Sandy Hook School Shooting

How Should We Classify the Sandy Hook Killings?

The social construction of a mass shooting epidemic


The killings of 20 first-grade students and six adult staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, obviously constitutes a terrible, newsworthy event. But the news coverage did more than report the details of what happened at Newtown. It also sought to classify this incident as an instance of a larger problem. The initial news reports described what had happened as "the second deadliest school shooting," "another mass shooting," and a "mass killing" (all in stories in the next day's New York Times) and as "the second deadliest shooting event in U.S. history" (The Washington Post). The Post's website ranked the 12 "Deadliest U.S. shootings" (the earliest case on their list occurred in 1949), while the Mother Jones website added Newtown to its page "A Guide to Mass Shootings in America" (which included only cases from 1982 to 2012).

It may seem self-evident that the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary ought to be classified as a shooting event, or as a school shooting or a mass shooting. Of course we classify events into categories that make sense to us, and it is easy to take familiar categories for granted. We learn of terrible crimes and we are accustomed to commentators talking about incidents as instances. But the ways we make sense of the world—the terms we use to describe that world—are created by people, and they are continually evolving, so that specific categories come into and fall out of favor. In fact, in recent decades, Americans have understood events like the Newtown killings in a variety of ways.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 32 others by shooting from a 28th floor observation deck on the University of Texas campus in Austin. (In addition, before coming to the campus, he killed his wife and mother.) Whitman had been an Eagle Scout and a Marine; commentators at the time puzzled that an apparently respectable young man had committed such a terrible crime. The Whitman shootings occurred less than three weeks after Richard Speck had murdered eight student nurses by stabbing or strangling them. Reporters linked the two cases, and also mentioned other killers, such as Charles Starkweather and the "Son of Sam," in articles about mass slayings, mass killings, or multiple killings.

In the 1960s and 1970s, then, it was understood that the key feature of these cases was a high body count. These early discussions of mass murder lumped together cases that varied along what would come to be seen as important dimensions:

Time: Did the killings occur more or less simultaneously, or did they extend over several days, months, or years?

Place: Did the killings occur in a single location, or in a variety of places?

Method: How were the victims killed?

By the early 1980s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation promoted the distinction between mass murder and serial murder. The Bureau had a new databank—the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or VICAP—that could help law enforcement identify similar crimes that had occurred in other jurisdictions. But in the aftermath of revelations about the FBI's surveillance of the civil rights movement, an effort to expand the bureau's domestic data collection invited suspicion and resistance. The FBI used the serial murderer menace—and particularly the idea that serial killers might be nomadic, able to kill in different jurisdictions without the authorities ever recognizing that crimes in different places might be linked—to justify the VICAP program. That set the stage for Clarice Starling and all the other heroic FBI agents who began pitting their wits against serial murderers in crime fiction and movies. "Son of Sam" would no longer be classified with Charles Whitman.

Charles Starkweather, who killed several people during a 1958 crime spree was also moved into a separate category. The bureau developed the concept of spree murders, a series of killings in different places over a period of time, often occurring as a fugitive tries to stay ahead of the law. Mass murder was now understood to involve, not just several victims, but killings that occurred in more or less the same place, at more or less the same time.

But how many victims are needed to make a mass murder? Obviously, whatever line is drawn will be arbitrary. Some analysts have argued for including any incident with three or more homicides; most favor four or more as the standard. The lower the minimum number of victims, the more incidents will be counted as mass murders. Setting the bar at 33 would exclude all of the killings on The Washington Post's list of American incidents (which presents the 32 murders at Virginia Tech as the deadliest U.S. shooting), although other events, such as the 77 killings by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011, would still count.

Journalists notice patterns, so similarities between cases invite the creation of new categories. For example, in 1986, a postal worker killed 14 postal employees; then, in 1991, there were two more incidents involving former postal workers killing employees at post offices. This led to the expression going postal. Eventually, after further incidents in 1993, the Postal Service responded with a program to improve their workplace and prevent violence. Some criminologists began writing about workplace violence, although this category was defined as including any violence in a workplace, not just mass murders. Under that definition, a large share of workplace violence involved robberies. (According to one analysis, the three most common sites for workplace violence were taxicabs, liquor stores, and gas stations—all isolated settings likely to have cash on hand.)

