Don Lemon, Automatic Weapons, and the Integrity of Language

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Last night, on national television, CNN host Don Lemon attempted to alter physical reality through the sheer force of his will:

Lemon’s central claim was that, after the shooting in Colorado in 2012, he was able to go out and, in “20 minutes” or less, buy a machine gun. “I think,” he added, “most people can go out and buy an automatic weapon.”

Reasonably enough, this mistake prompted one of his guests to note that Lemon had done no such thing, and that nor could anybody else. “A semi-automatic weapon,” radio host Ben Ferguson explained, “is a gun that you and I are allowed to own, and in different places they have different rules. But to imply that anyone can walk out and buy an automatic weapon is just not true, Don.”

Ferguson is correct, and Lemon is wrong. Under the law, “automatic” is the word we use to describe weapons that continue to fire for as long as the trigger is depressed. “Semi-automatic,” by contrast, is the word we use to describe weapons that will fire once with each trigger pull. In some states, one can indeed walk into a gun store and, having undergone a background check and filled in some federal forms, walk out with a semi-automatic rifle. One cannot, however, do this for automatics, which are regulated heavily under the 1934 Firearms Act and which cannot be purchased without special permission from the ATF. What Lemon is talking about having bought is a standard semi-automatic weapon — an AR-15 or somesuch. It is not an automatic weapon.

Having been corrected, what Lemon should have said was, “you’re right, I meant ‘semi-automatic.’” But he didn’t. Instead, he said:

“For me, an automatic weapon is anything that you can shoot off a number of rounds very quickly.”


It does not especially matter that Don Lemon doesn’t know the difference between ”automatic” and “semi-automatic” rifles. Lots of people don’t. But it really does matter that, having been told he was wrong on national television, Lemon contended that his prior ignorance — and not objective physical and legal reality — should prevail. Legally and functionally, the item that the panel is discussing was a semi-automatic weapon. There is no “dispute” over this. This is not an ongoing “debate.” It’s not a matter of “opinion.” It’s not an issue on which we can “agree to disagree.” It’s not an “altercation” that can give way to “compromise.” It’s a fact. An undisputed fact. And yet, for some reason, Lemon seemed to believe that he could talk his way out of his mistake. 

Worse, perhaps, he went on to pretend that the issue was one of “semantics.” Well, Don, here are some “semantics” for you:

One wonders in which other areas Lemon intends to subordinate engineering to linguistic expedience. After all, if “for me” is sufficient, we can start turning water into wine all over the place. “For me,” we might say, “that propeller is a jet engine.” “For me, that bicycle is an SUV.” “For me, that landline is a cell phone.” “For me, this manual car is an auto.” 

Given the manner in which the advocates of gun control usually talk, this indifference to imprecision is peculiar. Typically, the tiniest cosmetic differences are held to be of considerable import. In my home state of Connecticut, it is illegal to buy certain rifles if they feature mechanisms that allow their owners to adjust the length of the stock. Why? Because being comfortable when shooting is apparently dangerous. Also often outlawed are barrel shrouds, which are designed to prevent users from burning themselves, and pistol grips, which are designed to make longer firearms easier to shoot. None of these have any bearing on the lethality of the weapon, of course. They don’t affect its caliber or its potency. They don’t add to its effectiveness. They are purely cosmetic and ergonomic. And yet, for “safety,” they need to be banned. Last night, on CNN, by contrast, an anchor explained that an actual functional distinction — possibly the most important functional distinction — is just “semantics.”

And they wonder why they lose.

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