The rifle he used, a .223-caliber Bushmaster M4 carbine, was legal under Connecticut’s “assault weapon” ban, which is similar to the federal law that expired in 2004. Both laws, in addition to listing specifically prohibited models, cover semiautomatic rifles that accept detachable magazines and have at least two out of five features:
- a folding or telescoping stock,
- a pistol grip,
- a bayonet mount,
- a grenade launcher, and
- a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor.
The configuration of the rifle used by [the killer], which his mother legally purchased and possessed in Connecticut, evidently was not covered by that definition.
But the term assault weapon was invented by the anti-gun lobby as a way of blurring the distinction between military-style semiautomatics, which fire once per trigger pull, and selective-fire assault rifles, which can be set to fire continuously (a distinction that President Obama, who wants to bring back the “assault weapon” ban, either does not grasp or deliberately obscures). Since that neologism has no meaning independent of the laws that define it, there is little sense in saying the laws should be changed to cover more “assault weapons.” Guns are not “assault weapons” until legislators arbitrarily decide they are.
The term assault rifle, on the other hand, has some history. It’s a literal translation of Sturmgewehr, which can also be translated into English as storm rifle — as in, “Have fun storming the castle!” That kind of assault, not criminal assault.
The defining features of a Sturmgewehr were that it was capable of fully automatic fire, like a submachine-gun — the then-standard weapon for storming a position — but that it used an intermediate-power cartridge — more powerful than the pistol cartridges used in submachine-guns, but less powerful than the rifle cartridges used in “real” rifles and machine-guns.
American analysts weren’t impressed with this early machine-carbine, and later analysts considered the AK-47 just another submachine-gun, lacking the accuracy and power of American rifles.