If you have ever engaged in conversation with a Second Amendment radical and even mentioned the words “assault weapon” or “semi-automatic,” you have likely descended quickly into “pedantry hell.” You will receive a lecture about why these terms are meaningless in their side of the discussion about any reasonable gun regulation. And they have intentionally made this “word corruption” a reality. Weapons manufacturers have responded to legislative attempts to regulate based on this terminology by blurring the terminology itself through technical modifications and marketing.
Language that no longer communicates becomes counter-productive, and I contend that the media needs to throw these two phrases into the “obsolete usage” trash heap, adopting instead new terminology. In past posts I have advocated the words high-lethality weapons as a potentially viable substitute. Let’s look at the case for a wider use of this categorization in news and opinion about our gun violence problem. The first problem to address is that we try to use “assault weapon” as a binary, “yes/no” term, and that no longer works.
First, weapons exist on a “lethality continuum”
“You know,” my favorite 2A online sparring partner will first say, “you can kill a lot of people with a kitchen knife,” and then he sends me a link to some guy in England who waded into a crowd with such a knife and killed more than one person. There is an obvious difference here between anecdote and statistics. People die every day in this country by gun, but you need to do some deep Google searching to find the alternative cases of multiple murder-by-knife.
As well, people die daily from single-shot 22-caliber pistols, most, sadly, by their own hand. But again, stories of multiple deaths and injuries from such a weapon are the stuff of rare anecdote. The weapon of choice of men (and statistically almost always men, an important factor in this debate) intent on mayhem is a weapon we have been calling a “semi-automatic” or “assault” weapon.
In short, it is easier to kill and injure more people in a shorter amount of time with some types of weapons than others. The “anecdote tellers” with their knife death stories are intentionally obscuring the conversation. Knives are “low-lethality” weapons on any continuum that we can build, with small caliber, single-shot pistols just above them on the scale. AR-15 derivatives, on the other hand, are always high up on the continuum by any measure, and there are lots of firearms arrayed on the continuum in-between the extremes.
Second, the industry knows what “high-lethality” means
It is mathematically easy, I contend, to arrange weapons on a “lethality scale” of how much death and injury they can cause in a specified amount of time. Firearm reviewers are in the business of “compare and contrast,” and whether directly stated or not (usually not), some kind of “implied lethality” is critical to most reviews. There are plenty of examples online comparing variants of the AR-15, for instance, popular among domestic right-wing terrorists, citing several relevant “implied lethality” criteria, including:
- Caliber and variants of ammunition available
- Maximum magazine size available
- Rate of fire
- Group size (the spread of hits at a target, measured in “minutes of angle” and “average to center distance”)
- Muzzle velocity (the velocity of a projectile at the point of leaving the weapon)
- Reload speed
These factors are important considerations and differentiating factors by the manufacturers and buyers themselves. You can be assured that they all have reams of quantifiable data about all of these criteria in their files.
Third, it is possible to create a “lethality index”
All of these factors, and others, could be distilled down into a single number that correlates to how much “damage” a particular model of weapon can do in a defined short amount of time, a quantifiable “lethality index” created from industry specifications, reviews, and history. Single-shot pistols would group in the low end of scale, and various incarnations of what we currently call “semi-automatic” and “assault” weapons would array themselves at the high end.
This quantification could be done either with or without the cooperation of the firearms industry, but if the industry is willing to publicly market around these factors, as they currently do, it would be best to get some kind of standardization and broader consensus on what kind of objective harm they have the potential of causing.
It is clear that the terms “assault” or “semi-automatic” in terms of firearms have become ineffective vocabulary. The courts have repeatedly tried to parse these words to no discernible conclusions and industry opposition is high. We have yet to test, as far as I have been able to determine, the idea of a continuum scale like a “lethality index.” Would the courts be able to acknowledge that there indeed is some point at which “high-lethality” weapons exceed any narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment? If not, then the future promises even more “mass violence hell.”
It is time, then for media editors to start doing a “search and replace” on all submissions that use the terms “semi-automatic” or “assault weapon.” I suggest that the “replace” term ought to be “high-lethality weapon.”
By the way, the term of choice for weapons like the AR-15 in the 2A-radical community is survival weapon. The assumption is that you will need this weapon to protect yourself in the near future:
“This specific gun model can perform several different tasks ranging from self defense (including long range battles and close quarter battles) to hunting.”
To which I have to ask, “Self-defense against whom? Me? Your local police department? The United States Army?
Coming up, an update on my earlier post on the “lottery math” behind reports of gun violence in the United States looking at the concept of stochastic terrorism. To subscribe to this blog, enter your email address in the box to the left of your screen, or click on the Facebook or Twitter icons to receive notifications of this and other upcoming posts.