At the end of the 1990s, attention shifted to schools. During the 1997–98 academic year, there were heavily publicized incidents in West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Springfield, Oregon. The Jonesboro story made the cover of Time, which featured a photo of one of the shooters as a young child wearing camouflage and holding a rifle, with the caption "Armed & Dangerous." Thus, the expression school shooting was already familiar a year before the April 1999 killings at Columbine. Advocates and academics began compiling databases of school violence, although the results were surprising: The average number of deaths per year fell, from 48 during the period from the fall of 1992 through the spring of 1997, to 32 during the period spanning September 1997 through the end of the school year in 2001, even though Columbine and the other best-publicized cases occurred during the latter period. In spite of commentators declaring that the nation was experiencing a wave or epidemic of school shooting, the evidence suggested that violent deaths in schools were declining.

It isn't entirely clear what counts as school violence. The Journal of School Violence began publication in 2002, but its pages tend to be filled with articles about bullying, sexual harassment, prevention and response programs, and other topics that define violence broadly. The killings at Virginia Tech (2007) and Northern Illinois University (2008) were referred to as school shootings, indicating that colleges could count as schools.

Defining the problems in terms of its setting, such as workplace violence or school violence, suggests that steps need to be taken to protect people in those settings. Thus, the Postal Service devised a program to address workers' frustrations and to prevent violence, just as, post-Columbine, many schools sought to beef up security measures. The response of the National Rifle Association following the killings at Newtown—recommending that more schools be staffed with armed security personnel—implied that the problem was violence in schools.

But the Newtown shootings followed a number of other high-profile shooting incidents outside of schools, including the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D–Ariz.) and some 2012 incidents at a movie theater near Denver, a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee, and a Minneapolis factory, settings with little in common. Gun control advocates, of course, had viewed school shootings as shootings, rather than tragedies in schools. They had been calling for a new federal "assault weapons" ban ever since the earlier ban expired in 2004, and the Colorado movie theater shootings had involved an assault weapon, so some of the commentary following that incident emphasized the nature of the gun. But the weapons used in other incidents, including the Giffords shooting, were pistols, leading most gun control advocates to emphasize that there had been a wave of mass shootings: that this was a gun problem that needed to be addressed. Many liberals had been critical of the Obama administration's reluctance to draw attention to gun control as an issue during the 2012 presidential campaign. But the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary occurred after the election, and pro–gun control advocates and commentators now became even more vocal in drawing attention to mass shootings. Since the Newtown killings also involved an assault rifle, some advocates called for limiting magazine capacities or otherwise restricting assault weapons.

Yet there were competing interpretations. Coverage of several recent violent events—including the shootings at Virginia Tech, the Giffords rally, the Colorado movie theater, and Newtown—emphasized that the shooters had been treated for mental illness. Therefore, there were calls for more thorough background checks for gun purchases, checks that would make it harder for mentally disturbed individuals to gain access to firearms.

In the aftermath of the Newtown killings, there were interesting parallels between the comments of those advocating on behalf of gun owners and those advocating on behalf of the mentally ill. Gun advocates argued that there are hundreds of millions of guns, but that very few of those guns (or gun owners) are involved in mass shootings. Similarly, mental health advocates pointed out that tens of millions of individuals have mental problems, but very few of them turn to violence, let alone mass murder. Both arguments are, of course, true, because mass shootings are rare.

According to The New Republic, there were 70 mass shootings between 1982 and 2012, leaving 543 people dead. The magazine does not say whether this death toll includes the shooters, who often—but not always—also die. But let us assume that only the shooters' victims were counted. (Amy Sullivan, the New Republic article's author, says she believes that is the case.) That works out to about 2.3 incidents and 18 victims' deaths per year. Last year was an unusually bad year, with 68 people killed in seven mass shootings—a terrible toll, to be sure. But in the context of some 2.5 million deaths from all causes last year, mass shootings, while dramatic, are simply not a major cause of death. And because these events are quite rare, and their number fluctuates from year to year, it is difficult to determine a clear trend. The horrors of 2012 made it easy from some commentators to claim that mass shootings were on the rise, but should there be fewer cases in 2013, it is unlikely that people will note that the problem is growing smaller.

My point is that it is possible to characterize Newtown as an instance of a lot of different social problems: as a mass shooting; as a school shooting; as mass murder; as workplace violence (remember the staff members who were killed were at work); as a crime involving an assault rifle; as a case of a mentally ill person committing acts of violence; and so on. We expect journalists to have a sort of sociological imagination, to help us understand incidents as instances. And we can understand why advocates for gun control, mental health, or other causes might favor particular labels, but we need to appreciate there is no One True Classification, that the categories we use are merely tools that may help us better understand what happening in our society.

