NYT, Which Uncritically Refers to 'Assault Weapons' All the Time, Explains Why the Term Is Misleading


New York Times reporter Erica Goode deserves credit for digging into the concept of "assault weapons" instead of mindlessly parroting the term without thinking about what it means, as journalists (and politicians) typically do. Last month Goode put the issue in perspective by describing legitimate uses for the guns President Obama wants to ban and noting how rarely they are used to kill people. In a story on the front page of today's Times, she explains why the very term assault weapon is contentious, noting the difference between selective-fire assault rifles carried by soldiers, which can fire continuously, and semiautomatic rifles that resemble them but fire just once per trigger pull. She offers an unusually accurate and fair-minded summary of the controversy:

Advocates of an assault weapons ban argue that the designation should apply to firearms like those used in the Newtown, Conn., shootings and other recent mass killings—semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines and "military" features like pistol grips, flash suppressors and collapsible or folding stocks.

Such firearms, they contend, were designed for the battlefield, where the goal is to rapidly kill as many enemy soldiers as possible, and they have no place in civilian life.

"When the military switched over to this assault weapon, the whole context changed," said Tom Diaz, formerly of the Violence Policy Center, whose book about the militarization of civilian firearms, "The Last Gun," is scheduled for publication in the spring. "The conversation became, 'Is this the kind of gun you want in the civilian world?' And we who advocate for regulation say, 'No, you do not.'"

But Second Amendment groups—and many firearm owners—heatedly object to the use of "assault weapon" to describe guns that they say are routinely used in target shooting and hunting. The term, they argue, should be used only for firearms capable of full automatic fire, like those employed by law enforcement and the military. They prefer the term "tactical rifle"or "modern sporting rifle" for the semiautomatic civilian versions.

They argue that any attempt to ban "assault weapons" is misguided because the guns under discussion differ from many other firearms only in their styling.

"The reality is there's very little difference between any sporting firearm and a so-called assault weapon," said Steven C. Howard, a lawyer and firearms expert in Lansing, Mich.

The piece, headlined "Even Defining 'Assault Rifles' Is Complicated," is reminiscent of an article by B. Drummond Ayres Jr. that the Times published in May 1994, during the debate over the federal ban enacted that year (which expired in 2004). The headline on that story was "In Gun Debate, Gun Definitions Matter." 

Still, Goode could have delved a little deeper. As I noted yesterday, Diaz wants to define assault weapon as any gun that can fire more than 10 rounds without reloading. That capability, unlike military-style features such as flash suppressors, pistol grips, and bayonet mounts, has real functional significance. At the same time, however, Diaz's definition would cover a much wider array of commonly used guns, and it is completely divorced from the original concept of "assault weapons" as civilian versions of military firearms. This slipperiness suggests that assault weapon is really just a synonym for "a gun we'd like to ban."

The anti-gun lobby has long depended on public confusion about exactly what an "assault weapon" is. In a 1995 Reason article, University of Evansville sociologist William R. Tonso quoted a 1988 report on "assault weapons" in which Josh Sugarmann (who later founded the Violence Policy Center, where Diaz used to work) 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." Tonso's article—which was written shortly after Congress enacted the 1994 "assault weapon" ban and is well worth reading in full now that Obama is pushing a new, supposedly improved version of that law—detailed how leading news organizations helped activists like Sugarman sow this politically useful confusion.

Goode's article nevertheless casts doubt on the idea that anti-gun activists and journalists are responsible for the loose use of this label:

The term "assault rifle" was expanded and broadened when gun manufacturers began to sell firearms modeled after the new military rifles to civilians. In 1984, Guns & Ammo advertised a book called "Assault Firearms," which it said was "full of the hottest hardware available today."

"The popularly held idea that the term 'assault weapon' originated with antigun activists, media or politicians is wrong," [Phillip] Peterson [author of the Gun Digest Buyer's Guide to Tactical Rifles] wrote. "The term was first adopted by the manufacturers, wholesalers, importers and dealers in the American firearms industry to stimulate sales of certain firearms that did not have an appearance that was familiar to many firearm owners. The manufacturers and gun writers of the day needed a catchy name to identify this new type of gun."

