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What defines an assault rifle?

Within the military and firearm manufacturing communities, an assault rifle is defined as an automatic rifle. However, the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 adds additional features typically associated with military firearms to define certain firearms as assault weapons. The ban expired on September 13, 2004, but many still use its criteria as a basis to define assault weapons.

Beyond federal law, many states have passed additional restrictions with more inclusive definitions of assault weapons. Three U.S. states passed assault weapon bans before the federal Assault Weapons Ban; California in 1989, New Jersey in 1990 and Connecticut in 1993. Four others followed; Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.

Many of these definitions use the same criteria the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 uses, but have expanded upon certain features. For example, some also ban large-capacity magazines, compensators and muzzle brakes. Connecticut has the most restrictive ban on assault weapons, with additional restrictions added in April 2013 after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.

Gun terminology and laws are often used incorrectly and misunderstood, especially by those tasked with writing about and reporting on firearms. Our journalist's guide to guns takes these problems to task, clarifying important firearm jargon and dispelling common myths about guns.


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