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  1. Defining the problems in terms of its setting, such as workplace violence or school violence, suggests that steps need to be taken to protect people in those settings.

    Let’s not forget Nidal Hassan, everyone’s favorite case of “workplace violence”.

  2. What a useless article. No new information, shed no light on a new, creative way to view these situations. Nothing. A big, fat zero.

    Thanks for wasting my time, Reason!

    1. The guy is a professor of sociology.

      1. This is a very good point. My bad for missing such an obvious warning to avoid this article!

      2. Here’s a good sociological look at rampage killers. Interesting read.

    2. Article should be retitled: “How Should We Pick Fly Shit Out Of Pepper”.

  3. According to The New Republic, there were 70 mass shootings between 1982 and 2012, leaving 543 people dead.

    Using a gun for mass murder is rather inefficient. McVeigh’s handiwork claimed 168 lives. One guy with a truck, some diesel and some fertilizer.

    The Feds used fire to slaughter ~70 people in Waco and yet the agencies involved are still operating.

    543 deaths over 30 years doesn’t seem like too big a deal. Each individual death is a tradgedy but I’m certainly not loosing any sleep even thinking about mass murder. Mass shootings are usually the result of some random nut job, and a free society can’t be free of risk. However, the deaths caused by government employees, local police or feds are genuine cause for concern. In fact, just in 2012, a single year, not three decades, 587 people died by being shot by the police. So the pigs beat the nut jobs handily. No doubt some, perhaps most, of those shootings were justified, but it seems that I’m more likli to be shot by a government employee than I am by a crazed, angry person with a gun.

    We need government control, not gun control. But then everybody here already knows that….

    1. You SF’d the link.

      1. But THIS is a very good point.

        Reason, can you see fit to let crashland write an article about this subject? I bet he’s not a Sociology Professor (just a guess).

        1. Many of Reason’s commentators are brighter and more interesting than Reason’s writers.

          1. But do we want Warty to write articles about perverted sex?

            1. If there are to be articles about perverted sex, I would much prefer them to be written by SugarFree.

    2. Only 587 killings by police? Even if as many as half of them are unjustified that actually seems incredibly good if it’s nationwide. Does it seem strange to react that way?

    3. ” it seems that I’m more likli to be shot by a government employee than I am by a crazed, angry person with a gun.”

      A non-empty intersection to be sure.

  4. My point is that it is possible to characterize Newtown as an instance of a lot of different social problems: as a mass shooting; as a school shooting; as mass murder; as workplace violence (remember the staff members who were killed were at work); as a crime involving an assault rifle; as a case of a mentally ill person committing acts of violence; and so on.

    They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions like thinking a sign that says “Gun Free Zone” will keep kids safe, when in fact it emboldens murderers since they can be confident that no one in the “Defenseless Victim Zone” can shoot back.

    1. I don’t think those are good intentions.

      1. That’s because you’re thinking. You’re supposed to emote.

        “Guns around children? What if someone gets into an argument? What if a child gets their hands on the gun? What if there’s a dispute over a parking space? SOMEONE WILL DIE!”

  5. Journalists notice patterns when they want to, or when it is ideologically convenient to do so. It’s a truism that any paper can create a “crime wave” by simply being diligent about reporting. The “epidemic” of mass shootings and “gun violence” is largely a media creation, as the statistics show.

    The media can also do the opposite, as they have with all the racial violence in recent years, in which mobs of black youths attack whites. There have been dozens or even scores of such attacks, but the only people who mention the racial component are some right-wing bloggers and the White Pride types. Journalists just describe it as “youths” attacking people, because it doesn’t fit the PC narrative to go too far into the details, though of course they would if the races were reversed. Heck, even bringing it up as an example risks someone calling me a “racist.”

    A friend who gets most of her news from the NY Times was astonished that she’d never read about these attacks. I wasn’t. Far from doing any “racial healing,” Obama’s election has made it harder to accurately perceive and talk about anything awkward regarding race.

    1. Yes. It has long since become a joke. If they don’t give the race of the mob that attacked someone, you know said mob was black or maybe Hispanic.

      1. The corollary is that in a case of political corruption, if the party affiliation of the corrupt pol is not mentioned (particularly in the first paragraph), 99% of the time they are a “D”.

    2. Yes. It has long since become a joke. If they don’t give the race of the mob that attacked someone, you know said mob was black or maybe Hispanic.

