The term 'assault weapon' is very similar to the actual class of weapons known as 'assault rifles.' I think that the media was attempting to create a term that would define weapons that seem militarized, yet aren't rifles.
So what's an assault rifle? Traditionally, it has been a term used to classify weapons that fire a rifle round (like a 7.62 or a 5.56) instead of a pistol round (such as a 9mm or a .357.) The distinction is notable, because rifle rounds are generally far more powerful. Another traditionally distinguishing characteristic is that assault rifles are normally capable of fully automatic or burst fire (more than one round per trigger pull.) In recent years, assault rifles have begun to include certain semi-automatics, like the AR-15.
The second category of weapon is the submachinegun. While they often look and act similar to an assault rifle, they fire pistol rounds and therefore cannot be considered assault rifles. To my knowledge, semi-automatics that fire pistol rounds are not considered to be submachineguns, even when they look identical to their fully automatic counterparts.
Finally, we have handguns, which many people seem to hate. If you don't know what a hand gun is, then you probably aren't smart enough to have read this far, so that's all I have to say about those.
So why is it important to understand the differences? Well if you want to selectively ban firearms, you'll have a better chance of getting people to listen when you are well educated on the subject. In the same way it pisses programmers off when politicians try to regulate the Internet without understanding the slightest thing about computers, it pisses gun owners off when uninformed people try to implement broad, sweeping, policies that result in the banning of guns based on exaggerated or outright fabricated claims of a particular model's capabilities.
In the 90s, a weapon called the Tec-9 became popular in movies. On screen, the gun was always shown to be fully automatic, even though the real one was almost always semi-automatic. There were a few people who managed to modify them to fire on full-auto, but your average gang member probably struggled just to load it. While movies portrayed tec-9 as the ultimate weapon for badasses (because it actually looked pretty cool), the truth is that the gun's popularity was largely due to the fact that it was a total piece of shit, and therefore could be purchased for about 100-150 dollars, which was ridiculously cheap for a 9mm.
Another oft maligned weapon is the AK-47. Unlike most of the world's AKs, the ones that are available in the U.S. are semi-automatic only. Unfortunately, fear sells, causing the media to imply that thousands of people are running around with machine guns. So why do people buy AK-47s if they are semi-automatic? Well, they are reliable, cheap (unless you get an actual Russian made ak, which can cost thousands) and the ammo is inexpensive. They also look just like a normal ak, and some people want a weapon that looks badass, even if it isn't.
Like the AK, the AR-15 is often mistaken for its military counterpart, but the AR-15 is not an M16. The m16/m4 series of weapons can fire full auto or in three round bursts, depending on the model/revision. The AR-15 on the other hand, fires semi-auto only.
While these weapons are often mistaken for automatics, there are some other criticisms that are often mentioned. When the original assault weapon ban was implemented, high capacity magazines and bayonet lugs were two of the defining attributes of an 'assault weapon.' First of all, bayonets are less effective than bullets, and the use of bayonets is so situational that many soldiers aren't issued bayonets anymore (many still do get them, but they are rarely used for combat purposes, and Even then, there is a good chance that it won't be attached to the weapon. Because of this, it's pretty stupid to ban a gun because you can attach a knife to it. If I had to guess, the only reason AR-15s had bayonet lugs was to keep from having to spend extra money manufacturing two different barrels.
Now I'll talk about the only argument that has a bit more legitimacy, high capacity magazines. While it is true that they hold more rounds, super-high capacity magazines (50-200 rounds) like the one used in Aurora, have a slightly higher chance of causing the weapon to jam. That still leaves magazines from 11-30, which are far more common. I can sympathize with the argument that such a magazine contributes to the death count, but a skilled gunman (most aren't skilled) can reload a handgun in under 2 seconds, and a rifle in a similar amount of time. There are videos available on YouTube that show swat/special forces guys loading amazingly fast. It ust takes a little bit of practice.
