Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tell It Like It Is

Roger Ebert, long-time movie critic, wrote a blog posting in the Sun-Times titled "The Body Count." In it, he makes the following observation about the AR-15 "assault rifle"*:

"I also don't understand why civilians need to possess AR-15 assault rifles, such as the one used by James Holmes in Colorado. They fire 10 shots at a time, and are intended for combat use."
In the comments section of his post, Ebert took quite a bit of heat for that second sentence. Which he acknowledged, pleading ignorance, and pointing people to an article in the Contra Costa Times, which contains the sentence:
"Fully-automatic and military-style assault weapons that fire more than 10 rounds at a time, like the AR-15, are against the law in the Golden State."
Ebert does err in using the term "assault rifle" rather than "assault weapon," as stated in the Contra Costa Times piece. The difference is not semantic, as a weapon can be one, the other or both. But like most people who don't know what they don't know, and therefore can't evaluate certain information that's presented to them, he passed along a misleading snippet from the original piece.

"10 shots at a time," or "10 rounds at a time," is ambiguous in this context, and doesn't mean what we normally think of it as meaning. While there are actually weapons that can fire 10 rounds at a time, in the sense that they are all being fired simultaneously, they're pretty rare. Many of them are rare and valuable antiques by this point, volley guns dating back to the 19th century and before, although a few modern versions exist. If we take 10 rounds at a time to mean that the weapon fires 10 times with each pull of the trigger, we're talking about a burst-fire weapon, and a much longer burst than anything in use with military forces today. Or we're referring to a fully-automatic weapon, which continues to fire as long as the trigger is held. But Holmes couldn't have legally purchased a weapon like that without special permits - it's not the sort of thing that a graduate student can simply walk into a gun store and purchase off-the-shelf.

Instead, what "10 rounds at a time" means in this context is the ability to fire ten time without stopping to change magazines or otherwise reload the weapon. Or, to be somewhat technical about it, magazine capacity. I don't understand what impulse for economy inspired the authors of the Contra Costa Times article to use "at a time" rather than "before reloading" or something similar, but it threw Ebert, and likely others, off.

While I guess that it's not, strictly speaking, inaccurate, the Contra Costa Times' phrasing is isn't illuminating to the uninitiated. "Assault weapon/rifle" has become a very loaded term in modern America, because it's how suburban whites perceive that gun violence will have an impact on them. While residents of minority neighborhoods have to be on the lookout for young toughs with handguns in their waistbands on a daily basis, in more affluent parts of the nation, it's the specter of the angry or deranged shooter (or, increasingly, a terrorist) with a gun from an action movie that haunts their nightmares. This place in the public debate is poorly served by the nebulous understanding of what these weapons are that most people have. And the public understanding is poorly served when the sources they rely on for information, in rushing to get stories to print, neglect to make them informative.

*"Assault rifle" is in quotes here because the AR-15 does not meet that technical definition of an assault rifle, as understood by the United States Army. A simple form of that definition is "Assault rifles are short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges." For those of you not familiar with firearms terminology, "selective-fire" means that the user may select between semi-automatic and burst fire and/or fully-automatic fire.

Note, however, that the typical AR-15 IS an "assault weapon." But "assault weapon" is legal and political term, not a technical one. An interesting piece of trivia is that a semi-automatic only version of an M-14 or Browning Automatic Rifle, are not "assault weapons" under the definition, because the definition includes the weapons form, and not simply it's function.

1 comment:

Shel said...

"Assault weapon," in the fashion used by the media, and in the infamous "assault rife ban" law, is a meaningless term. Anyone using this term immediately tells me that a) they have an axe to grind, and b) they actually don't know a semi-auto from a machine gun.