In a September 1988 report on "assault weapons" that he prepared for the Education Fund to End Handgun Violence, gun control advocate Josh Sugarmann candidly observed: "The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these guns."
So back in 1988, one of the nation's leading gun prohibitionists was banking on public support for restrictions on "semi-automatic assault weapons," not because Americans were informed about the guns in question, but because they were uninformed and likely to remain so. Sugarmann, now executive director of the Violence Policy Center, could rely on the public's continuing confusion because he knew he would have the help of the nation's leading news organizations. During the next few years the major TV networks, newspapers, and magazines persistently misled the public about the capabilities of "assault weapons," falsely implied that the guns have no legitimate use, and ignored the Second Amendment issues at stake. Given the intensity of this misinformation, it is hardly surprising that polls find some 70 percent of Americans support the "assault weapon" ban approved by Congress last year.
Many members of the current Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, favor repealing the ban, although that effort was put on hold in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. In reporting on the continuing controversy, the national press routinely cites strong public support for the ban. The lead of an April 6 story in The New York Times is typical: "A group of House Republicans plans to introduce legislation on Thursday to repeal last year's ban on assault weapons, even as national polls continue to show that a majority of Americans favor it." Having whipped up hysteria about "assault weapons," journalists now point to the results of their alarmist reporting as evi dence that they were right all along. Although big journalism's misleading coverage of this issue can be partly explained by a combination of ignorance and arrogance, it seems clear that hostility toward the right to keep and bear arms has played an important role.
From the beginning, stories about "assault weapons" blurred the distinction between semi-automatics and machine guns. Machine guns are automatics: They fire as long as the trigger is held back. The possession of such firearms has been strictly regulated by the federal government since 1934. They have long been banned in some states, and no new automatics have legally entered civilian circulation in the United States since 1986. But semi-automatics, regardless of how much some of them may look like machine guns, fire one shot per trigger pull. Civilians have commonly used them for recreation and self-defense since the turn of the century
True assault rifles were developed by the Germans during World War II and adopted by the major post-war powers. Such rifles combine the spray-fire capabilities of the less-powerful submachine guns and the one-shot-per-trigger-pull, aimed-fire capabilities of more-powerful battle rifles. Assault rifles are less powerful than traditional military rifles, which fire cartridges long used for hunting and target shooting. The assault rifles' smaller cartridges are easier for soldiers to carry in large numbers, and they reduce recoil, so the guns can be controlled during automatic fire.
Domestic and foreign manufacturers offer semi-automatic-only variations of assault rifles, submachine guns, and other automatic firearms for civilian sale in the United States. Although the label is quite elastic, it is for the most part these high-tech-looking guns that Sugarmann and other gun prohibitionists call "semi-automatic assault weapons." But the hallmark of an assault rifle is a switch that allows the gun to be fired automatically or semi-automatically. A gun that fires only semi-automatically is not an "assault" anything, no matter what people like Sugarmann claim.
So why the confusion? It may be due partly to a misunderstanding of common usage. Until the "assault weapon" hysteria, gun users and gun manufacturers often referred to ordinary civilian semi -automatic shotguns, rifles, and pistols as "automatics." This practice has never confused knowledge able gun people, but it may have led uninformed journalists astray.
The level of ignorance about basic gun facts among reporters should not be underestimated. Consider a July 10 article from the Associated Press that appeared in the Chicago Tribune under the headline, "Use of Assault Guns Rising Among Youth, U.S. Says." The story describes a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the use of guns in crime and notes that "the report comes while the Republican-controlled Congress is considering legislation to eliminate the 1994 federal ban on 19 assault weapons." Yet despite the headline and the reference to the ban, the findings cited in the story say nothing about the use of "assault weapons." Rather, they indicate "a growing trend toward use of semiautomatic pistols," a category that includes all handguns except revolvers and one- or two-shot weapons.
Still, ignorance alone cannot explain big journalism's treatment of the "assault weapon" issue during the past decade. Newsweek helped launch the "assault weapon" scare three years before Sugarmann's report with a 1985 cover story titled, "Machine Gun USA." While the article acknowl edged the difference between semi-automatics and machine guns, it implied that the former could be converted into the latter so easily that the difference was of little significance. The story was accompanied by illustrations of several semi-automatic versions of automatic weapons, with captions that cited the much higher firing rates of the automatics.
