This opinion piece is part of a series on Guns in America that explores the use of firearms in our country and the debate over gun control. This is an editorially independent series sponsored by Tactical Firearms Training Secrets.
I recently had a debate on gun control with a colleague on television. It was one of dozens following the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. After I pressed him on some fast and loose gun terms he used, he — to his great credit — e-mailed to ask what he could read to get a better handle on the language.
He’s not alone. The vast lexicon of gun verbiage is arcane and incredibly technical — and because of that, frequently misused by the voices most vocal on gun control.
This isn’t just a semantic problem of getting the words wrong. It’s become a political problem, and, worse, one of the reasons our national conversation on guns actually impedes progress in reducing gun crime.
So in the interest of serious solutions, I urge anyone interested in having a real conversation about guns to learn something about them, and to stop using terms meant to scare and confuse instead of solve.
Here’s a quick lesson.
Rapid fire: When gun control advocates use descriptors like “rapid fire” it’s meant to conjure scary images of fully automatic bullet spray. Think Rambo: Squeeze the trigger and 30 rounds spit out. Well, the weapons used in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown and virtually every other mass shooting in recent history were not fully automatic. They were semi-automatic, meaning one bullet discharge per trigger pull.
Rapid fire doesn’t describe the gun or the type of ammunition used; it describes the shooter’s ability to shoot and reload quickly. Semi-automatic handguns can be fired “rapidly.” Many shotguns are semi-automatic. So if you advocate banning “rapid-fire guns,” you may be talking about the handgun your mom keeps by her bed or the shotgun your dad uses for deer hunting
High-capacity: There is no such thing as “high-capacity ammunition,” as the Washington Post called it, or “high-capacity weapons” as Politico called them. Ammunition — that is, bullets — have only one capacity: the capacity to kill. High capacity refers only to magazines, the ammunition feeding device.
But even when used correctly, the term is arbitrary. There’s no single definition for what makes a magazine high-capacity. The 1994 assault weapons ban limited magazines to 10 rounds.
Shooters can get around magazine restrictions by — you guessed it — buying more magazines. A proficient shooter can reload within seconds. One of the Columbine shooters had 13 10-round magazines for his 9 mm carbine, which he shot 96 times. And they don’t need a scary-looking military weapon, either. Handguns with detachable magazines, as Seung-Hui Cho proved at Virginia Tech, work just as well.
But let’s say we banned magazines over 10 rounds. And then let’s say a prospective mass shooter was one of the rare criminals who follow gun laws, and he bought only one legal 10-round magazine. If he’d killed 10 children instead of 20, I imagine we’d be just as outraged. So how many deaths at a time are too many? Ten? Why not five? Or two? Shouldn’t we be trying to find ways to stop lunatics and criminals from shooting one person, not one-more-than-10 people?
Assault weapons: This is the mother of irresponsible media catch-all terms. It’s shouted from the rooftops by gun control activists and regurgitated self-righteously by media professionals who never bothered to ask what it means. We can cut them some slack, though, because virtually no one can identify exactly what an assault weapon is.
There is no single definition, legal or otherwise. The 1994 ban defined an assault weapon as a rifle or pistol that has a detachable magazine and at least two other military features, like a bayonet mount, flash suppressor or pistol grip. Most of those features are cosmetic and don’t necessarily make a gun more powerful.
Even each of the seven U.S. states that has an assault weapons ban defines them differently (sometimes vastly differently). In Connecticut, for example, where “assault weapons” are banned, the AR-15 the Newtown shooter allegedly used was legal. In California, it is not. In New Jersey, it is prohibited without a license.
The term “assault weapon” is so ambiguous that neither the federal government nor individual states have a single definition. Gun control activists are most likely talking about semi-automatic weapons, and this describes virtually every category of gun used for self-defense, competition shooting and hunting.
This may seem like nitpicking. But when President Obama or Vice President Biden promise that “no one is talking about taking away your hunting rifle or your self-defense handgun” it matters that gun control activists and media professionals may in fact be talking about taking away your hunting rifle or your self-defense handgun, whether they know it or not.
So let’s forego the arbitrary, ambiguous, fear-mongering terms and get real specific about what we actually mean by gun control. It may be politically effective to rail against “rapid-fire, high-capacity assault weapons” — but it doesn’t actually mean anything. If we’re serious about solving gun crime, we should at least start by agreeing on the terms
A version of this column originally appeared in the New York Daily News
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