Soon after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary changed its definition of “assault rifle.”
The entry for “assault rifle,” which was updated March 31, 2018, reads as follows:
noun: any of various intermediate-range, magazine-fed military rifles (such as the AK-47) that can be set for automatic or semiautomatic fire; also : a rifle that resembles a military assault rifle but is designed to allow only semiautomatic fire
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After 17 people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, activists have been using the tragic events to make the sale of so-called “assault weapons” illegal.
An Internet archive search shows the Merriam-Webster entry for “assault rifle” appears to be different now than it was before the shooting. A cached version of the same entry from June 13, 2016 has this definition:
noun: any of various automatic or semiautomatic rifles with large capacity magazines designed for military use
“Assault weapon” and “assault rifles” are malleable terms often used in public discourse to scare people. After all, all guns are designed to “assault” something. The usual proper use of this term is to describe fully automatic machine-gun-style weapons, which in the United States have been banned from civilian use for years. Notice that the Merriam-Webster change stretches this definition to include anything that looks like such a gun regardless of whether it shoots like one.
Yet media and politicians often use this term inaccurately, as doing so furthers their desire of getting Americans to support gun-control policies. As Sean Davis pointed out on our pages last year, when the United States had a federal “assault weapons” ban, lawmakers defined the term cosmetically instead of by function and, contra Merriam-Webster, had nothing to do with a military-esque design (whatever that means):
The 1994 assault weapons law banned semi-automatic rifles only if they had any two of the following five features in addition to a detachable magazine: a collapsible stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor, or a grenade launcher.
That’s it. Not one of those cosmetic features has anything whatsoever to do with how or what a gun fires. Note that under the 1994 law, the mere existence of a bayonet lug, not even the bayonet itself, somehow turned a garden-variety rifle into a bloodthirsty killing machine. Guns with fixed stocks? Very safe. But guns where a stock has more than one position? Obviously they’re murder factories.
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To learn more about other firearm myths, you can listen to Sean discuss guns on an episode of The Federalist Radio Hour. There, among other things, he discusses “assault rifles” and “assault weapons” and language the media and other ignorant people use to inaccurately describe guns.
“’Military-style’ means it looks black and scary. Either something is an assault rifle — a military-issue rifle capable of select fire– or it’s not, and if it’s not, it’s not ‘military style,’” he points out in the podcast.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story included only the simple definition of the term “assault rifle” from the cached entry dated June 13, 2016. It has now been updated to include the full definition.
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