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The two top legislative items on President Obama's list of what to do about gun violence both have the support of substantial majorities of Americans in most polls on the subject. But one of them, the universal background check, has a very good chance of passing the Senate, while passage of the other, a renewed assault weapons ban, will require a miraculous change of mind from several senators on the Democratic side of the aisle. Some prodigious but cautious arm-twisting will have to be done for that to happen and the chief arm-twister, Majority Leader Harry Reid, is himself opposed to reinstating some version of the old ban, which expired after 10 years in 2004.

Just how contentious the ban debate already is can be seen in the fact that not only is the effectiveness in preventing gun violence of that first ban widely doubted, but the definition of "assault weapon" is also disputed. Some foes of the ban claim the very use of the term emerged from an attempt by "gun grabbers" to scare Americans into believing weapons designated as "assault" were something that they are not. "Assault," they say, should be only applied to fully automatic military rifles capable of firing multiple bullets with one squeeze of the trigger—a kind of weapon strictly controlled for nearly eight decades—not to lookalike semi-automatics that can fire only a single bullet with each squeeze of the trigger.

But as Erica Goode points out in The New York Times, it wasn't gun-control advocates who began applying the term "assault" to rifles available to civilians, it was the marketing end of the gun industry:

“Assault rifle” was first used to describe a military weapon, the Sturmgewehr, produced by the Germans in World War II. The Sturmgewehr—literally “storm rifle,” a name chosen by Adolf Hitler—was capable of both semiautomatic and full-automatic fire. It was the progenitor for many modern military rifles.

But the term “assault rifle” was expanded and broadened when gun manufacturers began to sell firearms modeled after the new military rifles to civilians. In 1984, Guns & Ammo advertised a book called “Assault Firearms,” which it said was “full of the hottest hardware available today.”

“The popularly held idea that the term ‘assault weapon’ originated with antigun activists, media or politicians is wrong,” [Former gun dealer and author Philip] Peterson wrote. “The term was first adopted by the manufacturers, wholesalers, importers and dealers in the American firearms industry to stimulate sales of certain firearms that did not have an appearance that was familiar to many firearm owners. The manufacturers and gun writers of the day needed a catchy name to identify this new type of gun.”

Got that? The Brady Campaign and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence didn't apply the term "assault" to grab guns, the industry applied it to sell them. Good enough for the marketers, good enough for the gun-control advocates, one would think.

This doesn't mean there aren't problems with defining what constitutes an assault weapon for purposes of the ban. The first ban in 1994 listed what put a firearm —rifle, shotgun or pistol—into the proscribed category. If a firearm had two of certain features, it met the criteria. For a rifle, these included a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor, a grenade launcher. As noted, it wasn't hard to retool existing firearms to comply with the ban without changing the weapon's effectiveness.

The just-based New York ban, the most restrictive prohibition of "assault" weapons passed so far, puts a rifle into this category if it has just one of these features, say a pistol grip. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who was instrumental in getting the 1994 ban passed, is crafting a tougher federal ban that she will introduce next week. While designating the same combination of features that would make a firearm illegal, her proposed ban will specifically name 120 prohibited firearms while specifically naming 900 that aren't outlawed.

Like the previous ban, the new one is expected to include a limit of 10 rounds in the capacity of magazines that feed semi-automatic firearms. Or the limit may be introduced as separate legislation. One reason for doing that is because some gun owners who oppose the firearms part of the ban are more flexible on the matter of a hi-cap magazine limitation. Which means such a limit would presumably face less opposition in the Senate and House.

Tell your senator to back President Obama's gun-reform measures. If you hear back from any senators, please let us know with this form.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 11:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Shut Down the NRA and Daily Kos.

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