The phenomenon isn’t new, but in the weeks since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a lot of gun-skeptical liberals are getting a taste of it for the first time: While debating the merits of various gun control proposals, Second Amendment enthusiasts often diminish, or outright dismiss their views if they use imprecise firearms terminology. Perhaps someone tweets about “assault-style” weapons, only to be told that there’s no such thing. Maybe they’re reprimanded that an AR-15 is neither an assault rifle nor “high-powered.” Or they say something about “machine guns” when they really mean semiautomatic rifles. Or they get sucked into an hours-long Facebook exchange over the difference between a “clip” and a “magazine.”
Has this happened to you? If so, you’ve been gunsplained: harangued with the pedantry of the more-credible-than-thou firearms owner, admonished that your inferior knowledge of guns and their nomenclature puts an asterisk next to your opinion on gun control.
It can be infuriating, being forced to sweat the finest taxonomic distinctions among our nation’s unlimited variety of lethal weapons. I know this feeling acutely, having covered gun violence critically for the better part of a decade and having just buried an old mentor, killed in the Parkland massacre.
Pointing out terminological firearms faux pas has its place. As a lifelong shooter and a third-generation gun collector, I grew up watching pundits and politicos regularly betray their ignorance of these hazardous tools and the culture that surrounds them. Advocates of tighter gun laws have bandied the phrase “assault weapon” around as if it were a static category of insidious killers; they defined an assault weapon, in law, by its cosmetic add-ons — pistol grips, collapsible stocks, bayonet lugs — while overstating the role these weapons play in overall gun crime in America. (According to 2010-2014 FBI data, rifles of all types, including assault weapons, caused less than 4 percent of all firearms deaths in the U.S. Handguns caused 70 percent.) Gun-control advocates have even acknowledged at times that assault weapons are hard to define, and thus easy to vilify among the uninitiated.
If only these adversaries were a little more honest, I’ve often thought, and more precise in their language on the subject, we could have a serious debate on the finer points of gun violence policy, instead of a bad-faith propaganda race.
Gunsplaining, though, is always done in bad faith. Like mansplaining, it’s less about adding to the discourse than smothering it — with self-appointed authority, and often the thinnest of connection to any real fact. (If gunsplaining had a motto, it might be Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher’s macabre old saw: “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”)
For an example, look to Dana Loesch, the conservative shock jock turned paid spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, who represented the gun lobby’s perspective at a live televised town hall last month with survivors of the Parkland shooting.
There, the mother of a teacher who died protecting his students from gunfire asked Loesch: How could she possibly believe the Founding Fathers, who ratified the Second Amendment in 1791, anticipated legal AR-15s?
“At the time,” Loesch replied, “there were fully automatic weapons that were available — the Belton gun and Puckle gun.”
I’m writing a book on the Belton gun and can safely say her argument is bunk: Both the Belton and the Puckle required an operator to fire each shot with an individual pull of the trigger, then manually cock the gun’s action to fire each successive shot. This is known as “single action,” and it’s about as far from “fully automatic” as a firearm gets. Modern automatic arms can fire upward of 100 rounds per minute with a single, sustained trigger pull — sometimes more; the Puckle and the Belton “repeaters,” with an adept operator cycling their actions under the best conditions, could perhaps fire a shot every five to 10 seconds.
But here was the NRA’s top voice in a time of tragedy, defending AR-15 ownership as a bedrock constitutional right by name-checking two 18th-century manually operated flintlocks — quite incorrectly — as “fully automatic weapons.”
If, in the course of advocating for stricter gun laws, a Democrat, cable-news personality or Hollywood activist had called a flintlock a machine gun, the NRA would have hustled out a fundraising appeal to its members that same day with a video clip of the offending remark prominently embedded in the email. Instead, it’s given its own spokeswoman a pass. Loesch is gunsplaining even though she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
More recently, Tomi Lahren, a Fox News personality with no obvious qualifications, preemptively tweet-lectured “Lefties” that the “AR” in AR-15 doesn’t stand for “assault rifle” but for the name of the gun’s original manufacturer, Armalite. She failed to note that the family of Eugene Stoner, Armalite’s onetime chief engineer and the brains behind the AR-15, insisted in 2016 that he would be “horrified and sickened” to see his military rifle pattern become so common in civilian households and school shootings.
Lahren’s tweet is bad-faith gunsplaining par excellence. Its point is not to foster deeper understanding of these weapons, but to further a group identity of firearms owners as beset by a dumb or dishonest adversary, to flatter their insecurities and tell them they don’t need to take gun controllers seriously because you can’t reason with ignorance.
In this kind of war over words, both sides probably need to give a little. But the pro-gun side needs to give a lot more — not just because it’s been disingenuously gunsplaining to shut down discussions and close minds for years — but because the onus should be on those citizens who own the weapons technology, and purport to understand it, to share that understanding with the skeptical and less-informed. That’s a responsibility that goes along with the right to bear arms.
There are truly meaningful gun-terminology discussions we could be having right now. Civil libertarians who worry about excessive force and police-involved shootings, for example, have a huge stake in understanding how seemingly technical options in police handguns — single action vs. double action, or hammer- vs. striker-fired — affect gun-discharge rates.
And yes, a growing number of American gun owners, including me, find “assault weapons” easier to define, and harder to defend, with time. I know that an AR-15 is not a machine gun or an assault rifle, that its rounds are not high-powered, that it accepts magazines, not clips — any law that seeks to ban them should be written with precision. But I also know that it, or a weapon patterned after it, was used in Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Las Vegas; San Bernardino, Calif.; Orlando; Sutherland Springs, Tex.; and Parkland. Whatever the causes — media sensationalism, marketing, “tacticool” military mimicry, easy availability — this rifle and its relatives are clearly go-tos for a certain kind of American-bred killer. That’s worth at least addressing in a public policy forum, even if the pro-gun camp continues to suppress debate with heavy rhetorical firepower, instead of just shooting straight.