Can We Semi-Automatically Speak the Same Language About Guns?


Do Americans speak the same language anymore?

Within hours of the Orlando shooting, the predictable camps emerged. Many on the right pointed out Omar Mateen was a terrorist, like the San Bernardino assailants, the Tsarnaev Marathon bombers, and the cells that attacked Paris and Brussels. Some used firearms, others used bombs, but they all shared an ideology of hate and violence.

It has been called “radical Islam,” shorthand for the beliefs put forward by groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. The use of that label — or lack thereof — has led to very public fights between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. We cannot even agree on how to name our adversaries.

Of course, after the shooting, demands were made that we “do something” about guns. Tom Brokaw called for banning “AR-14s,” while Bernie Sanders said the problem was “automatic rifles.” The only problem with their proposals? AR-14s do not exist, and automatic weapons have been effectively banned for decades.

This misinformation is multiplied on the internet. Examples abound of well-intended people declaring we need to ban “semi-automatic” weapons, since “police don’t even have them.” They are wrong. A “semi-automatic” anything simply discharges one unit every time it is operated. That includes AR-15s, .22 rifles, and nearly every handgun in existence, whether privately owned or issued to police. It also includes staplers.

Or we hear people talk about the “gun show loophole” and the need to close it. The fact is there is no magic to a gun show that makes background checks disappear — if you are a firearms dealer, you are required to conduct a background check, period, no matter where the sale takes place. If you are a private seller, then you are not required to do so, whether you are selling at a gun show or in your dooryard. Should we crack down on those who are actually dealers flouting existing law by claiming they only conduct private sales? Of course. But inventing and repeating inaccurate terms like “gun show loophole” helps no one.

Or we see cries to bring back the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. How did that law define an “assault weapon?” It had to have detachable magazines and two other items, such as bayonet or grenade launcher mounts, flash suppressors, or telescoping stocks — none of which have had anything to do with recent mass shootings.

This illiteracy is one reason why debates about guns go nowhere quickly. Those who do not understand firearms make pronouncements that do not reflect reality. This causes those who know guns to roll their eyes. It is like taking your truck into the shop and telling the mechanic your flux capacitor is acting up; he probably won’t take you seriously.

There are, of course, many individuals with significant knowledge about weapons who advocate for further regulations on guns. But if the continually called-for “national conversation” about firearms is to occur, we need to begin with a common vocabulary across the board — not nonsense about “semi-automatic AR-14s.” From that starting point we can then debate things like assault weapons bans, magazine sizes, and background checks, and how they interact with things like constitutional rights and the ability to defend yourself, your home, and your loved ones.

That debate can take us to interesting places. For example, imagine a world where Donald Trump becomes president and proposes a law that prohibits American Muslims from owning firearms without the pre-approval of his administration. Good or bad idea?

Does your opinion change if it only applies to those the FBI believes might be terrorists? And what if it wasn’t owning guns, but rather publishing a book praising the Islamic philosophy of ISIS? After all, guns and bombs may be the instruments of chaos used by terrorists, but it is ideas that motivate the act.

You can see where this is going. These aren’t simple or easy issues, and there will be areas where people legitimately, honestly disagree; that’s healthy.

But please, let’s at least speak the same language.

*This article originally appeared in the BDN.


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