      1. Say it again!

        1. Say WHAT one more time!

          1. I dare you! I double-dare you, motherfucker!

    3. “any paper can create a “crime wave” by simply being diligent about reporting”

      I recall in the months leading up to the gun cobtrol votes during Clinton our local tv media spending half there news programs reporting every gun murder that happened aroubd the country. Had never done that before, and they stopped doing so immediately after it passed. Unfortunately the sheeple were suckered in by this and did not see through it for what it was.

  6. as a crime involving an assault rifle

    Unless I’m mistaken, it would be an “assault weapon”, not an “assault rifle”. An “assault rifle” refers to rifles with selective fire, while “assault weapon” refers to weapons (including but not limited to rifles) that have one or more (depending on the legislation) common features categorized by law. The rifle at Sandy Hook would did not have selective fire, and thus would not be an “assault rifle”.

    1. Exactly!

  7. Saw this on Instapundit. What happens when a little idiot liberal journalist chick buys a gun to make some stupid point about gun control? Terror.

    Tony told me a Glock doesn’t have an external safety feature, so when I got home and opened the box and saw the magazine in the gun I freaked. I was too scared to try and eject it as thoughts flooded my mind of me accidentally shooting the gun and a bullet hitting my son in the house or rupturing the gas tank of my car, followed by an earth-shaking explosion. This was the first time my hands shook from the adrenaline surge and the first time I questioned the wisdom of this 30-day experiment.

    Contains comments, which contain projection.

    Bob Bates says:
    June 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm
    Heidi dramatically makes the point that our society permits and indeed encourages easy access to guns. Those who argue she should learn to shoot are missing the point. The point is that there is no sensible reason to allow citizens do buy firearms in the way our national, piecemeal state by state system functions.
    She did not buy the gun for self protection. She bought the gun to demonstrate the idiocy of a system that allows just anybody to legally purchase a weapon of gross destruction. Our society is awash with guns. You gotta believe most people who own them have no idea how to use them. Let’s change the system.


    1. More evidence that Epi is right that these people are animists.


      I needed help. I drove to where a police officer had pulled over another driver. Now, writing this, I realize that rolling up on an on-duty cop with a handgun in tow might not have been fully thought through.

      I told him I just bought a gun, had no clue how to use it. I asked him to make sure there were no bullets in the magazine or chamber. He took the magazine out and cleared the chamber. He assured me it was empty and showed me how to look. Then he told me how great the gun was and how he had one just like it.

      The cop thought I was an idiot and suggested I take a class. But up to that point I’d done nothing wrong, nothing illegal.

      HAHAHAHAHA! Oh man, surprised she didn’t roll up to the cop, fumbling with the gun saying, “Officer! How do I put the thingy in the thingy?! Does it have bullets in the…”

      BLAM! BLAM!

      1. Police Officer: STOP RESISTING!!!!

    3. Oooh, more yummy, sweet projection:

      Again (see my comments above): not everyone who buys a gun knows how to use it. There is no check on that whatsoever. Now she can take it to starbucks and shoot kids by accident (or not by accident, whatever she feels like actually, maybe she hs a hell of a day and gets a little crazy).

      I wonder if the author of the piece would use her scary gun if she actually had a home invasion during her little experiment. Or will she just shoot her kid to make a political point.

      1. They keep talking about all these people who could potentially shoot someone because they “have no training,” and how easy it is to obtain a gun. Why, you’d almost believe there are millions of untrained people carrying guns into Starbucks everyday. And yet I never hear the news story about how some moron accidentally shot someone at the grocery store or coffee house or playground. Why, it’s almost as though they have no idea what they’re talking about.

      1. Look at ’em paws, man…

        Reminds me of something.

      2. I’m going to say….no.

      3. Potential mate for Steve Smith or Ben Roethlisberger.

    4. My Month With a Gun: Week One

      Tune in again next week, after she’s been confronted by a dude who dared her to shoot him or get raped.

    5. We have to keep up with this story. I’m predicting and exponential rise in lulz as the month goes on.

    6. Let me go ahead and deconstruct this sophist article for you.

      We have a mentally inept and possibly retarded left-winger, who doesn’t want a gun for any reason pertaining to its use, buy a gun without doing any research or having any intent on training with said gun. An analog to this would be someone buying a sports car,then towing it to their drive way and (without turning it on for fear of the car going through his/her garage and into the neighbors house and bursting into flames) sitting in the drivers seat playing race car driver. Now, can anyone show me a person who does this that isn’t a complete hack or mentally disabled?

