Tutorial: Is Improper Use of Terminology Behind the Conflict on Guns?

(And how much is intentional versus an innocent misunderstanding?)

Guns are a pretty contentious topic right about now.  As per usual, both sides are digging in and arguing back and forth, often past one another, and often mocking things each side accepts as fact.

However, many times, the issue may well be in terminology, rather than policy.  Ken White explains at Popehat:

If we had the “reasonable gun control” I keep hearing about, what guns would be limited? I’m arguably not a complete idiot, but I can’t figure it out. I hear “nobody wants to take away all your guns” a lot — which seems demonstrably false — but what guns do gun-control advocates want to take away, or restrict? Most of the time I don’t know and I suspect that the advocates don’t know either.

That’s because there’s a terminology gap. Many people advocating for gun control mangle and misuse descriptive words about guns. No doubt some of them are being deliberately ambiguous, but I think most people just haven’t educated themselves on the meaning of a relatively small array of terms. That’s how you get a debate framed around gibberish like “multi-automatic round weapons” and the like. You get people using “semi-automatic” and “automatic” without knowing what they mean, and you get the term “assault weapon” thrown about as if it means more than whatever we choose to make it mean, which it does not.

If you don’t understand these terms already, why should you care? You should care because when you misuse them, you signal substantially broader gun restrictions than you may actually be advocating. So, for instance, if you have no idea what semi-automatic means, but you’ve heard it and it sounds scary, and you assume that it means some kind of machine gun, so you argue semi-automatics should be restricted, you’ve just conveyed that most modern handguns (save for revolvers) should be restricted, even if that’s not what you meant.

White makes a very good point.  Many gun control activists seek to limit guns with rather arbitrary criteria that are often merely cosmetic in nature.

For example, California has the toughest restrictions on so-called assault rifles out there.  Meanwhile, these are legal for sale in California:

Photo from Lee.org
Photo from Lee.org

Now, what is the difference between those rifles and this one?

Photo by Mike Petrucci
Photo by Mike Petrucci

Functionally, there’s zero difference.  Both fire the .223/5.56 round and are semi-automatic rifles.  That means no matter how long you keep the trigger pulled, only one shot is going to be fired.  Now, compare those two rifles with this one:

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr.
Photo by Jim Legans, Jr.

What’s the difference?  In some details, there’s differences, but in the things that matter, not much.  This is the Ruger Mini-14, another semi-automatic rifle chambered in .223/5.56.  However, this rifle would easily survive most proposed “assault weapon” bans.

The most remarkable factor is that many people would accept the Mini-14 as perfectly acceptable, but not the AR-15, yet don’t understand that the only real differences between the weapons are one looks pretty scary. Some have even argued that civilian don’t need weapons that are so “powerful,” yet here’s an interesting tidbit for those folks:

In the late 1960’s the 5.56/.223 round came under heavy criticism from the media when used for hunting. Many hunters in the 1960’s were using full metal jacket ammunition shot at close range to hunt with, resulting in a wounded deer that would never be found. Due to this criticism that has been passed down over the years the 5.56/.223 cartridge was thought to be un efficient at taking medium sized pray

With modern ammo, this is less of a concern for hunting, but something to keep in mind is that an ammunition that is heavily ammo dependent like the 5.56 is generally not considered “powerful” by anyone familiar with firearms.  The fact that the AR-15 is considered such a boogeyman gun, while the venerable M1 Garand isn’t, is hysterical to many because the Garand fires a much more powerful round, the .30-06 Remington.

It’s not just the 5.56 weapons that this fear over aesthetics applies to either.

For example, here’s the SKS:

Photo by Stephen Z
Photo by Stephen Z

This is classified by the ATF as a “Curios and Relics” weapon, or C&R.  Someone with a C&R license, which is far easier to obtain than a FFL but doesn’t permit one to serve as a dealer for firearms, can have one of these shipped directly to their home.

Now, let’s look at the most evil of rifles, the AK-47:

Photo by Jürg Vollmer
Photo by Jürg Vollmer

Both of these weapons come out of the former communist block.  In particular, the Soviet Union.  That’s not where the similarities end either.  Both fire the 7.62x39mm round and both are, once again, semi-automatic and civilians can access easily (though the true AK-47 is a select fire rifle, those have been restricted in this country for almost a century under the National Firearms Act of 1934), and are functionally little different.

However, one is considered ripe for restriction while the other can be delivered to your doorstep if you possess the appropriate federal license.

Unfortunately, those who so actively seek out gun control don’t seem to understand any of this.  Instead, they pontificate on a topic they don’t really understand the terminology of and don’t understand why gun rights activists laugh at them.

The flip side is that because they don’t really understand that terminology, the possibility exists that gun control advocates may not necessarily mean some of what they’re actually saying.  They might, of course.  It’s even probable they do.  However, there’s absolutely no way to be sure because they just don’t know the terminology well enough for anyone on the other side to see anything other than someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Photo Credit: teacept/123rf
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