A breakdown of gun terminology to help you in discussions on mass shootings and debates over gun control

AR 15
AR-15 rifles for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania.Joshua Roberts/Reuters
  • The language surrounding firearms can be tricky.

  • "Assault weapons," for example, is among the most divisive phrases in debates over gun control.

  • There's been a renewed discussion over gun control following recent mass shootings.

Given the ongoing and divisive debate over gun control in the US, it's helpful to understand the breakdown of some of the most important terms that frequently come up after high-profile mass shootings.

Some of these terms might appear inconsequential, but they relate strongly to discussions on what type of guns and firearm accessories might be regulated more strictly or even banned. And some in the pro-Second Amendment camp have been known to mock people calling for new gun laws when they use incorrect firearm terminology.

In the renewed discussion surrounding gun control following high-profile mass shootings in Alabama, Nashville, Tennessee, and Uvalde, Texas, familiar disagreements are arising over terminology surrounding firearms.

Here's a summary of some of the more common and contentious terms linked to guns and the broader discourse surrounding them in the US.


Semiautomatic vs. automatic

Semi automatic
Customers viewing semiautomatic guns on display at a gun shop in Los Angeles on December 19, 2012.Gene Blevins/Reuters

A semiautomatic firearm is a gun that fires a single round or bullet each time the trigger is squeezed or pulled and then automatically reloads the chamber between shots.

An automatic firearm is essentially what many Americans probably think of as a machine gun, or a firearm that continuously fires while the trigger is squeezed or pulled and reloads the chamber automatically.

The vast majority of firearms in the US are semiautomatic and include rifles and handguns. Semiautomatic firearms are available across the US with few restrictions.

Automatic weapons are heavily regulated and expensive.

The manufacture and importation of new automatic firearms has been prohibited since the Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986. But this still allows for the purchase of automatic firearms made before a certain date in 1986, meaning automatics are technically legal in certain circumstances.

Magazine vs. clip

A gun and a magazine are pictured in an evidence photo released by the Connecticut State Police on December 27, 2013.Connecticut State Police/Reuters

"Magazine" and "clip" are often used interchangeably, though they aren't the same thing.

A magazine is a container that holds cartridges or rounds of ammunition and feeds them into the firing chamber of a gun. Some magazines are internal, while others are detachable.

A clip holds rounds of ammunition together, often on a metal strip, to be fed into a magazine. Most guns have magazines (revolvers and some types of shotguns do not), but not all firearms use clips.

Assault weapons

Assault weapons
Frank Loane, the owner of Pasadena Pawn and Gun, in front of a wall of assault-style rifles at his store in Pasadena, Maryland, in 2013.Brian Witte/Associated Press

"Assault weapon" is among the most contentious phrases in discussions on gun control.

There's not a universal definition of what an assault weapon is, which is part of the reason this subject tends to antagonize the gun lobby or gun advocates.

But in 1994, after the now-expired assault-weapons ban passed, the Justice Department said, "In general, assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use."

The gun industry often defines an assault rifle as a firearm with select-fire capabilities, or the ability to adjust or switch the firearm between semiautomatic and automatic settings or modes.

In short, gun enthusiasts typically say a firearm should be called an assault rifle only if it's capable of fully automatic fire — and they tend to reject the term assault weapon altogether.

"None of the so-called assault rifles legally owned by US civilians are assault rifles as the term is used in military contexts," Gary Kleck, a criminal-justice professor emeritus at Florida State University, told PolitiFact.

Kleck added: "Assault rifles used by members of the military can all fire full automatic, like machine guns, as well as one shot at a time, whereas none of the so-called assault rifles legally owned by US civilians can fire full automatic."

Based on the idiosyncrasies of this issue and the broader debate surrounding it, many gun-control advocates tend to refer to semiautomatic firearms that have been used in high-profile mass shootings as "assault-style" or "military-style" weapons.

Polling has consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans would support an assault-weapons ban.


AR 15
AR-15 rifles for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, on October 6, 2017.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The AR-15 is a semiautomatic rifle and has been referred to by the National Rifle Association as "America's most popular rifle."