      1. It is because they are fixated on the object. Gun is just another in the endless stream of scapegoats human beings have been using to better cope with things they can’t change.

        In the past people would fixate on witches or certain kinds of animals and such to explain bad harvests and other things they couldn’t control or understand. Today we have the fact that at any moment some nut somewhere can go crazy and kill a few people. And just like bad harvests back in the day, there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. So these people fixate on something they think they can control.

        1. They then accuse gunowners of fetishizing firearms.

      2. And did you know that you can walk onto ANY car lot and they’ll sell you a 4000lb death machine without any evidence of training or a permission slip from the government?!? The very same object that kills 30,000+ Americans every year! O M G !

    7. “[…] a Glock doesn’t have an external safety feature, […]”

      Not true, the safety is located on the trigger.

    8. Bet you a Dollar to a donut that before she first used Office, she took a course on how to use the component parts (Excel for Dummies).
      But do that with a firearm…..
      that would be crazy.

  8. If I recall correctly, this morning Donna Brazile claimed (with no supporting evidence whatsoever) there have been something like fourteen “mass shootings” since Newtown. As usual, nobody called her on it.

  9. I was too scared to try and eject it as thoughts flooded my mind of me accidentally shooting the gun and a bullet hitting my son in the house or rupturing the gas tank of my car, followed by an earth-shaking explosion.


    1. I’m sure from this day forward she will be on disability, unable to work do to constant fear caused by this terrifying traumatic experience.

  10. She did not buy the gun for self protection. She bought the gun to demonstrate the idiocy of a system that allows just anybody to legally purchase a weapon of gross destruction.

    Apparently, even on the Montana concealed carry application there is a “Why do you need this?” question. I don’t feel the need for one, so I have never seen a copy of the application. Any time the topic comes up, I suggest they put down, “Because THIS IS AMERICA.”

    1. “Ask me again and you’ll find out!”

  11. Today, they have a woman with absolutely no firearms training and a Glock on her hip sitting within arm’s reach of small children, her hands shaking and adrenaline surging.

    “I’m a moron; loud and proud. Hear me roar.”

  12. The narrative is set way before the events happen. If gun control is the narrative, then no matter what the actual facts are in any given tragedy, the events will be broadcast in such a way as to support that narrative.

    There’s a narrative about how rednecks are bad people, too. How they hate gay people and how we should take their guns away.

    To whatever extent the president conforms to the narrative, that’s the extent to which he can influence the narrative.

    That’s how, for instance, the president got a free pass to give AR-15s to Islamists in Syria–it was partially because he conformed to the narrative by trying to take AR-15s away from Americans.

    It’s all about conforming to the MSM’s narrative in most ways as closely as possible.

    1. In Syria, it’s all good;
      there are no Bitter Clingers there.

  13. This is the Best article I have read on the subject.

  14. Absolutely right. The war-zone levels of daily nonnewsworthy incidents of gun violence in this country, of course, should play more of a role in the gun control debate.

    1. Fuck off, sockpuppet.

    2. Hey, Tony! I’m still waiting for you to apologize for lying about the Oath Keepers and calling me a “quasi-White Supremacist” because I’m a member.

      Or does being Tony mean never having to say you’re sorry?

      Oh, and you’re lying through your teeth about the “daily war-zone levels” of gun violence. You have no fucking idea of what a “war-zone” is. I could introduce you to some of my Libyan, Syrian, Sudanese, or Bosnian students who do, though. Though, I doubt they would look kindly on your hyperbole.

      1. Not to mention, that any place a person would call a “war zone” in the U.S. would be right in the middle of a democratically controlled urban area.

        Yeah sure, Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, Philly, L.A., New Orleans, Gary, etc, etc are war zones, but they sure as hell weren’t made that way by libertarians or libertarian policy. You own them, Tony.

        1. Not to mention, that any place a person would call a “war zone” in the U.S. would be right in the middle of a democratically controlled urban area.

          You mean down in the holla, drunken good ol’ boys aren’t daily, nay, hourly, shooting at each other like the Hatfields and the McCoys?

          MY TELEVISION IS A LIE!!!!

          1. Only when Marshal Raylan Givens is out of the county.

      2. I remember back in ’96 when Virginia was upgrading its concealed-carry law from “may issue” to “shall issue”. So many anti-gunners were wetting their pants you could smell the urine stink all over the state (especially in northern VA, where anti-gun judges had pointedly refused to issue permits no matter how good the reason it was requested).

