Firearms 101: Know your Terminology

If you’re going to debate or discuss something, you better understand what you’re talking about.

The Internet is a double-edged sword, providing the average person with a partial education filtered through mass and social media. This is dangerous, because now you have a bunch of people who know just enough they think they’re experts when they know precisely jack. The Internet is, in essence, the impetus and personification of Dunning-Kruger.

If you wanted to take the fight to the pharmaceutical companies, you better understand topics like medicine, biology, psychiatry, psychology, etc. If you want to make a convincing argument for educational policies, you better be informed on epistemology, child development, teaching techniques, and so on. So, if you want to start a nationwide discussion on firearms, from safety to regulations, you need to know what you’re saying and focusing on.

That means more than reading personal blogs, .org websites, Vox, Mother Jones, etc. I already warned that those sources provide only partial information (if not misinformation). You don’t argue with a doctor because you checked WebMD and you shouldn’t tell a history professor they’re wrong because some dude on the History Channel says differently.

Don’t target your vitriol against things that may or may not be real. Don’t ask for legislation banning something you don’t know what it is. Don’t use snarl words, appealing to the emotions and bias of your audience.

You’re only going to tick knowledgeable people off, even if they might agree with you on many other fronts. They’ll look at you like an idiot and tune you out, or even label and disregard you.

So, I’m going to go over some important terms to explain what they mean, especially in relation to the issues we’re facing. If you already know these? Fine, this isn’t for you. If you think you know these? Please listen, because you may not… especially if your information came from the aforementioned sources.

Semi-Automatic

This is the biggest one I see mentioned. “People don’t need semi-automatics.” “Semi-automatics are meant only to mow mass numbers of people down.” “If only we’d had a ban on semi-automatic weapons.”

All of those statements show complete ignorance for what semi-automatic means and how it relates to the history of firearm technology.

Semi-automatic simply means the firearm reloads the chamber after you’ve fired a round. It is not a machine-gun; that would be an automatic (or fully-automatic) weapon. It only fires as fast as your finger can pull, but the weapon reloads itself meaning you don’t have to do anything else to fire the next round.

This is part of the natural progression of firearm technology. Early firearms required minutes to load powder, shot, light the fuse, etc. The 19th century introduced rounds pre-packaged into cartridges, meaning they just had to be loaded into the firearm. Chambering a new round initially was done manually, but eventually firearms could reload through the use of bolt-actions, lever-actions, pump-actions, etc.

That brings us to the semi-automatic, a firearm that evolved from these action mechanisms to chamber a new round without the operator’s help. Now shooters could focus on firing rather than reloading.

When did this deadly change in technology enter the scene?

1885.

The late-19th century was the first successful semi-automatic rifle. By the turn of the 20th century, the technology was perfected and grew popular on the civilian market.

I note that “civilian” part because semi-automatic firearms are not a military technology. They were designed for the general population, to allow ease of use in hunting and sport. In fact, semi-automatic technology wasn’t regularly used by the military until WWII.

Semi-automatic firearms are now the basic technology for most handguns and rifles, and have been for over a century. Guns used in self-defense, hunting, sport, etc. are often semi-automatic. That’s why there is no legislation targeting “semi-automatic” firearms in general… because that’s most guns.

Contrary to popular (mis)belief, semi-automatic firearms are not military weapons or machine-guns. When you say you want to ban “semi-automatic” weapons, you’re showing that either you want to ban the entirety of 100+ years of firearm technology… or that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Please, let’s leave “semi-automatic” out of the argument; instead focus on firearms in general or very specific ones.

Assault Weapons / Rifles

OK, you’re fine with semi-automatic handguns and hunting rifles, but not those military “assault weapons” or “assault rifles”, right?

Sorry, but you’re using a term that was basically misappropriated and oft-misused.

First, let’s clarify that “assault rifles” and “assault weapons” are not the same thing. An assault rifle is a fully-automatic weapon and what the military uses. Real M16s, AK-47s, etc. are all “assault rifles”, the standard weapon of service members, particularly soldiers. As such, they are already highly restricted under federal law and not easily acquired by the general public.

“Assault weapons” originally referred to other military gear, like grenade launchers. However, in the 1980’s they began to be used to refer to semi-automatic (see above) variants of “assault rifles”. Whether this was to demonize them (by anti-gun movements) or promote them (by pro-gun manufacturers) is irrelevant. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 only helped make “assault weapon” synonymous with their fully-automatic cousins in the eyes of the public.

