GUNSWhat Makes Guns Automatic?

By Jessica Taylor Price

Published 20 June 2022

As was the case following other mass shootings, the killing of 19 children and two adults at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas was followed by calls for various gun-safety measures at the federal and state level. What do these restrictions mean, and how effective would they be if passed?

The House passed the Protecting Our Kids Act on Wednesday, hours after hearing harrowing testimony from gun violence survivors and their families, and two weeks after a shooter killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

The House bill is wide reaching: It would raise the minimum age to buy some semi-automatic weapons to 21, strengthen bump stock and “ghost gun” regulations, ban high-capacity magazines, and give local governments power to start high-capacity magazine buyback programs, CNN reports. The changes are unlikely to make it past a Senate vote.

The federal legislation follows a push for gun control at the state level. Last week, New York passed a bill raising the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle to 21 and expanding red flag laws, CNN also reports. Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called for laws that make gun manufacturers vulnerable to civil lawsuits, and California lawmakers pushed for stricter gun control.

What do these restrictions mean, and how effective would they be if passed? Here’s a primer on key gun terms, from Jack McDevitt, professor of the practice in criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern. He spoke with @Northeatern’s Jessica Taylor Price.

Jessica Taylor Price: What are the terms used in the bill to describe firearms
?Jack McDevitt
:Automatic rifle vs. semi-automatic rifle. Illustration by Hannah Moore/Northeastern University

A semi-automatic weapon is any weapon where the shooter pulls the trigger, one bullet is fired and a new bullet is automatically loaded. While we may associate the term “semi-automatic” with rifles, which are long guns with grooves in the barrel that help improve accuracy, it can apply to any type of weapon, including handguns. 

Unlike a semi-automatic weapon, an automatic weapon—an example would be a machine gun—continues firing without the shooter having to pull the trigger again. “Once you pull the trigger, it will keep firing as long as the trigger is pulled down, until there are no more bullets,” McDevitt says. Automatic weapons are illegal in most states, he says.

Bump stocks
Bump stocks make a semi-automatic weapon mimic an automatic, making them a loophole in many states’ automatic weapon ban. The term made it to the mainstream media after the Las Vegas shooter used a gun with a bump stock to kill 58 people at a festival. Bump stocks are illegal in most states, McDevitt says.