Assault weapon vs. assault rifle: What is the difference?

After the attack in Orlando Sunday, and others that have taken place in the recent past, it seems we hear the terms “assault weapon” and “assault rifle” quite a bit.

Some would argue that with nearly 50 people killed in Orlando, the names of the weapons don’t matter and are simply a difference without a distinction. But when it comes to the two (separate) types of weapons, there is a great deal of difference.

So what is an  assault weapon, how does it work and how is it different than an assault rifle? Here’s a quick look.

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What is an assault weapon?

An assault weapon is a rapid-fire, magazine-fed rifle designed for military use. It is a shoulder-fired weapon that allows the shooter to select between semiautomatic (requiring you pull the trigger for each shot), fully automatic (hold the trigger and the gun continuously fires) or three-shot-burst mode.

What is an "assault rifle?"

Technically, there is no such thing. What’s called an assault rifle in reports on gun violence is actually a semi-automatic rifle that looks similar to the assault weapons used by the military. An AR-15 rifle, like one that has been used in some mass shootings, is an example of this type of weapon. According to law enforcement authorities, the shooter in Sunday's attack used  a Sig Sauer MCX.

What’s the difference between a semi-automatic and an automatic weapon?

An automatic weapon (assault weapon) can shoot more than one round when you pull the trigger. A semi-automatic weapon (“assault rifle”) does not.

Automatic weapons have not been used in recent mass shootings. In the shootings in Orlando, New Town, Ct., and San Bernardino, semi-automatic weapons, one requiring you to pull the trigger each time to fire a cartridge, were the weapons used.

>> The latest coverage of the Orlando nightclub shooting

The weapon used in some of those shootings was an AR-15. Doesn’t “AR” stand for “automatic rifle”?

No, “AR”  in the gun’s name stands for ArmaLite Rifle. That is the company that first developed the weapon nearly 60 years ago. The company sold the rights to the firearm to the Colt company which, in turn, modified the rifle and sold it to the military as the M-16.  The M-16 is an automatic weapon – hold the trigger and multiple rounds can be fired. The AR-15, as does the Sig Sauer, requires that you pull the trigger to fire each cartridge.

If it is not an automatic weapon, how does a shooter fire so many shots?

Semi-automatic rifles can accommodate high-capacity magazines – compartments that hold cartridges. That allows the shooter to fire off tens of rounds in a short period of time.  A Sig Sauer and an AR-15 magazine generally holds 20- 30 rounds. There are magazines that can hold more.

How tough is it to get a semi-automatic weapon?

In most cases, it’s no tougher to get a semi-automatic rifle than it is getting a handgun. Seven states -- California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York – along with the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning semi-automatic weapons.  Minnesota and Virginia regulate semi-automatic weapons. There is no ban on purchasing the weapons in any other state.

In Florida, you do not need a license to own or purchase a handgun, shotgun or rifle, nor do you have to register a gun. To purchase a gun from a gun store, you must  pay $8 and complete the paperwork for a background check. If you pass the background check, you get the gun. If the gun is a rifle or a shotgun you do not have to wait three days to get it. For a handgun, there is a mandatory 3-day “cooling off” period in Florida – one of only 10 states that require any waiting period for the purchase of  a gun.  There is no federal waiting period required when purchasing a gun. Waiting periods are imposed by states.

Can I buy an automatic weapon?

Here’s where you need to understand the difference between automatic and semi-automatic. Semi-automatic weapons are relatively easy to purchase. However, the only automatic weapons legal to purchase for civilians in the United States are the ones that have been registered between 1934 and 1986.  According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an “assault rifle” (or automatic weapon) is a machine gun. No new machine guns can be made or sold to civilians. Automatic weapons have been heavily regulated since the National Firearms Act of 1934.  Taking possession of such weapons requires paying a $200 federal transfer tax, filling out an application to register the weapon, submitting passport photos, getting your chief law enforcement official to sign your application, and submitting to an FBI background and fingerprint check. Those weapons are hard to come by and generally pretty expensive. You do not want to violate the Firearms Act. If you do, expect to sit in prison for 10 years as you figure out how to pay the $100,000 fine.

Sources: The  NRA;; The FBI; The Wall Street Journal