Technically, they’re no more lethal than a hunting rifle. They fire at the same rate, they use the same action technology, and they usually fire rounds of a lower caliber than most hunting guns. None of the features that make them “assault weapons”, such as pistol grips, flash suppressors, barrel shrouds, etc. do a thing to make them more efficient at killing.

Ironically, “assault weapons” are not even the preferred weapon of mass shooters. Handguns outnumber all other firearms when it comes to these tragedies.

I will note, however, that I used to support ownership and I don’t. Why? They do have one thing that might contribute to added lethality, and that’s magazine size. Of course, you could always purchase a larger magazine for your hunting rifle, but the fact that “assault weapons” automatically come with 20+ round magazines is important.

Although, that doesn’t mean we jump to conclusions and start arbitrary bans like…

High Capacity Magazine

Ok, this is an area I will also be going into further detail on when I discuss “assault weapons” in general and why I changed my mind about them. Most people even agree there’s no reason to have 100-round, 50-round, or even 20-round magazines.

Yet, far too often I see people throw out arbitrary numbers. “Why do you need 15 bullets?” “If you can’t hit something in less than 10 rounds, you shouldn’t have a gun.”

Again, these statements are often made in complete ignorance of how firearms are used and what the norm is.

A pistol magazine is often 10- or 15-rounds, depending on the weapon’s size. Revolvers generally hold 5- to 7-rounds. Semi-automatic hunting and sporting rifles usually come with 5- or 10-round magazines. Pump-action shotguns can hold anywhere from 7- to 9-rounds, or more if they’re a smaller gauge.

These have been industry standards for decades, long before mass shootings were on the rise.

Why so many bullets? While hunters usually only get one (maybe two shots), the average person firing in self-defense will need more. In addition to not being able to aim in a high-stress situation (that’s Hollywood magic most of the time), single bullets don’t necessarily stop people.

So yes, a person with a firearm might indeed need 10 or more rounds to stop someone intent on harming them.

That’s why, I believe “high capacity” should apply to 20+ round magazines or similar devices. It’s not an arbitrary number – that is the point we move beyond the industry standard for firearm magazine size and to where even the most unskilled person should be able to hit a target in a high-stress situation.

Please, if you’re going to debate magazine size, make sure you’re not just throwing numbers that “sound good” out there.

A Prelude to the Firearm Debate

I really don’t have the time or energy to write this. I shouldn’t even have to, except for the fact that another person committed a heinous act of terrorism that destroyed hundreds of lives with firearms. An act that might (or might not) have been prevented with specific laws. An act that bombards my social media feed with articles, memes, and opinion posts by people in an already divided country.

So here I am, trying to be a voice of reason and education, drawn into this because of my status as a gun owner.

Oh, I know people will take that status and make assumptions about my character. Without reading further, they’ll presume what I’m going to say or defend, what my political affiliation is, what I believe in, etc. Without ever knowing me, I’ll be labeled and ignored.

And that’s part of the problem. That’s why we can’t get a unified front against gun violence.

For us to move forward, to force Congress to listen despite the lobbyists and corporate puppet masters lining their pockets… we need to be united. We can’t presume what other people say or believe just because they might be or do something we oppose. We need to listen and learn about an issue before shouting our opinions on blogs, in letters, and at public hearings.

So, let me be clear about something: I want gun control.

I fully believe there should be regulations in place to restrict who can get firearms, what types are allowed, etc. Then again, I also believe there should be stricter regulations on who can drive and be a parent. Either way, contrary to people’s presumptions, as a gun owner I am completely behind reasonable firearm legislation and even have valid suggestions.

But to get by Big Guns & Ammo, and the NRA, and the politicians in their pocket, you need to have a reasonable, educated, united front. You can’t just spout whatever you think, read in some article, or some random statistics. You have to know what you’re talking about and present your suggestions with critical thought.

So, consider this the prelude to several pieces I’ll write, in the hopes of helping people better understand the issue, the terminology, the history, and each other. Maybe then we can get some fucking reasonable laws in place that will help prevent the rising number of tragedies that have occurred in the 21st century.

