Wednesday, January 09, 2013

I know it's too much to ask, but couldn't the press at least try to avoid being snookered by the silliest gun lobby arguments?

Brian Haas has written a credulous article for The Tennessean on one aspect of gun regulation, the push for a new assault weapons ban, that nevertheless has some informative points, AR-15 rifle lands in center of gun debate in U.S. 01/07/2012.

He does address one of the sillier points made by gun proliferation advocates, the notion that any weapon can be an "assault" weapon and so how can you talk about banning assault weapons? It's a sign of how one-sided and crackpot the whole issue has become that this kind of adolescent quibbling isn't dismissed out of hand. Because to ban assault weapons, the law has to defined what an assault weapon is under the law. Duh!

Haas' discussion of this is the best part of his article:

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, is already talking about reinstating some form of the 1994 "assault weapon ban." In general, the 1994 ban made it illegal to buy, possess or transfer any semi-automatic rifle that had a detachable magazine plus any two of the following features: a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or threading for one, or a grenade launcher attachment. Also banned were "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" - basically any ammunition system that held more than 10 bullets.

The ban codified the phrase "assault weapon." It is a phrase that makes gun owners bristle. They prefer instead "modern sporting rifles."
The 1994 assault weapons ban had some major holes in it, though, that puts limits on its effectiveness:

Gun advocates largely ridiculed the ban. Manufacturers were often able to make simple modifications — a thumb-hole stock instead of a pistol grip, for example — to get around the ban. And the ban was not retroactive, meaning any such guns or large magazines in circulation before the ban remained legal to own.
It would be more accurate to say that gun proliferation advocates pointed to the exceptions in the law to argue that there were ways around it, and then proceeded to argue because the law wasn't tough enough to be fully effective, there should be no law at all!

The banning of domestic manufacture was not an insignificant thing. And its resumption when the law expired contributed greatly to the proliferation of such weapons today in the US and in Mexico.

A sidebar, "What are Tennessee's gun laws?" provides useful information:

In Tennessee, no permit or license is needed to own a firearm, whether a handgun, shotgun or a rifle. Those who carry a handgun must obtain a permit. All commercial firearm purchases require a criminal background check designed to prevent felons and those convicted of domestic assault from obtaining them. Private sales do not require a criminal background check. Many guns at gun shows are sold as private sales that don't require a background check. That is the so-called gun show loophole.
You need a license to drive a car, but not to own and use a gun?

This will be something to watch for in the current debate over domestic arms proliferation. Requiring background checks for commercial sales but not for "private" sales including those at gun shows is a huge dodge that largely undermines the commercial sale requirements.

Another typical quibble that journalists shouldn't let gun proliferation advocates get away with is comma-dancing over what's an "automatic" weapon. Revolvers are non-automatic weapons because the cylinder containing the bullets has to rotate to place the next bullet in position to fire after the gun is fired by cocking the gun. Shotguns and non-automatic rifles have to be reloaded before another bullet can be fired. Semi-automatics have a clip or magazine from which bullets are automatically inserted into the firing position without cocking; each shot requires a trigger pull. Full automatic weapons use the same loading mechanism but the gun will fire repeatedly as long as the trigger is held in the firing position. But gun proliferation advocates will sometimes argue that semi-automatic are somehow not really automatics. Even though they are called, uh, semi-automatics.

Haas doesn't quite fall into that trap. But he does write, "The modern AR-15 still looks like its military cousin. But it is not a machine gun. Being a semi-automatic rifle, the AR-15 fires only one shot for each trigger pull. A standard model has a 30-round magazine using .223 ammunition, though it can be modified to accept other calibers and configurations."

What he doesn't mention here is that a semi-automatic like the AR-15 Bushmaster .223 that has been a recent favorite for mass gun murderers can fire a lot of bullets quickly, even though it's "not a machine gun." Estimates vary, but an experienced shooter can get off more than a round per second. And depending on how many bullets are in the magazine he's using, he can get off dozens of rounds without stopping to reload.

Slate's Justin Peters discusses the AR-15 class of rifle in The NRA Claims the AR-15 Is Useful for Hunting and Home Defense. Not Exactly. 01/02/2013. As he notes, "James Holmes used an AR-15-style rifle with a detachable 100-round magazine this past summer when he shot up a movie theater in Colorado." And, "the AR-15 is very good at one thing: engaging the enemy at a rapid rate of fire. When someone like [Sandy Hook shooter] Adam Lanza uses it to take out 26 people in a matter of minutes, he's committing a crime, but he isn't misusing the rifle. That’s exactly what it was engineered to do."

