Last week, Don Lemon made a big mistake on national television, and, having been corrected, refused to acknowledge his error. After the shooting in Aurora in 2012, Lemon insisted, he had gone out in Colorado and bought an “automatic” weapon in under “20 minutes.” This, he suggested, showed just how crazy America’s gun laws are.
Naturally, Lemon had done no such thing. Instead, he had purchased a semi-automatic rifle that looked “scary” — an “assault weapon” in our strange terminology. He had not got anywhere near an “automatic” weapon — and nor could he have done so without the explicit permission of the ATF. But, having had this explained to him in no uncertain terms, he kept going. “For me,” he tried desperately, “an automatic weapon is anything that you can shoot off a number of rounds very quickly.” Thus were established legal and functional definitions subordinated to Lemon’s will. Thus was the most important distinction in the firearms business dismissed as “semantics.” Thus did a newsman sow disinformation rather than clarity.
Why did this matter? Well, because such conflations have real consequences for public policy. If nobody in the United States were trying to ban certain types of rifle purely because they look powerful, Lemon’s ignorance would not really bother me. But they are, and confusion is their greatest asset. As the founder and director of the restrictionist Violence Policy Center explained in 1988, it can be enormously profitable for gun-controllers to baffle voters. Semi-automatics, Josh Sugarman wrote, are easy to lie about because
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.
Perhaps Sugarman should send flowers to Mr. Lemon?
Keeping Sugarman’s words in mind, what do we think that the average reader of the Miami Herald must have made of this, from Saturday’s edition?:
The number of shootings has residents on edge, crying for help, and in some cases begging to leave.
On June 24, in one of the city’s worst mass shootings in decades, nine people were shot outside an apartment complex at 12th Avenue and 65th Street. Two men died.
Miami police say they consider the spike in shootings this year an “outlier.” They say major crime numbers remain low overall and put much of the blame on the end of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. Automatic gunfire from easy-to-get guns can spray hundreds of bullets in the blink of an eye.
The descriptions here are just flat-out wrong. The Assault Weapons Ban banned and regulated certain semi-automatic rifles — i.e. rifles that fire one shot per depression of the trigger. It did not ban or regulate automatic weapons — i.e. those that fire continuously when their triggers are depressed. The expiration of the federal Assault Weapons Ban has absolutely nothing to do with “automatic gunfire” in Florida. It can’t have. That a newspaper is leading its readers to believe otherwise is deeply irresponsible.
Moreover, the idea that Miami has been afflicted by “automatic gunfire” of late — or, for that matter, that anybody there has been “[spraying] hundred of bullets in the blink of an eye” — is preposterous. Since 1934, in which year automatic weapons were regulated for the first time, a grand total of two murders have been committed with legally owned automatics — both of them in Ohio, and one of them by a police officer. Meanwhile, the criminologist Gary Kleck suggests in Targeting Guns, fewer than ten crimes of all sorts (including bureaucratic mistakes) have been committed with illegally owned automatic firearms. Really, this should surprise nobody. Automatic weapons are not only far too expensive for an average criminal to afford, but they are also extremely inefficient. If one pulls the trigger on an average automatic with a 30 round magazine, one gets around four seconds of firing time. Saturday Night Specials these are not.
Precision in this area either matters or it does not. We are talking here, remember, about laws. If, as Lemon and his ilk like to pretend, the difference between an automatic and a semi-automatic weapon is merely a “semantic” one, then we should treat the legal distinctions in the same manner, permitting the next person who is caught with an unlicensed automatic weapon to successfully explain in court why his infraction does not matter. If the differences do matter, however — and if they matter enough to be codified into law and to carry felony punishments as their enforcement mechanisms — then we should expect those who speak about them to respect the detail. One understands why Josh Sugarman would wish to turn unfamiliarity to his advantage. But the news media? That should be a different story.