Gun Debate: Facts (Not Opinions)

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After many discussions over this topic, I have found that much of the debate is fueled not only by personal bias but by complete ignorance regarding the matter. We certainly are all entitled to our opinions on civilian firearm ownership, but what we are not entitled to are our own facts. I have talked to too many people who take a stance based on misunderstanding, misinformation, or outright lies, including personal friends who truly thought they understood the issue. That is why I am putting this together, to hopefully clarify some of the most common misconceptions and to hopefully encourage some critical thought among friends.

As an aside, If you are reading this I ask that you try and put aside your personal opinion and take an objective view of the matter. I also ask that you read this as if from an independent source; I have been directly told by a personal associate that cannot be objective because I am a gun owner. There is no place for such ignorant, ad hominem attacks in intelligent discourse. Whether a person participates in a given activity is irrelevant and we should judge the words… not the messenger.

1) Semi-Automatics are not “Military Weapons”

Some of the most common statements I hear is “no one needs a semi-automatic”, “semi-automatics belong in the hands of the military”, and “the only reason to have a semi-automatic is to kill as fast as possible.” These statements show a complete ignorance of what a “semi-automatic” is, including the basics of firearm technology and the history of guns. Whenever I hear people say these terms, all I can think of is that lovely geek quote: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

A semi-automatic firearm simply means the gun contains mechanical parts that allow the weapon to ready another round for firing without additional work from the user. It does not mean the weapon fires a spray of bullets, which is known as “fully automatic”, as the user must still pull the trigger again for each bullet. The rate of fire from such a weapon depends on the user and will fire no faster than their skill. Amusingly, semi-automatic and single-action firearms shoot at the same rate (one bullet per trigger pull), the only difference being the latter usually are 6- to 9-round capacity revolvers.

Semi-automatic firearms have existed since the 19th century. They are the latest in a long line of firearm mechanisms that helped make them more efficient. Originally, firearms (such as black powder weapons) required anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes to reload. The advent of integrated cartridges (what most recognize as “bullets”) and revolvers (which hold more than one round) in the 19th century, reduced time between shots greatly. The first semi-automatic firearms appeared in 1885 Germany, and by the turn of the century manufacturers like Remington and Winchester sold hunting and sporting rifles using this mechanism. The semi-automatic was a complex, costly system and was not regularly used by the military until World War I.

The majority of modern firearms are semi-automatic weapons. Almost every civilian pistol is semi-automatic, for ease of use. The majority of sporting rifles are semi-automatic, including the popular .22-caliber rifles used by many youth organizations, sports tournaments, and the Olympics. Even many hunting rifles are semi-automatic, so that a missed shot does not mean you lose your prey and have to begin waiting again.

2) “Assault Weapons” are commonly confused with “Military Weapons”

The term “assault weapon” is a controversial term that has had many definitions. The original definition of an “assault weapon” was no different than a “military weapon” and referred to a variety of devices with fully automatic firing capability. This term was not applied to semi-automatic weapons until the 1980’s, with the advent of increased gun control legislation. At this time, several gun control advocates began using the term “assault weapon” to refer to any weapon that either belongs in the military or looks like it does. By 1994, the term was applied to a variety of (previously legal) firearms that were no different from other rifles but contained cosmetic features that gave them a “military” appearance.

In 1994, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was passed, based on these cosmetic features. Contrary to popular belief, the AWB did not ban machine guns or fully automatic weapons. These firearms had been restricted with two previous acts in 1934 and 1968. The only thing the AWB did was restrict a variety of semi-automatic rifles based on their appearance. No firearm restricted by the AWB was a “military weapon” and none of them were any more or less dangerous than other firearms. Amusingly, studies by the CDC, NRC, DOJ, and NIJ found that the effect on crime was negligible, as the restricted firearms were rarely used in most crimes to begin with.

3) Civilians use “Assault Weapons” for legitimate reasons

As some latch onto the misunderstanding of the first two questions, they often conclude that a civilian has no use for something like an AR-15 rifle. Even those who recognize the difference between a semi-automatic “assault” rifle and a full-automatic military weapon still wonder why a person would ever use such a weapon. After all, they say, if it looks like a military weapon it still must only be used for military applications. These people then conclude that no reasonable hunter, target shooter, or home defender would ever need such a weapon.

