'Assault Weapons' vs. 'So-Called Modern Sporting Rifles': A New York Times Lexicon


As I mentioned last week, The New York Times is using the Sandy Hook massacre as a pretext to flog just about every proposal on the wish list of gun control supporters, even when the ideas plainly have nothing to do with Adam Lanza's crimes. The lead story in today's paper, for instance, implicitly advocates a comprehensive national database showing who owns what guns (or owns them legally, at least). In Adam Lanza's case, such a database would have shown that his mother owned several firearms, a fact that in itself was hardly a red flag indicating that her son would one day murder 27 people (including his mother). And since Lanza, who killed himself after shooting all of those people, was immediately identified as the attacker, a national gun registry clearly was not necessary to solve the case. The Times nevertheless claims that making it easier for federal officials to trace guns "has gained renewed urgency with the school massacre in Newtown, Conn." 

Despite all the thinly veiled policy pushing, the Times is making an effort to include the perspective of people who think new gun control measures make no more sense today than they did on December 13. In today's article, Erica Goode and Sheryl Gay Stolberg mention the fear that registration could lead to confiscation (something that actually has happened in various jurisdictions, as J.D. Tuccille noted in his recent piece about defiance of gun regulations), although they end with a quote that dismisses such concerns as a paranoid fantasy. More notable are the pieces that focus on the views of gun owners who do not understand the urge to ban "assault weapons" in response to the mass shooting in Newtown (especially since the rifle Lanza used did not qualify as an "assault weapon" under Connecticut's law, which is similar to the federal ban that expired in 2004). In a December 16 story, Goode put the issue in perspective by describing legitimate uses for such guns and noting how rarely they are used to kill people. A December 19 story by Trip Gabriel began this way: "Anyone seeking to limit the sale of assault weapons must reckon with the fact that millions of Americans own guns that might be classified as one, and for many it is no more exotic than, say, a motorcycle or sports car, from which they derive a similar satisfaction."

But terminology is important, and the casual use of assault weapon puts a thumb on the scale in favor of prohibition by implying that the phrase, which was invented by the anti-gun lobby, describes an objectively defined class of especially dangerous guns, as opposed to an arbitrary category of firearms whose looks offend activists and legislators. Notice how Gabriel implicitly acknowledges the latter reality even while using a term designed to confuse and scare people. The Times, which editorially has always supported bans based on this fraud, also has a history of uncritically referring to "assault weapons" in its news coverage. In a December 21 story about a surge in gun purchases that seems to be driven by fear of new restrictions, Stephanie Clifford highlights this bias by using the phrase "so-called modern sporting rifles" while mistakenly describing semiautomatiuc military-style guns sold to civilians as "assault rifles," which are guns carried by soldiers that can fire automatically. The implication is that the term used by gun manufacturers to describe their own products is suspect, while the term used by people who want to ban those products (or, as in this case, a garbled and plainly inaccurate version of that term) can be treated as a neutral descriptor.

Has the Times ever referred to "so-called assault weapons" in its news stories? The only example I could find appeared in an article by B. Drummond Ayres Jr. that was published in May 1994, during the debate over the federal ban that was enacted that year:

"These are guns that were fashioned for no other purpose than to kill," said Representative Charles E. Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat who is the chief sponsor of the House bill. "They were designed not for hunting or plinking, but so that the average draftee with no real gun expertise could spray a lot of lead around in combat. The civilian versions are essentially the same as the military versions."

The bill's opponents counter that so-called assault weapons, while they may look more lethal, are in fact no more lethal than guns designed for hunting and target shooting. They contend that many other guns among the 200 million in the nation have the same capacity to kill and that in the end, the only way to stop gun deaths is to control criminals.

All the other mentions of "so-called assault weapons" that I found in a search of the paper's website appeared in quotations or letters to the editor from critics of the ban (including John McCain). The headline on Ayres' article: "In Gun Debate, Gun Definitions Matter." They still do.