But big journalism's misinformation campaign against "assault weapons" did not hit its stride until after the 1989 Stockton, California, schoolyard shooting, perpetrated by an emotionally disturbed man armed with a semi-automatic version of the Soviet AK-47 assault rifle. The coverage of this and subsequent "assault weapon" developments regularly confused semi-automatics with machine guns.
Coverage by NBC and, to a slighter degree, CNN has been consistently egregious. Since the Stockton attack, these two networks have often shown their viewers demonstrations of machine guns spewing out bullets at an impressive rate during discussions of one-shot-per-trigger-pull semi-automatics. On several occasions, NBC carried this deception a step further. Over footage of a machine-gun demonstration, a gun control advocate would explain that the semi-automatics targeted by "assault weapon" legislation have no hunting or other sporting uses. The network thereby created the impression that the gun being demonstrated was the type that would be affected by the ban (which it wasn't), that opponents of the ban wanted to hunt with machine guns (which they didn't), and that sport is the only legitimate reason for which Americans need guns (which it isn't).
I have shown these juxtapositions of machine-gun demonstrations with semi-automatic commentaries, which last just a few seconds, to introductory sociology classes. Out of about 250 students, only 18 recognized that the gun being demonstrated was not a semi-automatic. So how much of that 70 percent public support for a ban on "assault weapons" is actually support for a ban on machine guns, which are already severely restricted?
Last year I called NBC to complain about its latest use of machine-gun footage in a story on semi-automatics. The gentleman who answered that call excused the juxtaposition as a mistake; he hung up when I pointed out that NBC had been making that same mistake for five years. When I called back to get his name, he hung up again. The next day I spoke with David McCormick, NBC's man in charge of broadcast standards, who acknowledged that the network had received complaints about the "assault weapon" stories before and had tried to correct the problem. But he said it was hard to prevent rushed producers from grabbing whatever footage was handy when the topic of "assault weapons" came up. He was quite pleasant, even after I said that sloppiness seemed a lame excuse for the misleading juxtapositions NBC had aired for five years. After all, heads rolled at NBC over a single assisted explosion of a GM truck, but the network has yet to even acknowledge repeatedly misleading the public about "assault weapons." Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, reports that NBC even aired one of these juxtapositions shortly after he spent several hours demonstrating the difference between semi-automatics and machine guns to an NBC crew.
Unlike NBC and CNN, CBS acknowledged the difference between machine guns and semi-automatics early on, during its March 16, 1989, special live edition of 48 Hours. Like Newsweek's 1985 cover story, however, 48 Hours made light of the distinction. Semi-automatics can be fired fast enough and with better control than machine guns, noted reporter David Martin as he fired a true assault rifle in the semi-automatic mode after firing it in the fully automatic position. He did not demonstrate (or even mention) more conventional-looking semi-automatic sporting guns that can be fired just as fast as the high-tech-looking semi-automatics and have been widely used by civilians for close to 100 years. Martin also made much of the firepower of guns equipped with large-capacity magazines. He did not mention that magazines can be changed so quickly that three 10-round magazines can produce nearly the same firepower as one 30-round magazine.
Martin also emphasized that a semi-automatic can be converted into a machine gun. But so can almost any other gun. Way back in 1889, for instance, gun designer John Browning converted a lever-action rifle into a machine gun. During World War II, the Australians converted many bolt-action rifles into machine guns. For decades the Pathans of Hindu-Kush have produced automatic weapons from scratch in shops far less sophisticated than those that can be found in countless basements and garages across the United States. Any competent machinist who knows guns can do these things. But the gun prohibitionists claim "semi-automatic assault weapons" can be converted into machine guns more easily than other guns. It's not clear whether that's true, especially since the definition of this category is fuzzy. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, weapons that can be readily converted into machine guns are already regulated as machine guns. In any case, it is certainly illegal to carry out such a conversion. Furthermore, ease of conversion to a restricted configuration could justify banning all rifles and shotguns on the ground that they can be easily converted into sawed-off weapons.