What the media gets wrong about guns

The shooting at Sandy Hook has brought gun policy to the forefront of our national conversation. President Obama has pledged to act aggressively on the issue, having laid out a comprehensive plan, including new weapons regulations as well as law enforcement and public awareness programs, in the hope of reducing gun violence. This will be a marquee issue in Washington and throughout the country over the next several months, and media coverage will only intensify.

With that said, too few journalists have a solid understanding of guns and gun violence. Here are three major things the media gets wrong.

1. Semi-automatic rifles are not battlefield weapons or machine guns.

Failing to understand the difference between semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons is probably the most common and most amateur mistake journalists have made when reporting on guns.

CNN’s Piers Morgan has been one of the most vocal media personalities advocating for more gun control, and has not let his apparent trouble with grasping this distinction get in the way of his crusade.

The following is from Piers’ July 23, 2012 broadcast (shortly after the Aurora shooting), in which gun rights advocate and author John Lott, Jr. explained what a semi-automatic rifle is:

LOTT: OK. You said a civilian version of the gun. OK. Basically what that means is it’s the same as any other hunting rifle or any other rifle in terms of inside guts. One trigger, one bullet goes out. It’s not the same weapon that militaries would go and use.

MORGAN: How did he fire off so many rounds then?

LOTT: Because he pulled the trigger many times.

The excerpt below is from Piers this month, talking to Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson, still confused about the capability of a semi-automatic civilian model AR-15 rifle:

MORGAN: Right. Because AR-15 with 100 bullets in a minute and somebody like the shooter in Aurora, Holmes, used a magazine with 100 bullets and an AR-15, they are effectively machine guns. Are they? I mean —

JOHNSON: No, they are not.

The difference between semi-automatic and fully automatic is one of those things best explained visually, and this video does a great job of it (in under two minutes). I’d recommend it for anyone covering gun policy who is still unclear as to the distinction between the two.

As a semi-automatic rifle such as the civilian AR-15 and its derivatives can only fire one round per trigger pull, Morgan’s “100 bullets in a minute” math doesn’t seem to be physically feasible, even with a rare 100-round drum that would require no pauses to swap magazines. (Magazines holding 30 rounds are the most common among AR-15 owners, although in California capacity is restricted to 10.)

Fully automatic weapons like machine guns, which actually can fire 100 rounds per minute, have been (with extremely rare and complicated exception) illegal for civilians to own since the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934.

2. Assault weapon bans target guns based on appearance, and not on any higher destructive potential or disproportionate influence on gun violence.

Because, as pointed out above, semi-automatic military-style rifles are functionally the same as semi-automatic hunting-style rifles, assault weapons legislation restricts guns based on their outfits and not on their outputs. To wit, the following language in the California Penal Code was part of its currently active Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989:

(a)Notwithstanding Section 12276, “assault weapon” shall also mean any of the following:

(1)A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and any one of the following:

(A)A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.

(B)A thumbhole stock.

(C)A folding or telescoping stock.

(D)A grenade launcher or flare launcher.

(E)A flash suppressor.

(F)A forward pistol grip.

The only one of these features that actually impacts the destructive capability of the weapon is the grenade launcher, but explosive grenades have been banned since the same law restricting machine guns went into effect almost 80 years ago. Everything else is essentially cosmetic.

The expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which President Obama would like to see reinstated in an updated form, had largely the same classifications. New York’s recently passed gun bill, which goes the furthest of any state with a seven-round magazine limit, also bans any semi-automatic pistol or rifle with a “military-style feature.” This is all a ban on assault weapons is — a glorified dress code.

Vice President Biden, who is heading the president’s task force on guns, acknowledges most shooting deaths are tied to handguns, but even among spree shooters, assault rifles have hardly been a uniquely dangerous presence. The deadliest school shooting in American history, Virginia Tech, was committed with handguns. The D.C. sniper used a bolt-action hunting rifle.

3. States with higher rates of gun ownership do tend to have higher rates of gun violence, but it’s important not to confuse this correlation with causation.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein pointed out the South’s relatively high murder rate in a piece published shortly after Sandy Hook. The South is also the region where gun ownership is most widespread.

Klein cited work from Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy in making that point, and provided a link to more of Healy’s charts, including this one comparing historical rates of assault death across states.

Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas have high rates of gun ownership and high rates of gun violence. However, drawing a connection between hunters in the Ozarks and gang crime in Little Rock is tenuous at best. Alabama has a lot of guns because it has hunters and a long history of gun culture. This is not necessarily why it has a lot of gun violence.

Richard Florida of The Atlantic dug deep into data two years ago and found a strong correlation between poverty and homicide rate when comparing states. I found the same when comparing countries last year. Florida’s analysis did reveal a somewhat weaker negative correlation between an assault weapons ban and gun crime, but as only four states — all of which skew wealthy — have such bans, only so much should be read into that data point.

Utah and Minnesota have high rates of gun ownership but among the lowest homicide rates in the country. Illinois is 44th in gun ownership and 10th in assault deaths, with its main city of Chicago notorious for its high murder rate. In these exceptions to the general trend, poverty and the relative strength of social institutions seem to be more of a predictor of gun violence than gun ownership.

A surface-level understanding of gun culture and data without context do not combine to make a strong argument. Any journalist seeking to properly cover this complicated issue would be wise to follow a version of the Fourth Law of Gun Safety: keep your finger off the trigger until you know what it is you’re targeting.

About Matt Pressberg