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.