••• The International Writers Magazine: Guns & Ammo
Understanding Mass Shooting Terminology
Before writing your congressional representative to pass a law, make sure you are asking for the right things.
A lot of people of people were understandably horrified by the Orlando shooting, the most recent in a run of 130 mass shootings in the US over the last decade. I see emotional posts on Facebook calling for a ban on machine guns and fully automatic weapons, and while I understand the motivation, these laws already exist. Neither machine guns nor fully automatic weapons have been used in many, if any mass shooting incidents (I couldn’t find a single documented case in the last ten years). People are crying for laws preventing convicted felons and people under the age of 18 from buying guns. But these laws also are already on the books.
As Americans, if we are unhappy with a trend in our society, we have the right to contact our congressional representative and ask for a change in the law. But to do this, we need to first understand both the vocabulary and the existing laws.
As a university teacher, I tell my students, “If you wish to build a case for or against anything, your facts have to be correct. And you begin by defining terms, so you don’t look like a mook.”
1. Fully Automatic. Fully automatic weapons are true military weapons. As long as you depress the trigger, bullets continuously fire from the weapon. These guns are generally not available to the public. They require a 'class three' federal firearms license which is very difficult to get and neither this license nor fully-automatic or military weapons have played a part in many of the mass shooting incidents. (General news stories often use the words “military” or “assault” when describing weapons in shooting incidents, but this just proves the press also got it wrong. Use a dictionary and verify for yourself the terminology used in the media.)
2. Assault rifle. Technically, an assault rifle is a military rifle, such as an M-16, which has a selector switch which allows you to switch from semi-automatic to fully automatic fire. The rules are the same as above. They require a 'class three' federal firearms license, and these weapons have not been used in most of the mass shootings in the US.
3. Semi-automatic. A semi-automatic weapon is one where each time you pull the trigger a single round comes out. This includes nearly every make and style of weapon sold with the exception of bolt-action and pump long guns and some revolver pistols. These are the most common weapons available to the public. And these are the weapons used in most of these mass shootings. I have seen numerous stories, however, where the press referred to pump action weapons (usually shotguns) as semi-automatic, although they aren’t.
4. Assault style or military style weapons. Many of the news reports have claimed that the shooters were using assault rifles which was a misnomer because the weapons were not fully automatic. The correct term would be military-style or assault-style which ONLY refers to the general appearance of the weapon and has no influence on how or how quickly the weapon fires. The fact that a gun was assault style or military style is mute point in terms of legality or firepower. Lots of guns are sold in multiple versions, or conversion kits can be purchased separately, which alter the appearance of the weapons to make them look like military style weapons.
5. AR-15. The real AR-15 is very similar to the M-16 and was the military weapon of choice from the early 1960’s till the 1990’s. The real one is an assault rifle with a selector switch which allowed for fully-automatic fire. The ones being used in these mass shootings are generally not military AR-15s. They only look like an AR-15 but they fire the same as any other rifle.
6. Conversion kits. Conversion kits to convert the appearance of a weapon, to make it look like a military weapon, are generally legal and can be purchased in gun stores. HOWEVER conversion kits to alter the way a weapon fires, to make it fire fully automatic, for example, are illegal and are not sold in gun stores. There are lots of sites on line that will teach you how to convert your firearm, but it is illegal to do so or to be in possession of a weapon which has been converted. And again, fully automatic weapons have not played a role in most of the mass shooting incidents.
7. Caliber – The US uses a caliber system to measure the diameter of bullets. The rest of the world uses millimeters. Generally, the smallest diameter bullet in US is a .22. And when you are a kid, this is usually the first rifle your father buys you so you can learn to handle a gun. Another round, called a .223 is essentially the same diameter, but a much longer bullet, and this is a common round for sport shooting and hunting. It happens to be the same size as the bullet used by the US military M-16 which is .223 or 5.56 Millimeters. If the report claims the shooter used military-style ammunition, this means NOTHING. This size round is sold everywhere and I am not sure what unique quality one would believe the military version would possess.
8. Gun laws. In the US, the fed sets some of the broader laws, but gun licensing and sales are regulated usually at the state or even city level. New York City, for example, has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, while New York state would be more liberal, but is still dramatically stricter than Tennessee. In most states, for long guns, including rifles and shotguns, you may not need anything more than a driver’s license and to be over the age of 18. For pistols, however, you normally need to be over 21 and have a gun license or permit and register the purchase. There are waiting periods for pistols but I am not sure if they are the same in every state.
9. Gun shows and used weapons. This is the one area of law where I think our granola-eating cousins in Europe have a point. The rules governing the sale of used guns and guns at gun shows are so lax they are laughable. In many states, long guns can be sold in private transactions with very little or no paper work. In some state used weapons can be sold with a fraction of the paperwork required for new weapons. This is one area of law that really needs to be addressed.
10. High Capacity magazine. A unified definition of high capacity magazine doesn’t quite exist but most laws and potential laws banning high capacity magazines define them as magazines which hold more than 10 or more than 15 rounds. In the recent shooting in Orlando I suspect the shooter had magazines which held 30 rounds which is what an extended M-16 magazine holds. By banning high capacity magazines the government could inconvenience the shooters, forcing them to change magazines more frequently. I suspect this wouldn’t save many lives.
11. Tightening the gun laws. I am not against tightening the gun laws if that will help end these mass shootings, but I don’t know if that will help. In any of the mass shootings where the shooter was under 21 and used a pistol, the gun laws are already there and 100% ban people under the age of 21 from possessing a pistol. And yet the shooting happened. A 100% is about as far as you can go. So, I don’t know what more you could do in that instance. In the Orlando shooting the weapons were purchased legally. Had the background check been stricter or waiting period been longer, it would have made no difference. He would have passed.
12. Convicted felons, gang bangers, and people on terrorism watch lists: Convicted felons are not allowed to purchase or possess weapons, especially guns. Under US laws, citizens generally have freedom of association, and are allowed to join most organizations. If they commit a crime, acting on behalf of the organization or on their own, they can be arrested, tried and convicted. But being a member of a gang, with a clean criminal record, would not prevent you from buying a long gun, a shotgun or rifle, in most states. In the US, you are innocent until proven guilty. And being a terrorism watch list is more like an accusation than a conviction. So, in theory, someone on a terrorism watch list could buy a gun.
13. Guns online and through catalogues. For all practical purposes and intents, private citizens cannot be purchased online or through catalogues because they have to be shipped to a registered gun dealer. So, when I was growing up, if there was a gun that you wanted from a catalogue, you took the catalogue to your local dealer who did the necessary paperwork and purchased the gun, then sold it to you.
About the Author
Dr. Antonio Graceffo is a lecturer at Shanghai University. He holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport, where he wrote and defended his dissertation, in Chinese. He received his China MBA, from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and is currently writing a series of economic research papers about the Chinese economy.