Yet in the Nexis news database, the first mention of "assault weapons" to mean civilian guns appears in a 1980 New York Times story describing "high-powered semiautomatic military assault weapons." That was four years before the Guns & Ammo ad cited by Goode. The next Nexis mention of "assault weapons" in this context appears in a 1985 San Diego Union Tribune story about a bill introduced by Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) following the 1984 San Ysidro massacre, in which a gunman killed 21 people at a McDonald's restaurant, mainly using a 9-mm semiautomatic Uzi. The paper reported that "Agnos originally sought to ban outright the sale, importation or manufacture of what the bill termed 'assault weapons,'" but that he changed it to require a license for buyers in an effort to attract more votes. Agnos declared that "the only use for assault weapons is to shoot people." Sound familiar?

The NRA has more on the history of the term assault weapon here.

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  1. You know, given the ineffectiveness of the right to bear arms in stopping government expansion, maybe we should amend the amendment to give each person a tactical nuke.

    1. . . . with the stipulation that it may only be used within D.C. city limits.

      1. Yes, that’s fair. It’s really more of a right to petition the government for redress of grievances than the right to bear arms, huh?

        Redress of Grievances should be a band, incidentally.

      2. And state capitals.

        1. I thought that but left it out to protect the innocent. After all, innocent people live in state capitals.

          1. You really think innocent people live in Olympia? Tallahassee? Sacramento?

            1. It might actually be an improvement to Harrisburg.

              Who am I kidding? Nuking it would just take forever and be so over budget that it would bankrupt the bomber.

            2. Yes, I think so. Not a majority, no, and they’re likely already cowering in terror, but I’d hate to nuke them because someone is upset about not getting a bullet train.

              1. Look, ProLib, if video games have taught me anything, those people will mostly become ghouls and supermutants. They’ll be better off. Especially the people in Olympia.

                1. Olympia is quite pretty, except for the politicians.

                  1. I just realized that I had no idea where Olympia is. I figured it was west of the Cascades, but I had to look to be sure. Weird.

                    1. Its in the part of Washington that no one knows about.

                    2. That’s east of the Cascades. Like Spokane, pronounced “Jalopy.”

                  2. Sounds like an argument for the neutron bomb.

            3. If I nuke Franfort, should I aim for the eloi or the morlocks?

          2. Pro Libertate| 1.17.13 @ 2:13PM |#

            After all, innocent people live in state capitals.

            Not in Albany. Not. One. Soul.

      3. Just give everyone their own missile silo and pre-program the missile’s guidance system with D.C. as the target. That way all anyone has to do is push a single button and bye-bye D.C. Fucktards!

      4. I see a line forming now.

  2. An assault weapon is any automatic machine gun with a high-capacity bullet clip, whose only purpose is to kill lots of people at once.

    1. So then the AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon, as its not an automatic machine gun.

      1. So then the AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon, as its not an automatic machine gun.

        But it looks like one, and that’s what matters.

    2. That would leave out the M16 then since it only does three round burst and fires a cartridge designed to wound not kill. A wounded soldier is a lot more of a problem than a dead one.

  3. More people are killed each year by knives and blunt object than rifles. The overwhelming number of gun homicides are committed wtih handguns. If the gun grabber really wanted to be serious about addressing gun crime, they ‘d call for the banning of handguns.

    So why don’t they?

    1. Well, SCOTUS did just slap them down for that twice in a row.

      1. thank you sir, may I have another.

      2. Yes, but SCOTUS doesn’t stop them from bitching up a storm about Citizens United and trying to undermine that.

    2. Because it’s not about “gun crime”, it’s about…wait for it…CONTROL.

      1. Why Epi, are you suggesting that these gun control advocates, who say they most definitely don’t want to take away people’s guns, are really liars trying to gradually acclimate people to government erosion of their rights? Perish the thought!

      2. Epi, did you not get the memo? They’re not into gun control anymore, they’re into gun violence prevention and shit like that. See, they stopped saying it, that means they don’t want to do it anymore.

        1. I only got the memo about…your mom.

          1. Did you suffer some kind of blow to the head or something that made you think that “your mom” shit is funny?

            I mean, nicole may not deserve a more clever response to her post, but there are commenters on this blog who do. Jerk.

