What's the difference between a semi-automatic weapon and a machine gun?

Gun Control

In 1994, U.S. lawmakers passed a federal assault weapons ban, aimed at getting semi-automatic weapons off the streets. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, which expired 10 years later, did little to appease folks on either end of the gun control debate. Nevertheless, politicians, citizens and lobbyists on both sides continue to debate whether the law, or something similar to it, should be revived [source: Plumer].

For those seeking to thwart high-capacity "assault" weapons, the ban was marked by loopholes that allowed manufacturers to skirt the law with a few design changes here and there. For starters, the law did not prohibit all semi-automatic weapons, a move which would have applied to the vast majority of guns on the market. Instead, the act banned 18 specific gun models, including certain types of AR-15s and AK-47s and only those manufactured after 1994 [source: Plumer].

Gun control advocates called the ban toothless, noting that several of the prohibited design features -- bayonet mounts, grenade launchers, silencers and flash suppressors -- don't get to the heart of why these weapons are dangerous: Their ability to fire off several rounds in a short period of time. The law did, nevertheless, limit magazines capable of carrying more than 10 bullets [source: Plumer].

For many gun owners and the well-funded lobbyists at the National Rifle Association (NRA), the ban was an unnecessary invasion on their constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms. Nor, according to these folks, does a gun ban do much to deter violence. Take away a criminal's pistol and he'll use a knife or a crowbar is one argument. "More guns, less crime" is another. The NRA says that from 1991 to 2012, the murder fell by half while the number of semi-automatic guns rose by 50 million [source: NRA].

As the debate continues, recent gun control efforts have focused on establishing a more robust ban on semi-automatic weapons, as well as a clamping down on highly unregulated gun shows, at which private individuals who are not considered dealers can sell guns without conducting a background check. Meanwhile, local gun control efforts have moved forward in cities and states across the country. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that an all-out ban on guns is unconstitutional, very tight restrictions remain in effect in places like New York and Massachusetts [source: Plumer].

We haven't run out of firepower just yet. Check out the links on the next page for more information on machine guns and semi-automatic weapons.

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