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The day after a man with a semiautomatic rifle killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton renewed her call for a federal ban on assault weapons.
On the same day, June 13, 2016, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson responded to an interviewer’s question about the Orlando incident by stating:
"Assault rifles already are banned."
So, are they prohibited in the United States, or not?
It depends on what assault means.
But Johnson, who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is off-target in suggesting there is a blanket ban on assault rifles.
Johnson was interviewed by Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk show host on WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee, who asked:
"Should we be more concerned with the possible violation of Omar Mateen's Second Amendment rights, as opposed to the constitutional rights of the 50 people who are now dead?"
Mateen, who was shot dead in the club by police after the rampage, had been armed with a Sig Sauer MCX semiautomatic rifle and a 9mm handgun.
(Orlando police officials initially said Mateen used an "AR-15-type assault rifle." Both an AR-15 and the Sig MCX can fire the same type of ammunition at roughly the same speeds, are aesthetically similar and equally lethal, according to the Washington Post. The manufacturer describes the Sig MCX as "the first true mission-adaptable weapon system.")
Johnson answered Sykes’ question by saying:
"That's that delicate balance, Charlie. And that's what we need to have an honest and legitimate conversation about, as opposed to leaping to conclusions.
"To say things like we've got to ban assault rifles. Well, assault rifles already are banned. OK? So, we need to actually have an honest discussion about these issues and understand that this is very difficult, very complex."
One thing to understand up front is the difference between automatic and semiautomatic weapons.
Automatic weapons -- banned
Automatic weapons -- sometimes known as fully automatic, or machine guns -- fire continuously when the trigger is held down.
Two federal laws have essentially banned them in the United States.
One law in 1935 all but banned automatic weapons like the Tommy gun. And another in 1986 prohibited fully automatic weapons, except for pre-existing weapons that were grandfathered in.
Semiautomatic weapons -- not banned
Semiautomatic weapons, like the rifle Mateen carried, reload automatically but fire only once each time the trigger is depressed.
They are not banned by federal law.
The law, which was adopted to last for 10 years, was not renewed by Congress when it expired.
Johnson takes the position that only automatic weapons qualify as assault weapons. It’s worth noting that in at least one other interview the same day — with conservative Green Bay radio talk show host Jerry Bader — he spelled that out, saying "an assault weapon is a fully automatic."
His office made the same argument to us, citing technical military definitions.
However, that’s not a generally accepted line of separation. The federal law that became defunct in 2004 was called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and at the time the Department of Justice defined some semiautomatic guns as assault weapons. A number of state laws still have that wording on their books. And law enforcement agencies consider certain semiautomatic weapons, including the one used by Mateen, as assault weapons — or at minimum, assault-style weapons.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, in which the killer used a semiautomatic rifle was used, Johnson stated: "Assault rifles already are banned."
Some, including Johnson, contend that only weapons that are automatic — firing continuously when the trigger is held down are assault weapons — are assault weapons. Those are essentially prohibited by federal laws. But that definition is narrow, and Johnson’s claim gives a misleading impression of a comprehensive ban.
Lawmakers, law enforcement officials and others widely refer to many semiautomatic weapons like the rifle used in Orlando and other mass shootings — which reload automatically but fire only once each time the trigger is depressed — as assault weapons. Those are not banned by federal law.
For a statement that has an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.
WTMJ-AM, Ron Johnson interview (5:15), June 13, 2016
Email, Ron Johnson Senate communications director Patrick McIlheran, June 14, 2016
Washington Post, "Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post," Dec. 17, 2012
Washington Post, "The gun the Orlando shooter used was not an AR-15. That doesn’t change much," June 14, 2016
PolitiFact Florida, "Hillary Clinton criticizes Fla. gun laws after Orlando mass shooting," June 13, 2016
National Public Radio, "The decades-old gun ban that’s still on the books," Jan. 16, 2013
PolitiFact Oregon, "Did Oregon Republican Party members raffle off an AR-15 assault rifle at the state fair? (Mostly True)," Jan. 29, 2011
Email, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, June 14, 2016
Email, Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research director Daniel Webster, June 13, 2016
Email, State University of New York-Cortland political science professor Robert Spitzer, June 13, 2016
Mother Jones, "This is the assault rifle used by the Orlando mass shooter," June 13, 2016
Interview, Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson, June 14, 2016
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