        They not only whined their usual whine that Virginia would become “the Wild West” (which of course didn’t really exist), there was even a Washington Post op ed that said that Virginia would become “Beirut”.

        I was in Beirut in the fall of ’83 with the SHTF; those idiots at the WaPo probably didn’t even know where Beirut was.

    3. I have friends from Sarajevo. You, like most left-wingers on this subject, insult people who have actually lived through wars.

    4. The war-zone levels of daily nonnewsworthy incidents of gun violence in this country, of course, should play more of a role in the gun control debate.

      You’re right, although not for the reason you think. Yes, let’s look at those incidents of violence: who is perpetrating them, and why. And also look at who’s not perpetrating them.

      Then we’ll see if your narrative about the causes of the violence holds up.

  15. My only comment is that the word “event” should be purged from the English language. What does the wishy, washy, vapid and wimpy word “event” add to any of the following descriptions: Snow event, rain event, meeting event, social event, accident event, nuclear event, sunshine event, heart event (my favorite all time big pharma doublespeak term for heart attack as a !possible! side effect) and now may we present you with…..a shooting event. I feel like having an event event.

    1. An “event” is my cousin’s wedding.

  16. On the way to my daughter’s dance recital today, I drove a road I don’t normally take and I noticed that in my little region of suburban/exurban New Hampshire there were two new gun stores along a road that already had two others.

    We’re winning.

  17. I drove a road …


  18. Me & my boyfriend was planning to get married last month, just last week we had some argument that made him get angry on me just because of the argument, he said we will not be married again and the next day he left me and we broke up. I still loved him and I wanted him to marry me, for me to get him back i had no choice than to contacted to help me and he helped me to bring my lover back to me so we can continue our plan to be married. he came back after 3 days
    Shelley Dustin

  19. What we have in all of the incidents mentioned by the author, is a fall-out from living in a free society, where no one is guaranteed a risk-free life, but many assume that there are no negative consequences to be wary of.
    We have lost the ability to be of aware of our surroundings, and the risk contained therein, to a great degree.
    We tell people who complain about unfairness that it is not written anywhere that life is fair.
    It is not without risk either.

  20. Not so good. The right idea, but inconsistent application.

    One would think that a piece posted under the heading “Reason” wouldn’t fall for the simplest trick of reason’s enemies. That trick is the obfuscation of terms. Sloppy terminology leads to sloppy argument and sloppy thinking, and sloppy thinking is a weapon against reason, fact and logic. I refer to the inconsistent and misleading use of the scare term “assault weapon” and its assumed synonymity with “assault rifle”.

    We’ve been explaining the distinction to the press for DECADES and, by this point, it’s pretty clear that they all know about it but perpetuate the confusion deliberately.

    So what’s Reason’s excuse?

  21. The gun-control crowd started calling ordinary semi-auto rifles “assault rifles” solely to scare the public and stampede them into support for proposed legislation. Surely you’ve heard well-meaning but ignorant types say “I don’t support overzealous gun control, but something has to be done about these assault rifles.” However, the phrase “assault rifle” has had a fairly specific and standardized meaning since the 1940s. And that has caused two problems for the gun controllers.

    (1) Ordinary semi-auto rifles such as the type you can buy at WalMart or gun shows are NOT assault rifles, and

    (2) These people aren’t really after rifles; it’s handguns they want to control. After all, “Handgun Control Inc” wasn’t called “Rifle Control Inc”. Now even the most uninformed voter or newspaper hack realizes that “assault rifle” has something to do with rifles, not handguns. So “assault rifle” just won’t do.

    Enter the mythical term “assault weapon”. Nobody knows what an “assault weapon” is. But that’s a feature, not a bug; since it means nothing, it can be understood to mean anything, anything they want. And what do they want? We can only guess, since when they say “assault weapon” they mean something else.

  22. Concern with terminology is not to be slighted as mere pedanticism. When one can’t even agree on the terms, then one can hardly expect to agree on the concepts. If a town was having a debate over policy re packs of stray dogs, but the local press kept calling dogs “cats”, that certainly wouldn’t clarify matters. And it would have no effect on the real world, either; calling Fido a cat doesn’t magically transform him into Morris. Just as calling a semi-auto rifle an “assault rifle” doesn’t turn it into one.

    The only way to deal with an issue is to be honest about terms; those who won’t are probably not interested in being honest about concepts, either.

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