05 November 2013

Telling the Difference: Assault Weapons, Assault Rifles, and Machine Guns

On November 1, 2013, Paul Ciancia walked into the Los Angeles International Airport and opened fire with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, killing one TSA agent (Gerardo Hernandez), and wounding 3 other people.  Within minutes, media outlets were throwing caution and integrity to the wind as they scrambled to secure ratings as the first outlet to cover this new atrocity.  And, as has become all too common in today's American Media, the reporting was riddled with errors, assumptions, and mistaken information.

One such piece of mistaken information, proliferated by the Huffington Post (link), was that the gunman was using an "assault rifle".  I read this, and I found it particularly distressing—largely because I understand what that means.  Many people hear "assault rifle" and think "assault weapon", and so I set out to clarify.  I posed the question: Was it an "Assault Rifle", or was it a gun that had cosmetic features to make it LOOK like an Assault Rifle?

In under 5 minutes, I was confronted with the following response:
I know, I know. Because it isn't fully automatic, it isn't really an assault rifle. Says you.
After a rather lengthy conversation, and being accused of thinking that I was the "sole arbiter of gun definitions", with a brief lecture on assault weapons being defined by law ca. 1996, it occurred to me that, while he was obviously not a dumb guy, my conversational partner had fallen into what is probably the most common trap in today's gun debate: Conflation, complete with the statement: "it's a distinction without a difference."

To a casual observer, the difference between an assault rifle and an assault weapon may seem trivial.  They're both guns, they both have "assault" in the name… in general, people don't like being assaulted with weapons, and especially not with guns.  Maybe assault rifles are just a sub-category of assault weapons, which includes handguns and shotguns, right?  Well, as it turns out: No.

Machine Guns are weapons capable of firing, automatically, two or more rounds with one function of the trigger. (ATF.gov, National Firearms Act Definitions)

Assault Rifles are weapons capable of selective-fire; meaning that they are capable of selecting two or more of semi-automatic, burst, and automatic fire.  (DOD's Defense Intelligence Agency, Small Arms Identification & Operation Guide, Page 105).  Since any combination of those options involves either burst or automatic fire, this means that all assault rifles are also machine guns.

Why does that matter?  It means that the weapon that people think they are trying to ban is, effectively, already banned.  Machine guns comprise a negligible amount of crime in the US.  So small, in fact, that the government doesn't waste its time quantifying it.  To put that in perspective: the FBI quantifies "drowning" separately from "asphyxiation" and "strangulation", despite it being less than one drowning-murder per month.

If you've fallen into this trap, correct it, but don't feel bad about it.  It's not something to be ashamed of, because the confusion is deliberate.  Josh Sugarmann, the man who popularized the term assault weapon, did so to intentionally take advantage of people's confusion and fear in order to advance gun control legislation.

Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. 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.
Personally, I cannot place trust in an organization or individual who has a stated goal of using people's ignorance to pursue their agenda.  But if that doesn't bother you, at least have the decency to call the weapons by their real names.  Otherwise, you just look like you don't know what you're talking about.  When you call an AR-15 an "assault rifle", you may as well try to pass it off as a Gatling Gun... and with such a ridiculous comparison, it's no wonder gun advocates and gun-control advocates have such a terrible time communicating.

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