Mostly False
"Assault rifles already are banned."

Ron Johnson on Monday, June 13th, 2016 in an interview

Question after Orlando: Are assault rifles banned? No, only fully automatic are basically prohibited

A woman places an LGBTQ flag in the middle of a circle of candles and roses during a vigil held for victims of the Orlando mass shooting at Milwaukee City Hall on June 13, 2016. (Calvin Mattheis photo)
Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others before being shot to death by authorities. (AP photo)

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’s claim

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.

From 1994 to 2004, there was a federal law that banned the sale of certain types of new semiautomatic weapons, including some types of AR-15 rifles. A limit on high-capacity magazines also was set.

The law, which was adopted to last for 10 years, was not renewed by Congress when it expired.

The takeaway

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.

Indeed, the weapons used in the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. -- all of which were semiautomatic -- were all described by police as assault rifles.

Our rating

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.