Gun Misinformation: Semi-Automatic and Fully Automatic

Continuing my gun misinformation series from yesterday I think that it’s a good time to clear up the difference between semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms. It is one of the most basic pieces of information regarding firearms and their function, but it is also one that is apparently least understood by gun control activists. Even Bob Costas, who went on national television to advocate for more gun control just recently, clearly doesn’t understand what semi-automatic means.

I’ve seen many people over the last few days repeat Costas’s mistake. These people try to sound reasonable and say they don’t want to ban all guns… just semi-automatics. Of course, if you were to ban semi-automatics that would account for nearly every modern firearm in existence. The only modern firearm you’d have left is, basically, the bolt or lever action rifles and some shotguns.

Now, the difference between a semi-automatic firearm and a fully automatic one is simple. While both automatically reload a fresh cartridge each time a shot is fired, semi-automatics require a pull of the trigger in order to fire each round whereas fully automatics will continue to fire so long as the trigger is depressed. It’s a small but important difference.

Though there aren’t hard statistics on this, it is very likely that of the estimated several hundred million firearms in the United States the vast majority are semi-automatics. If you want to see for yourself how many modern firearms are semi-automatic you should stop by your local gun store and ask them to point out which firearms are semi-automatic… or, to save time, which aren’t.

Fully automatic firearms, on the other hand, are not very prevalent. However, despite what many people think, they are not illegal for civilians to own. In fact, there are an estimated 240,000 fully automatic firearms in the United States of which it’s believed half are owned by police and the other half by civilians.

So, that means there are likely over 100,000 fully automatic firearms legally owned by civilians. Since the 1934 National Firearms Act, all legally owned fully automatic firearms must be registered. While bad policy it does mean that we can get a good picture of how many crimes they’ve been involved in. That number appears to be between 1 and 10.

There is the story of 1 murder involving a civilian-owned fully automatic which is often cited around the internet. It involves an Ohio doctor in either 1992 or 1993, and Confederate Yankee has the story but the original article’s website everybody cites is, unfortunately, not working anymore. Beyond that case researcher Gary Kleck reports in his landmark study Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control that the director of the ATF told Congress he knew of less than ten crimes that were committed with legally owned fully automatic firearms.

That’s less than 10 crimes over the last 80 years or so. Now, to be fair, there may have been more crimes involving legally owned automatics since that testimony, but given the absence of publicly reported cases it’s doubtful there have been many. In other words, legally owned fully automatic firearms, despite numbering over 100,000, are practically never used to commit crimes.

So, semi-automatics fire once per trigger pull and account for the vast majority of guns in the US while fully automatics continue to fire as long as the trigger is depressed. And while there are fewer of them, they are likely the most responsibly owned weapons on the planet.