White HouseWhite HouseYesterday I noted that President Obama continues to conflate so-called assault weapons—i.e., semi-automatic guns defined by functionally unimportant, military-style features that offend politicians—with the rifles carried by soldiers, which can fire automatically. In Denver on Wednesday, Obama described the guns he wants to ban as "weapons of war" and inaccurately identified one of the firearms used in last year's massacre at a movie theater in nearby Aurora as an "assault rifle," which is a selective-fire weapon that can fire automatically (continuously) as well as semi-automatically (once per trigger pull). Obama was at it again last night, claiming in a San Francisco speech that the rifle Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December was "a fully automatic weapon." This was no slip of the tongue; Obama initially called the rifle "a semi-automatic weapon," then immediately "corrected" himself:

I just came from Denver, where the issue of gun violence is something that has haunted families for way too long, and it is possible for us to create common-sense gun safety measures that respect the traditions of gun ownership in this country and hunters and sportsmen, but also make sure that we don’t have another 20 children in a classroom gunned down by a semiautomatic weapon—by a fully automatic weapon in that case, sadly.

Fully automatic weapons, a.k.a. machine guns, are strictly regulated under federal law, and it will come as news to anyone following this case that one was used at Sandy Hook. Police have identified Lanza's gun as an M4-style carbine made by Bushmaster, specifically the Bushmaster XM15-E2S. Bushmaster explains that designation this way (emphasis added): "XM for Experimental Model, 15 for semi-automatic and E2S is second generation receivers with added reinforcing." Not only is this gun not "a fully automatic weapon"; it did not even qualify as an "assault weapon" under Connecticut law (or under the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004, which used similar criteria). We know that because police say Lanza's mother purchased it legally in Connecticut. (Bushmaster has a whole line of "state-compliant" rifles.) When the Connecticut General Assembly expanded the state's "assault weapon" ban this week, it added Bushmaster XM15 rifles to its list of guns that are prohibited by name. The new, broader "assault weapon" ban introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and endorsed by the president likewise specifically prohibits the manufacture or sale of Bushmaster XM15 rifles. 

Is it too much to expect the president to know which guns he is trying to ban? Does Obama actually think that machine guns are readily available to civilians, that they are legal in Connecticut, and that Lanza's mother bought one there for her collection? After more than two decades of debate about "assault weapon" bans, does he honestly not understand the difference between those arbitrarily prohibited firearms and machine guns? Or, since the misconception that "assault weapons" fire more rapidly than other semi-automatic firearms seems to be one the main reasons people think it makes sense to ban them, is Obama deliberately misleading the public? Is it appalling ignorance or calculated deception? The clues suggest the former, but I'm not sure which is worse.

[Thanks to Robert Woolley for the tip.]