The Daily Mail reported 12/23/2012 on How Newtown gun lobby fought to 'put a happy face' on assault rifles like the one used by Adam Lanza to shoot dead 26 in school massacre. Back in 2009, a gun proliferation lobby group calling itself the National Shooting Sports Foundation's, whose headquarters is "just miles from the elementary school in Connecticut where 26 were murdered" in Sandy Hook in December, put out the following video about what a warm and cuddly weapon the AR-15 is, The Modern Sporting Rifle (60 sec - NSSF) YouTube date 09/11/2009:

Peters explains why the AR-15 is not a very good rifle for hunting on fighting off those home invasions the gun proliferation lobbies claim to be so concerned about:

But the AR-15 is not ideal for the hunting and home-defense uses that the NRA’s Keene cited today. Though it can be used for hunting, the AR-15 isn’t really a hunting rifle. Its standard .223 caliber ammunition doesn’t offer much stopping power for anything other than small game. Hunters themselves find the rifle controversial, with some arguing AR-15-style rifles empower sloppy, "spray and pray" hunters to waste ammunition. (The official Bushmaster XM15 manual lists the maximum effective rate of fire at 45 rounds per minute.) As one hunter put it in the comments section of an article on, "I served in the military and the M16A2/M4 was the weapon I used for 20 years. It is first and foremost designed as an assault weapon platform, no matter what the spin. A hunter does not need a semi-automatic rifle to hunt, if he does he sucks, and should go play video games. I see more men running around the bush all cammo'd up with assault vests and face paint with tricked out AR's. These are not hunters but wannabe weekend warriors."

In terms of repelling a home invasion—which is what most people mean when they talk about home defense—an AR-15-style rifle is probably less useful than a handgun. The AR-15 is a long gun, and can be tough to maneuver in tight quarters. When you shoot it, it'll overpenetrate—sending bullets through the walls of your house and possibly into the walls of your neighbor’s house—unless you purchase the sort of ammunition that fragments on impact. (This is true for other guns, as well, but, again, the thing with the AR-15 is that it lets you fire more rounds faster.)

AR-15-style rifles are very useful, however, if what you're trying to do is sell guns.
And selling guns is what the NRA and other gun proliferation lobbies are focused on. Their sales propaganda should be taken with a big dose of skepticism.

Brian Haas also features the boys-with-toys argument for allowing proliferation of semi-automatic assault rifles:

One thing is clear, said Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles: History and pop culture have infused the AR-15 with a powerful mythology and symbolism.

"There’s a multiplicity of reasons why people get enamored with certain weapons, particularly in terms of military weapons," said Fischoff, himself a gun owner. "The pride, the fun, the tinkering … just the whole human predisposition to collectibles. The pro-military aspect is going to have a connection, too, to people." ...

"They’re like Legos for adults," said [Bill] Smith, who lives in Hermitage and shoots the AR-15 for competition purposes. "You can change your calibers, stocks; every piece of it is adaptable to fit what you want it to be, everything from hunting to plinking and targets ... competition in action sports, competition in long-range precision, coyote hunting."

Bill Bernstein, owner of East Side Gun Shop in Nashville, said that the AR-15 is also a natural fit for gun owners who love to tinker or those with military experience who are accustomed to firing similar guns in the service. And then there are the intangibles.

"The ease that you can shoot one with and the fact that it looks typically like a military weapon makes it popular," he said.
Yes, I'm sure some guys in love with their guns may have to modify their hobbies if the AR-15 were banned again. Public policy involves tradeoffs. Congress will need to decide whether mitigating mass gun murders by banning assault rifles is a stronger public interest that letting gun fetishists play with them as much as they want. But, to repeat a Justin Peters quote, however much fun the guys who dress up in cammo and play war in the woods may have with it, and however much fun it is hobbyists to take them apart and reassemble them, "the AR-15 is very good at one thing: engaging the enemy at a rapid rate of fire. When someone like Adam Lanza uses it to take out 26 people in a matter of minutes, he's committing a crime, but he isn't misusing the rifle. That’s exactly what it was engineered to do."

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