Update: At a press conference late on January 23, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said authorities recovered a “9mm caliber semiautomatic MAC-10 assault weapon,” which civilians wrestled away from him at a second dance studio in Alhambra after the shooting in Monterey Park.

An original MAC-10 — the Military Armament Corporation Model 10 — is typically a fully automatic submachine gun. The sheriff could have been suggesting that the gun was a MAC-10 variant, which would include the semiautomatic Cobray M11/9.

Luna said he wasn’t going to be more specific about the gun so as not to influence witnesses. He also said the gunman used another Norinco handgun to kill himself in his van and that authorities recovered a .308 caliber rifle at the gunman’s home, along with items that lead them to believe he was making homemade suppressors.

The man who opened fire at a dance hall in Monterey Park, California, on January 22 had an obscure firearm that looks like a submachine gun but fires like a standard pistol. In a news conference, the Los Angeles County sheriff described the weapon as an “assault pistol” — but what does that actually mean? 

What type of gun did the Monterey Park shooter use?

Citing law enforcement sources, CNN reported that the gunman used a Cobray M11/9. 

The M11/9 is a 9mm semiautomatic pistol introduced in the 1980s by S.W. Daniel Inc. and branded as Cobray. The weapon is modeled off of — and therefore often confused with — the infamous MAC-10 submachine gun, which gained notoriety in movies and television. While the majority of M11/9 models are semiautomatic, Cobray and SWD also produced a fully automatic variant — but it is rare and very expensive.

Cobray M11s have been out of production since the 1990s, but they’re still available through resale, including online. 

The M11 is known for its distinctive appearance and was advertised as the “gun that made the 80s roar.” The model isn’t a “useful” gun, according to one prominent gun blogger, who said its appeal is mainly to “irritate the hell out of anti-gunners” who “hate them because they’re ugly and scary-looking.” 

In a news conference following the Monterey Park shooting, authorities described the gun as a “magazine-fed semiautomatic assault pistol,” but clarified that it wasn’t an assault rifle.

So what’s the difference?

“Assault weapon” can mean a lot of different things. People often use the term to refer to types of weapons that look like they belong on a battlefield. While the appearance of a gun doesn’t always translate to how it operates, the term “assault weapon” does have legal definitions that have less to do with a gun’s aesthetics and more to do with its functionality and characteristics.

While AR-15-style rifles are what most people immediately think of when they hear “assault weapon,” any type of a firearm — including handguns and shotguns — can be considered an assault weapon under both California’s assault weapons ban and the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994. 

Both laws named certain makes and models of guns as assault weapons because they were semiautomatic civilian versions of guns originally designed for the military. The 1994 federal ban and an update to California’s ban also listed certain characteristics that classify a gun as an assault weapon.

The Cobray M11 came standard with a threaded barrel and a 30-round magazine, which earn it the label of assault weapon under both the federal and state bans. Both laws also name the “SWD Inc. M11” as a banned model. Because SWD used the name Cobray, many Cobray models have branding with both names.

A screenshot from the 2001 California Assault Weapons Identification Guide showing a Cobray/SWD Inc. M11.
A screenshot from the 2001 California Assault Weapons Identification Guide showing a Cobray/SWD Inc. M11.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna likely referred to the M11 as an “assault pistol” as shorthand for a pistol that meets the legal definition of an assault weapon under California’s assault weapons ban. 

California also bans large-capacity magazines, including the 30-round magazine the Cobray M11 pistol is designed to take. That’s another reason law enforcement has said the Monterey Park gunman’s weapon was illegal under state law.

It is worth noting that other more common handguns, like the Glock 19 or SIG Sauer P320, would also be considered assault weapons under the ‘94 ban and California’s law if they have threaded barrels.

Is an “assault pistol” the same thing as an AR-style pistol?

No. AR-15-style pistols, which have been used in several recent mass shootings, including a 2019 rampage in Dayton, Ohio, are a more specific type of gun. 

They appear nearly identical to AR-15 rifles, but the federal government classifies them as pistols because they’re made to be fired with one hand. This is achieved through a shorter barrel and the absence of a shoulder stock. Many come with a “stabilizing brace” in place of a stock; however, the Justice Department just issued new guidance clarifying that stabilizing braces are to be considered short-barreled rifles, and subject to tougher regulations.  

Have “assault pistols” been used in mass shootings before?

Yes, but not very often in recent years.

A Cobray M11 was used in two mass shootings in 1994, at the Washington, D.C., police headquarters and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. A TEC-DC9 assault pistol was used in a mass shooting at a San Francisco law office in 1993 and at Columbine High School in 1999, and a TEC-9 style pistol was used in a mass shooting at a San Francisco UPS facility in 2017.

The Cobray may look scary but “that just doesn’t translate to any sort of increased lethality,” former gun company executive Ryan Busse tweeted. “For the most part, these are very low-quality guns. Very inaccurate. Terrible ergonomics. Cheaply made. Surely there is a reason why the shooter chose this gun but it’s not because it was the most powerful, common, or deadly option.”