            1. Now he’s just going to say, “Like your mom?”

              We need to preempt this shit.

              1. I’ll get the pillowcase, you get the oranges.

              2. Why would I say it when you say it for me?

            2. Be nice to Nicole Epi. We only have three girls who ever post on here, Nicole, Kristen and Dagny.

              Can’t we ever have any nice things?

              1. There are other women who post here. Like FoE and your mom.

                1. Fist is a girl? And my mom is too busy sleeping with your dad to post on here.

                  1. Don’t harass Epi, it’s not his fault that he lost a “to the pain” duel with someone.

                    1. “Dear God what is that thing!”

                  2. Fist is a girl?

                    We’re not really sure if Fist actually has a specific gender.

        2. they’re into gun violence prevention

          Exactly. So if you oppose them then you support gun violence.

    3. My 1911’s clip holds ten rounds. Does it now qualify as an assault weapon?

      1. Yes

        You carry with 1 in the pipe and you’re in violation

  4. My favorite story ever – New York forgot to exempt Law Enforcement from their hastily written law. Now a firearms vendor is delivering their new pistols without magazines in compliance with the law.…..-safe-act/

    1. New York City will be safer with a disarmed NYPD.

    2. Oh, that is more delicious than I could have thought possible. I can’t wait for more stupidity.

    3. That is hilarious, if true.

      1. They can pass a new law just as quickly.

        And then another.

        And another.

        1. Getting things done!

    4. + 7 rounds.

  5. So, per Diaz, my 40 year old Winchester .22 rifle that has the lovely, antiquated tube that hold 13 rounds of .22 LR and can barely take out an angry raccoon is an “assault weapon”.

    OH NOES, ASSAULT .22!!!!!!

    1. Tape a steak knife to the end and you’d have yourself a WMD.

      1. Something like this?

        1. I got a Tediore rocket launcher a few day ago with a melee blade. Stabbing psychos with a rocket launcher is more fun than ever thought it could be.

          1. I am going to use one of my 15 Golden Keys soon; my weapons are pretty awesome but I’m due for new awesome. I’ve gone total Lone Wolf Siren with FULL RETARD SMGs.

          2. Holy shit, that’s awesome. I can only imagine a bladed RPG that turns into a rocket when empty.

            1. It is also corrosive and fires a spread of three rockets. It’s just insane. I’m never going to sell it, just pass it down forever.

              1. Dammit, the only decent gun I’ve got so far is a stupid Jakobs sniper rifle. It does over 20k with a headshot but only has iron sights.

                Maybe I’ll start finding good stuff on the second run through.

                1. Have you redeemed any Golden Keys? That’s where you get the really good shit. I haven’t had a top-notch weapon drop from a kill or chest in ages. Maybe one. All my top weapons were from Golden Keys. Or Moxxi.

                  1. GOD-lith kills guarantee a purple weapon. And it is possible to get a purple and orange out of slot machine.

                    I picked up that rocket launcher out of a chest during Pirate’s Booty.

                    1. I constantly try to get the Goliaths up as high as possible and the most I’ve gotten one to is Ultra Badass (or whatever the hell it is). They keep getting killed or just don’t have enough of their own people to kill. And then I Phaselock them and burn them down in seconds.

                    2. Fink’s Slaughterhouse is a good place for getting Goliaths powered up. Ultra Badass is as high as I’ve ever seen one get there and that was after it killed 9 or 10 other guys.

                    3. Go for Badass Goliaths, the ones with the metal helmets and the miniguns. They start off much tougher. I also help them by knocking down the health of tougher enemies.

                      And they won’t trigger enemies, you have to keep on the move and get the Golith to follow you. The first part of Frostburn Canyon is a good place to do it. There is a Badass either on the cliff overlooking the entrance to that first cave or one in the Bloodshot outpost to the left after leaving the spawn point. Knock his helmet off, wait for him to kill those guys, then lead him into that main canyon.

                  2. I haven’t even found a single golden key yet. Possibly because I’m playing the straight, non-DLC game. I haven’t tried the slots yet but I’ve got a ton of money so maybe I’ll give that a shot.

