Media myths on ‘assault weapons’ and ‘semiautomatic firearms’

BY: Timothy P. Carney December 17, 2012 | 11:39 am | Modified: December 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm

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.


The AR-15 is not an “assault rifle”

Assault weapon/assault rifle, what’s the difference?

One is a meaningless term, as I explained above. The other is a precise term that doesn’t apply to the AR-15 – despite the Times’ article’s suggestion connecting the two. Also,  ”assault rifle” describes guns that are already illegal — because they are automatic — and basically never used in murders.

The Pentagon defines the term “assault rifle,” and David Kopel quotes that definition in an article in the Journal of Contemporary Law. He writes:

As the United States Defense Department’s Defense Intelligence Agency bookSmall Arms Identification and Operation Guide explains, “assault rifles” are “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges.”[21] In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically.[22]

Weapons capable of fully automatic fire, including assault rifles, have been regulated heavily in the United States since the National Firearms Act of 1934.[23] Taking possession of such weapons requires paying a $200 federal transfer tax and submitting to an FBI background check, including ten-print fingerprints.[24]

The Times article implies that the “assault weapons ban,” which banned the AR-15, would ban “assault rifles.” But assault rifles, which are automatic, are already banned. Again, the Times cites these facts only as an opinion “argued” by “Defenders of the firearm.”

So yes. Let’s have a discussion on firearms. It may be that some restrictions can make us safer without unduly infringing on liberty. But those distinctions probably don’t involve terms like “assault weapons” and “semiautomatic.”

(b) DEFINITION OF SEMIAUTOMATIC ASSAULT WEAPON- Section 921(a) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following new paragraph:

`(30) The term `semiautomatic assault weapon’ means–

`(A) any of the firearms, or copies or duplicates of the firearms in any caliber, known as–

`(i) Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (all models);

`(ii) Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil;

`(iii) Beretta Ar70 (SC-70);

`(iv) Colt AR-15;

`(v) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC;

`(vi) SWD M-10, M-11, M-11/9, and M-12;

`(vii) Steyr AUG;

`(viii) INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9 and TEC-22; and

`(ix) revolving cylinder shotguns, such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12;

`(B) a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of–

`(i) a folding or telescoping stock;

`(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;

`(iii) a bayonet mount;

`(iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and

`(v) a grenade launcher;

`(C) a semiautomatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of–

`(i) an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;

`(ii) a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer;

`(iii) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the nontrigger hand without being burned;

`(iv) a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded; and

`(v) a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm; and

`(D) a semiautomatic shotgun that has at least 2 of–

`(i) a folding or telescoping stock;

`(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;

`(iii) a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds; and

`(iv) an ability to accept a detachable magazine.’.

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