determined to fall within the scope of ‘armor piercing’ can be banned for sale and import by the Attorney General.  There are rifle caliber cartridges, which are designed to be shot out of rifles, that can be shot out of firearms that are built into a pistol configuration. This is where the law redefines the rifle caliber cartridge into a handgun cartridge, and if it fits the criteria listed above, it becomes an armor piercing bullet and can be banned as with the recent 7n6 5.45×39 ruling.

Examples when “armor piercing bullets” is used incorrectly:

Example 1 – The projectile contained some steel, but is not designed to penetrate body armor and a standard round would penetrate soft body armor as well.

Example 2 – Same explanation as above

Example 3 – Smith and Wesson doesn’t sell armor piercing ammo

Gun Show Loophole

Gun show loophole is one of the more popular hot button phrases to use when reporting on private sales and universal background checks. Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1986, named for James Brady, the White House press secretary who was crippled during the Reagan assassination attempt, established a national background check system and a series of regulations around it (Brady handgun violence prevention act, 1993). The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is managed and maintained by the FBI. The FBI uses their computer and paper file database to cross check against all disqualifying factors listed on the ATF form 4473 for any purchase from a Federally licensed Firearms Dealer (FFL) at a gun store, pawn shop, or gun show. The ‘loophole’ was a compromise made by the Brady Campaign to pass the bill that allowed citizens to buy and sell guns with other citizens.

While gun shows are primarily made up of FFL’s, who must perform background checks by law, there are concerns that private citizens attend these shows as well to sell or trade firearms. Federally, according to the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Bill, as long as a resident of a state is not in the business of buying and selling guns, the buyer is a resident of the same state, the seller does not have reasonable suspicion that the buyer is a criminal, and the state does not prohibit direct private sales, it is legal for a citizen to sell a firearm to another citizen at any location that does not prohibit firearms. So if a resident from different state attempts to conduct a private sale, if the buyer reasonably appears to be a criminal, or if a state prohibits private sales unless conducted through an FFL, that is breaking the law.

There is no instance where ‘gun show loophole’ is the correct term as it was an exemption specifically agreed to in the Brady Handgun law

Buying Guns on the Internet

A related subject to the gun show loophole is the confusion over what is and isn’t legal regarding purchasing firearms online. There are two markets to consider when talking about purchasing firearms online, through FFL’s or through private sales. Purchasing a gun from an FFL’s website online is subject to all federal inter and intra state laws. When a customer orders a firearm from an FFL that is out of state, online, the FFL is required by law to ship the firearm directly to a FFL that is local to the customer or, if the firearm is a rifle or shotgun that conforms with the laws of the customers state of residence, if in an adjoining state, the customer may physically go to the FFL in the adjoining state, pass a background check to pick up the firearm, and return to the customer’s home state. Otherwise, if shipped to the customer’s state, the customer then goes to the FFL where their firearm was sent, performs a background check, then accept the firearm. If a customer buys a firearm online from an FFL that is within the same state, the customer can either have the firearm shipped (if it’s far away) to a closer FFL or the customer can go to the selling FFL and go through the background check process.

If a buyer wants to facilitate the purchase of a firearm listed on an online website or forum from a private seller in another state, the seller must ship the firearm to an FFL local to the buyer where the background check is required. If the buyer or seller cross state lines to facilitate the sale in person, both have broken the law and committed a felony. If two residents of the same state wish to facilitate the purchase or sale of a firearm one of them has listed on a website or forum and the other conditions of legally transferring a firearm are met, they may conduct a person to person sale.

Ghost Guns/Privately Manufactured Firearms

“Ghost gun” is a term that was first popularized by California Senator Kevin de Leon during a press conference speaking about firearms that can be privately manufactured by citizens. The specific part in question is called a “lower receiver”, this is what the ATF considers an actual firearm. Firearms can be legally produced by individuals a number of ways. They can be crafted out of raw materials, they can be made from “80% lowers” (a lower receiver that has to have specific machining work to allow fire control components to be installed), or they can be printed using 3D printing technology. These home-made firearms do not need to be registered, but if the owner wishes to sell the firearm, they must engrave it with a serial number formatted in compliance with ATF specifications. If a person is selling home made firearms regularly, that is considered being a manufacturer and is illegal unless the person acquires an FFL.

There is no instance where “ghost gun” is a correct term to use

Mass Shootings

The definition and mischaracterized definitions of ‘mass shooting’ has been of great contention over the last 4 years. When well known, major media outlets quote statistics, they can appear to be doing so with authority, but their sources are not always the most reliable. At the center of this controversy is a website called Mass Shooting Tracker (MST), which claims to pool all incidents of shootings where 4 or more people are injured or killed. There is a problem with this methodology as there has already been an established, generally accepted definition of mass shooting for nearly 30 years which reads, “four or more killed by gunfire, not including the perpetrator” (Fox, 2015). The creator of MST was interviewed by Mother Jones and was quoted as saying, “Three years ago I decided, all by myself, to change the United States’ definition of mass shooting.” (Follmann, 2015). There was a scientific report issued to Congress on mass shootings between 1999 and 2013, and while the data shows that there has been a slight increase in the number of mass shootings over the last five years, the average over the last 15 years has remained fairly consistent at 21 incidents per year (Krouse & Richardson, 2015).

Examples when “Mass Shooting” is used incorrectly

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Example 4

Example 5

Examples when “Mass Shooting” is used correctly

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Any story that uses or should be highly scrutinized