                    1. You only get keys through shift codes, they are not lootable items.

                    2. You only get keys through shift codes, they are not lootable items.

                      Guess I’ll not look forward to getting one of those then.

                    3. The game producers are constantly putting out SHIFT codes to redeem Golden Keys. You need to like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter to see when they put them out.

                2. From what I’ve read, the best weapon drops in regular play occur when you are fighting enemies of a level higher than you. The best way to do that is in multiplayer.

                  I’ve got a ton of shit stored across a lot of characters because I have someone to co-op with. I’ve killed Teramorphus 5 times, Pyro Pete about 10 times, Hyperius twice and Master Gee twice.

                  (I soloed killed the first two before they nerfed The Bee.)

                  1. From what I’ve read, the best weapon drops in regular play occur when you are fighting enemies of a level higher than you.

                    Maybe that’s what I’m doing wrong. I’ve done every single side quest so far so by the time I get to any particular area I’m a level or two higher than the enemies.

                    1. Has anyone killed Terramorphous yet? My level 50 Assassin has a shitload of level 50 purple/e-weapons that barely scratch him.

                      I’ve resorted to farming for legendary items on TVH mode. The “Bee” is the only high level item that’s dropped for me so far.

    2. I have one of those too. And it has a big scary scope on it. There is nothing scarier than an assault varmint rifle.

      1. Ban the Ruger 10/22!

        1. Those things have a military stock on them. And they can be fitted with a flash suppressor. They are just killing machines designed to kill small children and cute furry animals.

          Why would anyone want or need one of those?

    3. Laugh it up. Joe Pelleteri lost his guns, his livelihood, and did time in NJ for owning a .22 Marlin 60.


      1. When dealing with guns, the citizen acts at his peril. In short, we view the statute as a regulatory measure in the interests of the public safety, premised on the thesis that one would hardly be surprised to learn that possession of such a highly dangerous offensive weapon is proscribed absent the requisite license.

        If I am not mistaken New Jersey elects its supreme court justices. If that is true, those assholes deserve everything they get.

        1. You are mistaken. They are nominated by the Governor and approved by the State Senate for a 7-year term. It was a big deal a couple of years ago when Christie refused to re-nominate an absolutely incompetent hack judge for another term (as had been the tradition).

        2. they’re appointed. in any case, this case is (yet another) good counterpoint to the David Gregory scandal. a guy that clearly had no criminal intent is sent to jail for mere possession.

          1. Unlike Gregory, he didn’t knowingly break the law.

    4. Actually no, it is not. A rifle that holds rimfire cartridges in a tube is specifically exempted from being classified as an assault weapon. Look it up.

      1. Exempted where?

        1. .22 cal rimfire rifles with fixed tubular magazines are exempted from the legal definition of an assault rifle. Google it.

          1. But apparently not exempted from the New Jersey law against large magazines.

            1. It must vary from state to state.

  6. Words – How do they fucking work?

  7. Although the NY Times is typically dumb in captioning a photo of a magazine cover “The July 1981 issue of Guns & Ammo. It was the gun industry that adopted the term “assault weapon,” an author noted.” when the magazine cover clearly says “Assault RIFLES”.

    1. The porn industry made the same mistake, by calling what they do Porn.

  8. Two fake Brady Campaign ads that are making the rounds. Probably not too far from the truth, though:



    1. The rape ones are fucking awesome. And they are not dishonest. Isn’t that pretty much the implication of banning gun ownership?

      1. Remember that liberals equate lethal self defense with vigilante justice.

        So they would rather the woman submit to being raped and then call the police than to use lethal self defense, because that is taking the law into her own hands.

        Good luck getting them to admit it though. Liberals aren’t known for being honest.

        1. Remember that liberals equate lethal self defense with vigilante justice.


  9. assault weapon is really just a synonym for “a gun we’d like to ban.”

