Is it fair to call them ‘assault weapons’?

January 17, 2013

The gun lobby is one of the most influential interest groups in American politics. But even as groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) exercise considerable sway over Washington lawmakers, they are fighting a losing battle on one very important front: the language of the gun debate.


Some of the weapons collected in a recent gun buy-back in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes/AP )

Since the shooting massacre last month at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, the media have focused intensely on the potential for a new, so-called assault weapons ban. But gun rights backers insist that such a ban is already in place. In fact, they argue, "assault weapons" is a wholly misleading and politically loaded (no pun intended) term that gun control advocates have successfully convinced the mainstream media to use as a blanket term.

The term "assault rifle" has long been used to describe fully automatic guns used by the military -- you pull the trigger once, and the gun fires a barrage of bullets. These weapons are technically available to the public, but one must pay a steep price and go through a tough application process to obtain one, so there are relatively few on the market.

Over the 20-plus years, though, the term "assault weapon" has increasingly been used to describe semiautomatic rifles -- i.e. the weapon automatically reloads after each bullet is fired, but you need to pull the trigger for each bullet. These weapons are much more prevalent among the American public.

What separated "assault weapons" from other semi-automatic guns in the now-lapsed 1994 assault weapons ban was whether they had two or more so-called "military style" features.

(Adam Lanza, the killer in the Newtown shootings, used an AR-15, a semiautomatic civilian version of a fully automatic police and military assault rifle. The Washington Post style guide describes the AR-15 as a "modern assault weapon.")

The term "assault weapon" became widely used starting the late 1980s. Many attribute its popularization to a 1988 paper written by gun-control activist and Violence Policy Center founder Josh Sugarmann and the later reaction to a mass shooting at a Stockton, Calif., school in January 1989.

Sugarmann, who happens to be a native of Newtown, argued that the American public's inability to differentiate between automatic and semiautomatic weapons made it easier to get  anti-gun legislation passed.

"The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons -- anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun -- can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons," Sugarmann wrote.

Gun rights advocates agree that the term "assault weapons" has furthered the idea that semiautomatic weapons are the same as fully automatic assault rifles, which they contend are much more dangerous.

The gun rights lobby also argues that 1) the word "assault" connotes offense and illegality, while the vast majority of such guns are used in a lawful manner and for defense and 2) so-called assault weapons differ from other guns solely because of cosmetic changes like a pistol grip or a threaded barrel for a silencer -- not in the way they actually fire bullets.

"With the current attack on personal gun ownership and the Second Amendment, the radical Left has twisted the phrase 'assault weapon' to try and take guns away from law-abiding Americans," Gun Owners of America vice chairman Tim Macy wrote in a blog post last week. "The semi-automatic 'assault weapons' are NOT machine guns. They don’t fire like machine guns, and they are functionally no different than many pistols or shotguns which have been available to civilian markets for over a century and which can fire in a semi-automatic mode."

Despite the gun lobby's efforts, the term caught on quickly.

A quick Nexis search shows that the term "assault weapon" was used by the media just 140 times in the two years before the mass shooting in Stockton. In the two years following the shooting, as Congress began debating what gun control advocates labeled an "assault weapons ban," the term was used nearly 2,600 times by the media.

Today, the term is used widely by the news media, some of whom have style guidelines dictating neutral terminology on contentious issues, including abortion ("pro-abortion rights" rather than "pro-choice," and "anti-abortion rights" rather than "pro-life," for example).

The Associated Press Stylebook says that the media should differentiate between an "assault rifle," which has a fully automatic mode, and an "assault weapon," which is semiautomatic and "not synonymous with assault rifle.”

So, according to AP, while "assault weapons" can be rifles, they are not technically "assault rifles."

From there, the question is whether you think "assault" is an appropriate reflection of what semiautomatic weapons are capable of.

Gun control advocates say that, while the term "assault weapon" may not have been used in great circulation before the late 1980s, it is an accurate reflection of semiautomatic weapons. They also argue that military-style enhancements are more than just cosmetic in that they can make the weapons more deadly by making them concealable or silencing them, for example.

"'Assault rifle' accurately describe guns that are designed for offensive assaults on large numbers of human beings that are not useful or necessary for legitimate sport or self-defense," said Jon Lowy, director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence's Legal Action Project.

What do you think? The Fix wants to know, and the comments section awaits.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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