So basically, I'm not sure what the solution is. Clearly it's not optimal to ban guns outright when there's a hundred million peaceful gun owners in America, yet everyone wants to find a way to prevent mass shooting from happening ever again. Personally, for the reasons I listed, I don't think that the banning of semiautomatic firearms or high capacity magazines is going to be productive. I support the restriction of fully automatic weapons, but they are already illegal to own, unless you go through a process that can take years, that includes a background check.
I mentioned the AR-15 already, because it is a popular weapon for these things. It was used in the movie theater shooting and at the Oregon mall shooting, and probably in others. That being said, there are hundreds of rifles with similar capabilities, so singling out such a weapon would do absolutely nothing to curb the death count in those situations.
Also, it's worth noting that it is impossible to "spray" bullets with a semiautomatic weapon. You can achieve an accurate rate of fire that would surprise most people, but it will still be just a small fraction of what a fully-automatic weapon is capable of putting out. Many times, people who have been traumatized in such a situation will remember things more intensely than they actually occurred, because they are still in shock. It's perfectly natural for people to claim they heard automatic fire, because when you are being shot at, it seems like a hell of a lot at the time.
Anyways, check again tonight or tomorrow, and I'll have posted a better response.
The Tec 9 looks like a submachine gun, but as I previously stated, it is not. It was originally designed as a submachine gun, but when the company failed to obtain a military buyer, it released a semiautomatic version to sell to civilians. Magazine capacities ranged from 10-72 rounds, but the ones used in this shooting appeared to be 32s.
Hi-Point model 995 – Semiautomatic Carbine
The Hi-point Carbine is often said to be a rifle, but that is inaccurate. It fires pistol rounds, and the model used in this shooting probably fired 9mm to be more exact. It holds up to 11 rounds total.
Illegally modified, Sawed-Off, Savage-Springfield 67H Shotgun
Illegally modified, Sawed-Off Double-barrel Savage Arms 311 Shotgun
There isn't anything notable about the two models of shotguns that were used. The only thing really sinister about them is that they were illegally modified by shortening the barrel and the stock. The simple act of modifying a shotgun in such a way is enough to get you sent to prison for a couple of decades. (Remember Ruby Ridge? The ATF raided his house and murdered his wife and kid all because he cut the barrel of a shotgun like 1/32 of an inch too short.)
VA Tech Shooting
In this shooting, the killer used a Glock 19, a 9mm, Semi-automatic pistol that is a favorite among police officers. According to Wikipedia, he was using 15 round magazines, but they also make them from 10 rounds to 31 rounds.
The other weapon the shooter used may actually surprise some people. It was a Walther p22. What is notable about this weapon is that the cartridge it fires is extremely weak. It is chambered for the .22 Long Rifle Cartridge. .22 LR is a rifle round, but it is one of the weakest available, and would do less damage than nearly any other pistol round. This weapon had a 10 round Magazine.
I believe this shooter may have had more weapons, but so far I have been able to verify that he had at least a Glock, and a Ruger Mini-14. Before the shooting, he allegedly attempted to obtain both a Rocket-Propelled Grenade, and a fully automatic AK-47, but failed to do so.
Glock – Most glocks are pretty much the same as the one I described above. The only significant difference it could have had would be a more powerful round, such as a 10mm, .40 cal, or a .45. I can’t find what he used, but basically, it was a typical semi-automatic handgun.
Mini-14 – A semi-automatic rifle that most commonly comes chambered for 5.56/.223 rounds. In other words, it normally fires the same rounds that the AR-15 would. It looks more like a traditional rifle, but it is pretty much equal to the AR-15. The shooter in Norway used several of the standard size, 30 round magazines during his killing spree. It’s worth noting that I've never heard this weapon referred to as an assault rifle until the Norway shooter used it as such.
AR-15 – I mentioned this weapon in my previous posts, so here’s a picture for anyone who doesn’t know what it looks like.
While recent mass shootings seem to revolve around the use of the same types of weapons, I'm not convinced that outlawing semi-automatics would actually prevent deaths, or if it would lead to the increased use of other types of weapons(including other guns.) We had a pretty heated debate on HN about the war on drugs recently, and some people brought up a valid point, that as long as people want to have access to something whether it's legal or not, they will find a way to obtain it.