    I’m actually kind of surprised they haven’t added semi-automatic handguns to the list of so called “assault weapons”. You know a lot proggies would jizz all over themselves at the prospect of banning handguns. Perhaps they’re smart enough to realize that banning handguns of any type is still a political loser, so they’ll start with “high capacity” magazines, and of course any gun that can accept a “high capacity” clip; i.e. it will be illegal to buy a Glock 17 even if you only buy 9 round mags. They’ll come back for the rest of the handguns after it becomes clear that they still haven’t made a dent in the body count.

    1. The funny thing is that their battle is already lost no matter what. Utterly, completely lost. There are 300 million guns out there in the US alone. They’re already out there. Game over. Any attempt to collect them will cause rebellion, and attempts to ban them will just drive a massive black market, total disobedience, and also possible rebellion.

      It’s done, bitches. Anything they do at this point is just, as always, attempts at CONTROL.

      1. They look at that as a feature instead of a bug. The smart ones anyway, know any gun law will be ignored. But they love that. That means they get to make a whole shit load of their political enemies into criminals and will now have a legal justification to throw them in jail.

        Oh it is not game over at all. It is only game over if you think they give a shit about actually controlling guns or gun violence. If the object is to criminalize your political opposition, it is game on.

        1. Just like health care. Everything they do is just steps towards single payer. Every problem is blamed on anything but the legislation that caused it. More is always the answer.
          When gun control fails to stop the next shooting, more control will be the answer, with the end game being total confiscation.

          Incrementalist have infinite patience.

          1. It is funny how they always “want to compromise” but they never want to give up anything themselves. They want to compromise, fine. I will agree to a ban on high capacity magazines and even scary “assault weapons” in return for a complete repeal of Obamacare. They get what they want on gun control and I get what I want on Obamacare.

            You mean they wouldn’t want to do that? What, do they hate children?

            1. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit . . .

              When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels?and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
              -Ayn Rand

    2. They’ll come back for the rest of the handguns after it becomes clear that they still haven’t made a dent in the body count.

      Exactly. They are only banning what they thing they can hoping to come back later after the next high profile shooting to go for more. These people and their proposals should be treated with nothing but disdain and derision. And people like Nick Gillespie and those clowns at the CATO institute who should know better but are running around saying that a “reasonable measure” like banning high capacity magazines would be okay need the stupid slapped out of them.

      1. I was really surprised at Cato’s position on this. They need to move out of the Beltway before they lose it.

  10. Assault Rifles are like Porn. I may not be able to define them, but I know them when I see them.

  11. Let’s stop this stupid buy-in to the term “assault” weapon. There are millions in private hands right now. How many of those have been used in crimes? How many are being held until the owner can plan his “assault?” No, these are MOB DEFENSE WEAPONS, a term not only more descriptive of the use to which they (hopefully) never need be put, but more acceptable to those citizens who may not fear their
    governments but likely fear scary bogeymen on motorcycles or hopped up on drugs.

  12. The term “assault rifle” was expanded and broadened when gun manufacturers began to sell firearms modeled after the new military rifles to civilians. In 1984 […]”

    Someone should point out to them that the Ruger Mini-14, explicitly modeled after the M-14 rifle, debuted in 1974.

    And that Colt was selling AR-15s (the R6000 sporter) starting in 1964, and there were plenty of semi-auto AR-10s going around in the late 60s and 70s, too.

    Not to mention you could get a semi-auto FAL or G3 for ages, if you were willing to pay non-surplus prices…

    In other words, manufacturers “began” to sell such rifles to civilians instantly, not starting in the 80s.

    1. Last I looked pretty much every bolt action rifle sold is modeled on the Mauser, which is and was a military rifle.

      1. The Enfield .50 caliber cap-and-ball rifle was also a military rifle, and liberals would love to relegate us to only those.

  13. Of course, even in an otherwise-reasonably-good article, the NYT can’t help slipping in a heapin’ helpin’ of stupid:

    Those could include features like a pistol grip, designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and perhaps concealed; a flash suppressor, which keeps the gun’s user from being blinded by muzzle flashes; a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil; and a threaded barrel, which can accept a silencer or a suppressor. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are also sometimes included.

    “Designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip.” Um, no, wrong. “Allows the weapon to be… perhaps concealed.” Um, no, wrong – it’s still a fucking rifle. “Which can accept a silencer.” No such thing.

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