A Quick Note on Weaponry and Language

by Charles C. W. Cooke

I just watched the press conference from Los Angeles airport and I was irritated as usual by the way in which law enforcement agents and politicians who should know better throw around incorrect terminology to the press. Over and over, we were told that the shooter at LAX used an “assault rifle.” This is now being repeated widely.

There is one key problem with this: It’s not true. We can argue all day about the silly “assault weapon” term, but “assault rifle” actually has a meaning. An “assault rifle” means that the rifle can be switched between safe (off, in layman’s terms), semi-automatic, and automatic fire. Weapons such as these are heavily regulated under federal law, have never been used by a civilian to murder anybody, and are strictly illegal in California. The definition of “assault rifle” is not controversial. As even Wikipedia notes:

An assault rifle is a selective fire (selective between semi-automatic, automatic and/or burst fire) rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. Assault rifles are the standard service rifles in most modern armies.

For those who aren’t sure what this means in practice: “Automatic” means that the weapon will continue to fire for as long as the trigger is depressed and there is ammunition in the magazine. “Burst fire” means that the weapon will fire a set number of rounds with one trigger depression. ”Semi-automatic” means that the weapon will fire once with each trigger pull, and then load another round into the chamber without the user having to do so manually. I have no doubt that many people genuinely do not grasp these differences — or do not care. But it really does matter, in part because the way in which the Left talks about rifles is deliberately misleading, and they rely upon nobody pushing back with the truth. Gun controllers want to create the impression that your average murderer is walking around with a machine gun, and to use this perception to build support for banning unrelated semi-automatic weapons. They must not be allowed to get away with it.

“Assault weapon,” meanwhile means . . . well, it means nothing. It is a made up political term that has no functional implications and that is primarily used as a means by which politicians might describe any firearm that they wish to ban. Given that it’s meaningless, I suppose it’s not too terrible if people use it. After all, you can call an AR-15 a “Jaberwocky machine” if you want. But when words do have meanings — as “assault rifle” does — it would be nice if we could stick to them.

UPDATE: If you “still don’t think there’s a real difference,” as a few people have inexplicably said to me today, perhaps watch this video:

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