U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tryphena Mayhugh

Before you have a gun debate, make sure your terminology is correct

Eric Dehm
February 23, 2018 - 11:28 am

Every time there's a mass shooting the debate on guns starts anew. The discussion changes slightly depending on the weapon used, where it took place or who the shooter was. 

One thing that doesn't change? Incorrect terminology and "facts" that are tossed around by both sides of the debate with shocking regularity. It's difficult, if not impossible, to debate something when you don't demonstrate a basic knowledge of the subject.

Imagine someone joins a discussion you're having on whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the better basketball player, but kept referring to the ball as a puck. Sure, it's a sports term, but it's wrong and you will immediately discount the opinion of the person who said it.

The very same thing happens with guns, and when it does, it often stops progress on the discussion, regardless of which side of the debate you're on.

That being the case, the following pieces of information and data will help you have a more informed conversation, specifically when it comes to rifles, even if they don't fit your particular narrative. 

Semi-Automatic vs. Automatic

You've no doubt heard someone say something to the effect of "no one needs automatic weaponry" following a shooting like the most recent one in Florida. Here's the thing: very few people have them, and none have been used in these shootings. A semi-automatic rifle, like the one used in Florida, fires one round per trigger pull. An automatic weapon fires for as long as you hold the trigger down, or until you run out of ammunition, whichever comes first.

Automatic weapons are very tightly regulated and require a special federal license to acquire. Automatic weapons are typically used for support/cover fire by the military because of their ability to put a large number of rounds in the general direction of a target. Without the assistance of a bipod or tripod, full auto fire is notoriously hard to put on target accurately, particularly from a rifle. 

Rifle magazines are also rather small, so, a 30-round magazine firing on full auto will be expended in seconds.This is why the military typically assigns this job to bulkier weapons like the M-249 Squad Autmatic Weapon (SAW) which features large ammunition reserves and a bipod for stability. However, even a weapon like the SAW is best used with short, controlled bursts of fire to control accuracy.

A magazine is NOT the same thing as a clip.

This is a big one for those who know firearms. Here's a tweet from former Navy SEAL Robert O'Neill outlining his feelings on this aspect of the debate: 

The difference between a magazine and a clip is fairly simple, here's the easy to remember breakdown: A clip is a device used to load a magazine, most commonly in older firearms which featured an internal magazine. A magazine is a device or holding area where ammunition is fed into the chamber of a firearm.

From the above image, you can see the clear difference between the two. Also of note, clips are fairly rare with modern firearms not requiring them. The clip was far more common with WWI, WWII and Korea era weaponry. So a good rule of thumb to follow when discussing the ammunition holding device for modern firearms is that there's a pretty good chance you are talking about a magazine.

The "AR" in AR-15 does NOT stand for "Assault Rifle"

This is one that you'll hear from time to time. There will be a discussion around the AR-15 and whether it's a military grade assault rifle and someone will say "It's right there in the name! AR stands for Assault Rifle!" Nope. AR actually stands for ArmaLite Rifle.

ArmaLite is the company that first produced the rifle that was designed for military use. ArmaLite sold the patent to Colt and their patent expired in the 70s. By that time the AR-15 name was synonymous with the civilian version of the rifle, so other companies began producing their own versions of the rifle.

The AR-15 is NOT based on the M-16, in fact, it's the other way around

ArmaLite produced their first AR-15 in 1959. the first M-16 was produced in 1964. It was an improved model of the AR-15 with selective fire capability, meaning it could be switched from semi-automatic to 3-round burst or fully automatic. 

The AR-15 is not an assault rifle

By definition, an assault rifle is a rifle with selective fire capability. This is a feature the AR-15 does not have unless illegally modified.

The AR-15 is very similar to a military-issued rifle...sometimes 

The standard military issue M-4 or M-16 has selective fire capabilities and both fire the standard NATO 5.56mm round. There are AR-15s that fire this same ammunition. So yes, there are AR-15 models that are nearly identical to the military's rifles. That being said, the AR-15 comes in a variety of calibers including the much smaller .22 which, while deadly if it hits you in the right spot, does significantly less damage than a larger caliber round.

If you are discussing whether the AR-15 is "the same" as a military rifle, it's often a matter of semantics. The .22 version is not, while a 5.56 or the very similar .223 is essentially a weapon capable of everything military issue rifles are, minus selective fire which, again, is rarely used for the reasons listed above.

"Assault weapon" and assault rifle are not interchangable

While assault rifle has a specific definition, assault weapon is a rather vague term based on political and legal definitions that are different in different jurisdictions. Typically, an AR-15 by itself is not considered an assault weapon until it is modified in various ways to include the use of pistol grips, extended magazines, high magnification sights, a bipod or even bayonet lugs.

Additionally, many are of the opinion that the appearance of a rifle has the effect of making it an "assault weapon" with the following rules: wood is ok, black metal and plastic is not.

Rifles are used in a small fraction of gun crime

Because the AR-15 and similar rifles seem to be the weapon of choice for many mass shooters, and the horrifying circumstances of these events, they garner significant media coverage. Because of that, there are many who believe that when it comes to gun violence in the United States rifles are responsible for the lion's share of deaths.

This is not the case. According to the FBI's crime data, rifles were used in an average of less than 300 murders per year nationally from 2011-2015. To put the numbers in context, there were 13,455 murders listed by the FBI in 2015. The following is a breakdown of the number of murders in which specific weapons were used:

Rifles - 252
Shotguns - 269
Blunt Objects - 437
Fists/Feet - 624
Knives - 1,554
Handguns - 6,447

(There were an additional 2,477 firearm-related murders where the weapon type is not stated or known, but, if we keep with the perecentages seen in cases where the weapon is stated (rifles being used in approx. 3.6%) the ratio would not change significantly for rifles as the weapon used.)

The relatively low number of deaths doesn't mean the discussion should end, as one life lost is too many. And to be very clear, the information here is not all there is to know about guns, or gun control, by a long shot.

That being said, if you can learn these few topics, and the terminology, the ability to hold an informed discussion that doesn't devolve into accusations of ignorance or intentionally misleading statements increases, and that's a good thing. 

Read: You know who knows about arming teachers and gun safety? Veterans. Here's what some of them have to say