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September 18, 2012
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Lance Eldridge All Law Enforcement is Local
with Lance Eldridge

In the gun control debate, the words we use matter (a lot)

Many of the uninformed general public (and even some police officers!) incorrectly believe that the 'AR' in AR-15 stands for 'assault rifle' ...it does not

The tragedy in Aurora, Colorado in July of this year has again raised the issue of gun control.

You can’t help but notice, especially if you have even a smattering of knowledge, how many reporters from the mainstream press almost always get things wrong when it comes to reporting on firearms and gun-related violence.

Though both sides of the gun control debate make exaggerated and sometimes outlandish comments in support of their cause, some of the most vocal critics of gun ownership are also among the most uninformed (pettish, perhaps) about firearms, and it shows in what and how they write.

The biggest indicator that a particular writer is either a gun control advocate or doesn’t have a clue about guns (often the same thing) is when two phrases are repeated, ad infinitum: “assault weapon” or “assault rifle,” especially if used without quotation marks.

These two expressions have emerged as signature tags of gun control supporters. To make matters worse, some well-meaning and knowledgeable gun owners also use the terms and unintentionally perpetuate the political advocacy language of the opposition, giving it unneeded circulation and legitimacy.

To recite a well-worn phrase, let’s be perfectly clear: any item of any type can be an “assault weapon” if used as a weapon in an assault. This statement is so obvious one would have to be willfully ignorant to not recognize its truth. However, it’s apparently easy to ignore if you don’t know (or want to know) what you’re writing about.

We rarely see the popular press refer to a knife, axe, baseball bat, pool cue, etc. as an “assault weapon.”

As every cop knows, whenever you walk into a pool hall, everyone has access to a potential weapon. “Potential” is the operative word.

In weapon-related assaults that do not include a firearm, the mainstream press more often reports that the suspect chose to use the item as a weapon to commit a crime, not that the item itself is somehow inherently dangerous and is responsible for the crime. Guns, however, get no such responsible consideration. It’s almost as if some journalists attend a special course where they learn the proper way to denounce gun ownership, an idea parodied by Dr. Michael S. Brown, a prolific writer and gun rights proponent in the early 2000’s.

John Aloysius Farrell probably attended the course. In a recent online article in the National Journal, Farrell referred to handguns as “menacing hand-held weapons” and generally referred to guns as “frightening weapons.”

The “assault rifle” phrase is just as inaccurate. Any rifle can be used in an assault, whether it’s a muzzle-loader, bolt action, or magazine fed. The “assault rifle” moniker is incorrectly hung on any rifle that a critic deems to be military (or scary) looking or of a large caliber, as if somehow a bayonet lug, pistol grip, folding / collapsible stock, or bullet size and weight, can inherently lead a person to commit mayhem. Even a bolt-action scoped hunting rifle can soon become a “sniper rifle” in the hands of gun control proponents.

Many firearm and self-defense advocates have not recognized that the competition has seized the initiative in the rhetorical battle and subliminally influenced the minds of the public. For example, many of the uninformed general public (and even some police officers!) incorrectly believe that the “AR” in AR-15 stands for “assault rifle” — it does not.

It stands for Armalite, a company formed in the 1950’s by the Fairchild Aircraft Corporation to explore the benefits of aluminum alloy and glass-reinforced plastic technology.

Eugene Stoner, an engineer at Armalite, designed a new rifle (the AR-15) using these alloys.

Colt bought the rights to the design in 1959. The rifle was adopted initially by Curtis Le May’s Air Force, and the US Army’s interest in the weapon emerged at the beginning of the Vietnam War. After design and production trials, Colt started to build the select-fire M16 for all the services. The semi-automatic version remains the AR-15, while the select-fire version is correctly referred to as an M16 (which would include its variations) and the M4, which is a carbine, with a collapsible stock, and a slightly lower rate of fire.

Politicians, especially those who embrace gun control, often use inaccurate rhetoric to their advantage. They talk a lot, so it’s expected that they will sometimes (or often?) say stupid things about firearms. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s incredibly ridiculous comments about police striking to achieve his gun control objectives has been adequately addressed elsewhere. When caught, they sometimes try to back away from their mistakes, as Mayor Bloomberg has done in this case.

Journalists and policy advocates who favor gun control often use inaccurate rhetoric to their advantage as well. So-called journalists write a lot, so it’s expected that they will sometimes (or often?) write stupid things about firearms. Unlike the politician caught in the lie, they rarely make corrections or concessions, even over their most egregious mistakes. Instead, they apparently believe in the axiom that if they tell a lie often enough (the Occupy Wall Street movement is a “nonviolent movement for social and economic justice,” for example) someone is bound to believe them. Correction columns correct very little and activist journalists purposely cloud the distinctions between weapons and firearms to further their own agenda.

For the moment gun, ownership and self-defense advocacy are ascendant. A majority of US citizens believe that an individual has a Constitutional right to own a firearm. However, the public can also be fickle and the majority may, at one time in the future, demand stricter gun regulations. In the wake of Aurora conservative Supreme Court Justice Scalia has opened this door (see here and here) and given them hope from an unexpected source. Gun control proponents are prepared for the political slog, confident they will ultimately get their way in limiting our constitutional rights with the emotional appeal “if we can save but one life...”

In this debate, words matter! Those supporting gun ownership and personal self-defense must be willing to repeatedly correct even the most popular misconceptions about firearms, including the way firearms are characterized, if they want to maintain our constitutional right to bear arms.

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.


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