Monday, December 17, 2012

Getting the terminology right on guns

Assault weapon is a meaningless term. It was when we had the assault weapon ban and it still is. [Link]
If gun-control advocates and our media want to have a conversation about government restrictions on gun ownership, I think that’s fine. Debating more issues, rather than fewer, is probably good for our politics.
But the conversation about guns needs to be a bit more factually precise. Today’s New York Times story on the AR-15 has a lot of good information and aims to be balanced, but the story still manages to perpetuate many of the most stubborn myths about rifles.
Some points I would like to make in response:
Civilian-available AR-15s aren’t automatic weapons
First, the Times calls the AR-15 “the civilian version of the military’s M-16.” The M-16 is a machine gun, that throughout most of its history – and certainly in popular understanding – has been a fully-automatic weapon. When you squeeze the trigger on an automatic weapon, bullets keep firing out of it until you stop squeezing. The U.S. military has shied away from automatic firing, and the newest M-16s have other settings – three-shot burst (which, relative to the automatic setting, preserves ammo and inculcates more discipline among soldiers in combat) and semi-automatic.
AR-15s that are legal to buy do not have the three-shot burst that the military’s current M-16s have. They also don’t have the automatic-fire option that most people associate with the M-16. [Update: I should have made it clearer that the M-16s the U.S. military buys today do not have the automatic option.]
If you’re going to use a famous gun as a point of reference, it seems responsible to mention that unlike the famous machine gun you’re comparing it to, the AR-15 is incapable of automatic or burst fire.
It’s only eight paragraphs later that the Times acknowledges this difference, but it makes it sound like it’s an opinion:
Defenders of the firearm… argue that unlike the AR-15’s military counterparts, the civilian models are almost all semiautomatic, not fully automatic….
Typical media he-said-she-said, when there are actual facts to report.
‘Semiautomatic’ isn’t really a useful descriptor
The Times writes:
AR-15s are not the only weapons used by rampaging shooters. Semiautomatic handguns are also frequently employed.
Again, “semiautomatic” mostly means “not automatic.” You pull the trigger on a semiauto gun like an AR-15, and one bullet comes out. You pull it again, and another bullet comes out. Unlike a single-shot gun, you don’t need to cock it or load it after each shot.
And semiauto is the norm. As Al Tompkins at Poynter puts it:
The use of the phrase semi-automatic when talking about guns is like using the phrase “gasoline cars.”
Using this term is almost useless, unless you’re talking about to outlawing most handguns that are used today.
Then the Times has this odd paragraph:
Mr. Diaz said semiautomatic weapons, including the AR-15, are increasingly being used in the killings of police officers, whose vests often provide little protection against such firearms.
1)   Does this mean a higher proportion of police killings are done with semiauto weapons as opposed to single-action rifles and revolvers?
2)   What is it about being semiautomatic – again, a descriptor of the loading mechanism – that makes a gun more able to overcome the protection of a bullet-proof vest?

‘Assault weapon’ is not a very helpful descriptor
The Times piece twice uses the term “assault weapon” to describe the AR-15. But there’s no real definition of the term.
First, all guns can be used to assault someone – even a muzzle-loading black-powder rifle.
Second, Congressional attempts to define this term were laughably ad hoc.
A rifle could cease being an assault weapon if you sawed off the flash suppressor. It could become an assault weapon if you added a bayonet.
A 49-ounce handgun could be legal under this law while an identical version that was one ounce heavier could be outlawed.
I’m pasting the bill’s definition of “assault weapon” at the bottom of this post. The law didn’t target guns used for murder. It targeted guns that look too military-like.

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