Unfortunately, this train of logic is full of ignorance and fallacy. The AR-15, and similar rifles, are quite popular in all three legitimate pursuits. These rifles are very light weight and easily modified, with adjustable stocks and pistol grips making them ideally suited to people who have problems with standard rifles. People with small or light builds (including many women), individuals with handicaps, competitors with unique shooting profiles, etc. all use rifles like these because they can be adapted to their specific requirements. Similarly, the adaptability of an AR-15 makes them ideal for sporting and hunting across a variety of environments. Finally, for home defense, an AR-15’s appearance makes it ideal because it looks like a “military weapon”. Firearm classes teach you that shooting a firearm is the last thing you want to do, and that intimidating the opponent is far better.

4) More gun control does not necessarily mean lower crime, particularly in the United States

The main reason for most gun control legislation is to reduce crime (including mass shootings), which is a noble cause. The long time thought was that increased gun control would reduce crime, which is a reasonable hypothesis. However, any theory needs to be tested using empirical evidence, and unfortunately… the evidence doesn’t hold up.

I created a database comparing each state’s firearm-related crime (per 100,000 people) to how strict its gun control laws were. The former was determined using 2011 crime data collected by the FBI; the latter was a more subjective number determined using the Brady Campaign’s rating of each state. When compared to each other, there was little correlation between gun control laws and firearm-related crime rates. The ten states with the lowest crime included three of the strictest states (Illinois, Hawaiʻi and New York) and three of the loosest states (North Dakota, Iowa, and Utah). Similarly, the ten states with the highest crime included one of the strictest areas (Maryland/DC) and two of the loosest (Alaska and Louisiana). When the two sets of data were plotted on a chart, the correlation coefficient was -0.05883… which is practically no correlation at all.

If there is no correlation between gun control and crime rates in our own country, people sometimes look to other countries as examples. Unfortunately, this is often hard to do as many countries do not provide the required information to do an accurate comparison, particularly among many developing or war-torn countries. Despite this, using similar techniques (but not as reliable statistics), I compared firearm ownership (per 100 people) to firearm deaths (per 100,000 people). Once more, the data reveals no support for the theory that stricter gun laws lead to less gun deaths, with a correlation coefficient of -0.05196.

Now, to be fair this does not mean that less gun control reduces crime either. There is simply no evidence either way that gun control has any influence on crime rates. Instead, the only conclusion is that there must be other factors that are influencing crime rates, including justice systems, cultural factors, urbanization, and even types of crime. The main thing to take away from this, though, is that we cannot say that increased gun control will reduce crime or prevent mass shootings. Speaking of the latter…

5) Mass shootings are more likely to occur because of mentally ill individuals than because of “assault weapons”

Renewed interest in gun control legislation occurred because of the Sandy Hook shootings, as well as those prior to that tragedy. Many of these proposed bills were encouraged as a way to prevent further shootings. However, like the aforementioned section on crime, the legislation is misguided on what actually would prevent such incidents.

“Assault weapons” are one of the primary firearms targeted, because they were used at Sandy Hook and the Aurora Theater. However, “assault weapons” constitute only five of the 27 shootings in the past decade (19%), with three acquired illegally and one an assigned weapon of a police officer. Only a single mass shooting involving an “assault weapon” was performed by a legal, civilian owner of the firearm. The vast majority of mass shootings involve handguns, which constitute 59% of these tragedies.

“High capacity magazines” are also targeted, because they are believed to allow faster shooting and cause more deaths. However, these magazines were only used in three of the 27 shootings in the past decade (11%), and one of those was a pistol with a 33-round magazine. The deadliest shooting in recent history, the Virginia Tech Massacre, involved pistols with standard magazines (10- and 15-rounds)… the shooter carrying 19 of them.

In contrast, 21 of the 27 shootings in the past decade (78%) were performed by people with histories of mental illness. Despite their histories, 15 of them acquired their weapons legally, either because their information was not updated in the Federal database, they purchased them through person-to-person transfers, or they were never formally diagnosed or committed despite their behavior.

Further Discussion

I’m sure there will be comments. I’m sure there will be debates. As I compile more information on the subject, or run into regular misinformation, I will post it here. I do ask that comments be intelligent, reasonable, and objective. As with all things in life, we should use critical thinking and logic to determine the best possible route behind any issue.