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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What is an ‘assault weapon’? Lawmakers, retailers disagree on the definition as Washington Legislature considers ban

 (Chris Soprych/The Spokesman-Review)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – A bill to ban the sale or manufacture of assault weapons in Washington has stirred a Legislative debate: What kind of gun is an assault weapon?

The bill, which would also ban the import or distribution of these guns, lists dozens of specific models, as well as features of a firearm, to fit the definition of “assault weapon.”

Jeremy Ball, owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Spokane, said the listed features are “arbitrary,” and he takes issue with the term “assault rifle,” which is not used within the firearms industry.

“It’s absurd. The word ‘assault’ is used to try to get people to get fired up about something, to spark emotional reaction,” Ball said.

Ball said “semi-automatic firearms” would be more accurate. Other retailers preferred the classification “modern sporting rifle.”

Supporters of the bill, however, say the term is appropriate, given the trend of mass shootings across the nation.

“When I think ‘assault weapons,’ that’s what these weapons were designed for,” said Rep. Storm Peterson, D-Edmonds, the bill’s sponsor. “These are based on military-style weapons used in combat.”

The latest version of House Bill 1240 would ban all semi-automatic rifles shorter than 30 inches, semi-automatic centerfire rifles with fixed magazines of over 10 rounds and parts that can be used to assemble or convert a gun into what the bill defines as an assault weapon.

In addition, the bill would ban some semi-automatic centerfire rifles and semi-automatic pistols that accept detachable magazines, as well as semi-automatic shotguns, if the firearms have any features listed in the bill. Prohibited features include threaded barrels, detachable grips and suppressors.

The ban would affect retailers differently depending on the firearms they specialize in, but the extensive list of firearms in the bill raised concerns for some. Aaron Smith, owner of Spokane gun retailer 3 Aces LLC, said if the ban passes, he may have to close his business.

“It will affect my whole business. I sell a ton of hunting shotguns and modern sporting rifle parts, which are also part of the ban, and I can’t even sell them,” Smith said.

Ball said his business specializes in handguns not included in the ban but estimates the ban would outlaw firearms that make up 30% of his business.

Some popular models of firearms unaffected by the ban include handguns manufactured by popular companies like Glock and SIG Sauer, along with lever, bolt or pump-action shotguns.

Here’s a closer look at what might be banned under the bill:

Semi-automatic rifles

Most semi-automatic centerfire rifles that use detachable magazines are banned within the bill.

“Centerfire” refers to the type of ammunition used. Centerfire can be ideal for shooting longer distances compared to rimfire.

“Semi-automatic” means the user pulls the trigger to fire each shot, as opposed to a rifle that requires the user to manually expel the shell casing before firing again, such as lever and bolt-action rifles or pump-action shotguns. A semi-automatic firearm generally allows the user to shoot quicker.

In weapons that use detachable magazines, the user can remove an empty magazine and replace it with a full one, while a fixed magazine is permanently attached to the gun.

Rifles fitting these classifications would be banned if they have anything from a list of specific features listed in the proposed legislation.

Accessories banned in the bill include suppressors, which reduce the sound a weapon makes when fired; flash hiders, which reduce the muzzle flash; and muzzle breaks, which reduce recoil.

Bill opponents said such restrictions are counterintuitive, because these features are primarily for the safety of the user. Reducing the noise from gunfire protects the eardrums of anyone in the gun shot’s proximity. Reducing recoil allows the user better control over their firearm.

Peterson said there’s also “the flip side of the coin.”

“Unfortunately, time after time, these are used in these mass killings,” Peterson said. “Safety for the shooter becomes an element that makes that weapon that much more deadly.”

Protruding accessory grips and those intended to improve a shooter’s control, like forward pistol, vertical or angled grips, would also be prohibited.

Firearms retailers said these grips make it more comfortable for the user to hold, thus improving the stability of the weapon and the shooter’s accuracy. Peterson said that’s exactly why the bill bans these features.

“Attachable grips like those are more about how it’s easier for the shooter to control the weapon,” Peterson said. “And how to actually make that weapon, in our belief, deadlier because it’s easier to control.”

The list continues with features relating to the rifle stock. Some of the prohibitions target thumb hole stocks, as well as folding or telescoping stocks, which retailers said make the gun more compact and portable, but also easier to conceal, Peterson said.

Semi-automatic pistols and shotguns

The bill would also ban semi-automatic pistols that use detachable magazines and a corresponding list of features, many of which are repeated from the list for semi-automatic rifles.

Semi-automatic shotguns are subject to the ban when they have a folding or thumb hole stock, a detached grip to improve control, a fixed magazine of over seven rounds or a revolving cylinder.

“I sell a ton of hunting shotguns and modern sporting rifle parts, which are also part of the ban,” Smith said. “It will shut me down. This bill is the industry killer. It’s pretty much going to shut everybody down.”

The assault weapons ban is awaiting a debate and vote on the Senate floor. If the bill passes the Senate, it will need a final stamp of approval from the House of Representatives before Gov. Jay Inslee takes action.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that most but not all semi-automatic centerfire rifles that use detachable magazines are banned.