Fact Check: Is 'Assault Pistol' a Real Type of Gun?

The Monterey Park shooting, which left 11 people dead, has again led to calls for stricter gun control laws with Vice President Kamala Harris among senior politicians urging Congress to act.

Monterey Park, among a series of mass shooting tragedies across the nation in the past year, has again brought the U.S. record on gun deaths to the fore, with reporting by Newsweek showing how it outranks the world's largest economies for firearms deaths.

However, among the coverage were allegations that police had used a fabricated term to describe the alleged perpetrator's weapon.

Crime Scene Monterey Park
A crime scene is cordoned off by tape near a white van in a parking lot in connection to the earlier Monterey Park mass shooting on January 22, 2023 in Torrance, California. Inset a weapon described as an "assault pistol". Getty

The Claim

A video posted on Facebook, on January 25, 2023, included a clip from a press conference with Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna, who described the weapon recovered following the Monterey Park shooting as "a magazine fed semi-automatic assault pistol, not an assault rifle, but an assault pistol that had an extended large capacity magazine attached to it."

The video, which has been viewed more than 48,000 times, begins with presenter Colion Noir, who describes himself as a "Gun Rights Activist, & Urban Gun Enthusiast", saying: "Someone want to explain to me what in the world is an assault pistol?"

The Facts

Weapon classifications have been a contentious topic in gun control policy discussions, with continued attention drawn to the use of assault-style weapons such as the AR-15.

The video shared on Facebook speaks directly to this, alleging that new terms may be used to engender pro-gun control sentiment.

At a press conference on January 23, 2022, Sheriff Luna did say that the weapon was an "assault pistol".

However, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department told Newsweek in a statement on Wednesday evening that the weapon used in the shooting was a "9mm caliber, semi-automatic MAC-10."

The spokesman added: "Homicide investigators are working with the ATF to provide a better description/picture in the near future."

This seems to have been known to Noir, who in the Facebook video later claimed that the weapon used was a MAC-10.

Nonetheless, the question remains why the term "assault pistol" was used in the first place, particularly if the weapon used was known to the police, and whether such a weapon exists.

In the context of the Facebook video, it's argued that the term was used to cause confusion. The presenter said: "This nomenclature is designed to target the low-information voter because the low-information voter doesn't know the difference between a MAC-10, a low-information voter doesn't know the difference between a real assault rifle and a semi-automatic rifle. They don't know these things."

Defining an assault firearm is crucial here and, unfortunately, it's not well-explained.

Some resources state that the key difference is a civilian assault weapon is primarily intended for military use, but adjusted to only fire semi-automatically (with the possession of machine guns owned after 1986 prohibited under the Firearm Owners Protection Act).

However, a substantial number of fully automatic weapons are still in circulation legally.

According to a 2020 report by the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 726,951 machine guns were still registered across the country.

The Range 702, which describes itself as the largest indoor shooting range in Nevada, states an "assault weapon" is a "military firearm" that "can be chambered for propellant charges or reduced-size ammunition" and "might have the ability to switch back and forth between fully automatic and semiautomatic fire."

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association of America, states both that an "assault weapon" is "any weapon used in an assault", but also that "AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles are not the fully-automatic, military-grade firearms they are often claimed to be by gun control supporters and the media."

However, the distinction that a civilian assault weapon is a typically semi-automatic military-type weapon is also shared by gun control advocates.

For example, the gun control advocacy group Giffords defines assault weapons as "typically semiautomatic versions of weapons created for deadly battlefield purposes".

The Violence Policy Center (VPC), another gun control advocacy and research group, makes the distinction between military and civilian use firearms, but states one of the "myths" about assault weapons is that a "'true' assault weapon is a selective-fire military weapon, capable of full-auto fire."

VPC also claims that during the 1980s the term "assault pistol" was used by gun lobbyists, the NRA, and the gun press (citing a wide number of print sources, which Newsweek was unable to find copies of).

One such description said to be taken from a 1982 copy of Guns & Ammo stated the assault pistol was "a high-capacity semi-automatic firearm styled like a submachine gun but having a pistol-length barrel and lacking a buttstock."

Another source VPC cited mentions the "Partisan Avenger .45 Assault Pistol".

While Newsweek was unable to find records of such a named weapon elsewhere, photos shared on social media claiming to be of the Partisan Avenger show that it does have visual similarities to the MAC-10 used in the Monterey Park shooting.

The term has also been used to describe other MAC-10-like weapons. A 1995 University of Dayton Law Review article describes the Tec-9 as an "assault pistol", a weapon banned under the (since expired) 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (which does not mention "assault pistol").

The term, while less known, has nonetheless been used in other government settings too. In a 2019 House Judiciary Committee meeting titled "Protecting America From Assault Weapons", it is mentioned nine times including in reference to the Tec-9.

A variant of the MAC-10 was also classified as a pistol-type "semiautomatic assault weapon" in an unlegislated 1993 assault weapons bill.

However, according to one firearms expert, "assault pistol" is still a contradiction in terms.

Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery at the Royal Armouries Museum in the U.K., told Newsweek that "terms like 'assault pistol' or 'assault weapon' are typically used in political or legal contexts in an attempt to define and categorize one type or class of firearm from another."

'"Semi-automatic assault pistol' is not a term that we use or recognize," Ferguson continued.

"'Assault rifle' has historical and some technical utility, one of its defining characteristics being automatic fire capability i.e. it can fire for as long as the trigger is held and there is ammunition in the magazine.

"Thus a 'semi-automatic assault' rifle, pistol, or other class of firearm is a contradiction in terms and a misnomer."

By Ferguson's description, then, the term "assault" may have some formulation based on whether it has automatic fire. Automatic pistols both exist and are purchasable, such as Glock's G-18 which has an "external fire selector at the rear of the slide (so) you can switch from semi-automatic to full-automatic firing mode."

However, according to Ferguson, even if the weapon had automatic fire capability, describing it as an assault weapon would still be unuseful.

"If the pistol were capable of automatic fire then 'assault' might be somewhat more justifiable, but still not a technically helpful term, since the word 'assault' in this context derives from military usage, and a weapon of this nature has no tactical utility in the assault phase of a military action," he said.

Nonetheless, judging whether an "assault pistol" is a real type of gun or not is not helped by a lack of standardized terms and is complicated by the political debate around the topic of gun control.

In a descriptive sense, an "assault pistol" (having been used on a number of occasions to describe pistol-type firearms) is real in as much as it's been mentioned.

However, there is no consistent understanding, and is confused further by the additional debate around the term "assault".

The Ruling

Needs Context

Needs context.

While the term assault pistol has been cited by the government and may have been used in the past to name certain models of semi-automatic pistol-type weapons (including at least one model that bears remarkable similarity to the firearm used in Monterey Park), it's not a well known or understood descriptor.

While in some circles the term assault may be used to describe a weapon that has a military or warfare genesis, adjusted to only fire semi-automatically, that too has been contended by gun control advocates.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek's Fact Check team

Needs Context: The claim requires more information to set it in the appropriate context. The claim as presented may be partly true, but cannot be fully or correctly understood without the right context.
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