The "AR" in AR-15 does not stand for "assault rifle" but is linked to the original manufacturer of the firearm: ArmaLite Inc. The name stands for ArmaLite Rifle.

The AR-15 was originally developed by ArmaLite to be a military rifle, designing it for fast reloading in combat situations, but the company hit financial troubles. By 1959, ArmaLite sold the design of the AR-15 to Colt, which had success in pitching it to the US military.

The rifle's automatic version, the M-16, was used during the Vietnam War. Colt sold the semiautomatic version, the AR-15, to the public and the police.

"If you're a hunter, camper, or collector, you'll want the AR-15 Sporter," a 1963 advertisement for the firearm said.

Colt's patent on the rifle's operating system expired in 1977, opening the door for other manufacturers to copy the technology and make their own models.

The AR-15 was prohibited from 1994 to 2004 via the assault-weapons ban. Gun manufacturers promptly reintroduced the AR-15 after the ban expired, and sales went way up.

There are "well over 11 million" AR-15 style rifles in the hands of Americans, according to an investigation by CBS News' "60 Minutes," which also notes handguns kill "far more people."

But AR-15-style rifles have frequently been used in mass shootings, placing the firearm at the center of the debate over gun control — particularly in relation to whether an assault-weapons ban should be reimposed.

High-capacity magazines

High capacity magazines
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut at a 2019 news conference on a proposed amendment to ban high-capacity magazines in guns.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

High- or large-capacity magazines are typically defined as ammunition-feeding devices holding more than 10 rounds. Nine states ban high-capacity magazines.

High-capacity magazines are capable of holding up to 100 rounds of ammunition, allowing for dozens of shots to be fired off before reloading. The rifle used in a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, was affixed with a 100-round drum magazine.

Bump stock

Bump stock
A bump-fire stock that attaches to a semiautomatic rifle to increase the firing rate, seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, on October 4, 2017.George Frey/Reuters

A bump stock is an attachment that allows a semiautomatic weapon to fire at a more rapid rate.

It replaces the standard stock of a rifle, or the part of the firearm that rests against the shoulder. A bump stock uses the recoil effect to bounce the rifle off the shoulder of the shooter, which in turn causes the trigger to quickly bump back into the shooter's trigger finger.

In effect, bump stocks allow semiautomatic weapons to fire like machine guns.

Bump stocks were banned by the Trump administration in a large part because of the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, which was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Red-flag law

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a sign during a rally against guns and white supremacy in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 6, 2019.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
A rally against guns and white supremacy in front of the White House in Washington, DC.Reuters

Red-flag laws, also known as Extreme Risk laws, allow judges to temporarily confiscate a person's firearms if the person is considered a danger to themself or others.

Nineteen states and Washington, DC, have implemented some form of a red-flag law, according to Everytown for Gun Safety: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

Gun-show loophole

gun show
A customer looking over shotguns on display at the annual New York State Arms Collectors Association Albany Gun Show at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany, New York, in 2013.Associated Press/Philip Kamrass

The so-called gun-show loophole is among the most discussed topics in relation to calls for gun-safety advocates for expanded background checks.

Gun-show loophole is a catch-all phrase referring to the sale of firearms by unlicensed, private sellers at gun shows and other venues — including the internet — without the involvement of background checks.

Federally licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks, but not all sellers are required to be licensed — laws vary by state. In this sense, there is a "loophole" that allows private sellers to sell firearms without conducting background checks.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is the federal agency that licenses gun dealers.

"As a general rule, you will need a license if you repetitively buy and sell firearms with the principal motive of making a profit," the ATF says. "In contrast, if you only make occasional sales of firearms from your personal collection, you do not need to be licensed."

The implementation of a federal law requiring universal background checks, or background checks for all gun sales, has been at the top of the wish list for gun-control advocates for years.

It's also a policy that the vast majority of Americans support. In polling conducted by Pew Research Center in late 2018, 91% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans favored background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.

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