Defining the deadly: definitional argument and the assault weapons ban controversy

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To address the apparent chaos and confusion of the assault weapons ban controversy, I analyze and evaluate the three-decade controversy over how or whether to prohibit so-called “assault weapons” through the lens of definitional argument scholarship. I consider the history and origin of the term in the discourses of advocates of an assault weapons ban, and the definitional critiques by opponents that contributed to a “definitional rupture.” I find that as a result of this three-decades long interaction, the rupture has been somewhat repaired as a convergence has emerged among ban proponents and opponents regarding the standards and purposes of “assault weapon” definitions. However, this convergence is accompanied by diverging “assault weapon” definitions and increasing polarization on the policy issue. I conclude that theoretical constructs from definitional argument scholarship can be used to analyze lengthy definitional controversies, and that diachronic context can serve as an evaluative tool and means to theorize the periodization of public definitional controversies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)155-173
Number of pages19
JournalArgumentation and Advocacy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 American Forensic Association.


  • Assault weapons
  • definition
  • definitional argument
  • definitional rupture
  • gun control
  • persuasive definitions
  • sorites slippery slope


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