Politics & Policy

Another Misfire at the New York Times

((George Frey/Reuters))
On the topic of guns, the paper excels — in ignorance, myth, and self-righteous preening.

The New York Times is uniquely bad on the subject of firearms. There are two ways to understand that sentence, and both apply: Among major news publications, the Times regularly exhibits an unparalleled level of illiteracy on the subject of firearms, and it exhibits comparable illiteracy on practically no other subject. Even on such self-acknowledged weak spots as American religion, the Times rarely sinks to the level of outright stupidity that characterizes its coverage of firearms and related crimes.

E.g., this from Michael D. Shear:

President Trump — under pressure from angry, grieving students from a Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people last week — ordered the Justice Department on Tuesday to issue regulations banning so-called bump stocks, which convert semiautomatic guns into automatic weapons like those used last year in the massacre of concertgoers in Las Vegas.

A bump stock does not convert a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon, and there were no automatic weapons used in the Las Vegas shooting. Bump-firing is a (nifty but largely useless) rapid-firing technique, not a technology. Bump stocks do make it easier to bump fire, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient. Bump-firing is something that must be learned, and it can be achieved without a bump stock: Some shooters use rubber bands, some use their belt loops, and some use no accessory at all. Beginning shooters, who often have poor grips, bump-fire accidentally from time to time, and bump-firing does not even require a semiautomatic weapon — you can bump-fire a revolver, if you work at it.

Or you could just learn to shoot really fast.

If it is the case that bump stocks “convert semiautomatic guns into automatic weapons,” then some inexperienced shooter — I’m assuming Shear is not a gun nut — ought to be able to simply install one on an ordinary semiautomatic rifle and achieve a fully automatic rate of fire. I’ll make Shear and his editors at the Times a public wager: that no New York Times writer or editor without prior training in bump-shooting can achieve a fully automatic rate of fire (about 700 rounds per minute on the M4 carbine, the AR-15’s military cousin) from an ordinary AR-15 equipped with a bump stock. I’ll provide the rifle, the ammunition, and the range time. All Michael D. Shear of the Times has to do is show up and then write up what happens.

Shear and his Times colleagues write routinely about “assault weapons,” a meaningless term inasmuch as there is no generally agreed-upon definition of “assault weapon.” But that doesn’t stop such Times stalwarts as Thomas Friedman from writing, with mystifying confidence: “They know full well that a common-sense banning of all military assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, or mandating universal background checks for gun buyers or to prevent terrorists and the mentally ill from buying guns, would not curb the constitutional right to bear arms.” Friedman doesn’t know what he thinks he knows full well, much less what gun-rights activists “know full well.” This illiteracy, too, is worth unpacking.

If by “assault weapon” he means rifles of the sort included in the 1994 ban — which, it is worth remembering, had no measurable effect on crime — then what he is talking about is semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines. (One of the major defects of the 1994 ban was its poorly conceived definitions, but, most broadly, that’s what it was designed to limit.) Prohibiting the sale of semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines would mean prohibiting the sale of the majority of rifles sold in the United States  — the vast majority, in all likelihood. AR-style rifles alone account for about one in five rifle sales.

If we include semiautomatic handguns with detachable magazines — and why wouldn’t we, given their much greater prominence in crime? — then what Friedman proposes is a prohibition on something like 80 percent or more of the firearms sold in the United States. Friedman may not see how that conflicts with the Second Amendment, but the courts do.

Which other constitutional rights (free speech? freedom of the press?) would Friedman be comfortable to see revoked based on an American citizen’s appearance on a secret government list without charges, legal process, or recourse?

He could also use a refresher in due process: We already forbid terrorists to buy firearms; what Friedman is talking about is people who are suspected of wrongdoing or who, in the case of the no-fly list, simply share a name with someone suspected of wrongdoing. I wonder which other constitutional rights (free speech? freedom of the press?) Friedman would be comfortable to see revoked based on an American citizen’s appearance on a secret government list without charges, legal process, or recourse.

Friedman, warming to his self-indulgent, self-righteous mode, writes: “They know full well that most voters are not asking to scrap the Second Amendment, but for common-sense gun laws that could prevent or reduce more school shootings and would not interfere with any decent Americans’ right to own guns for hunting, sports or self-protection.” Setting aside that bit of constitutional illiteracy — the Second Amendment isn’t about hunting or sport shooting; does anybody really think that the No. 2 item on the Bill of Rights is about a hobby? — Friedman does not seem to know that semiautomatic rifles, including AR-style rifles, are in fact among the most common hunting and sport-shooting firearms.

For hunters of everything from coyotes and other small predators to feral hogs, AR-style rifles are extraordinarily common. And a fair number of big-game hunters use similar rifles in more powerful calibers, for example Wilson’s popular semiautomatic hunting rifles. Functionally, the only difference between a semiautomatic hunting rifle and the more common .223 AR-15 rifles is that the hunting rifles are much, much more powerful. Until recently, the .223 round was prohibited for hunting deer and other sizable game, not because the AR-15 is a “weapon of war” but because the caliber was considered insufficiently powerful to use humanely on deer.

A thinking man with a working knowledge of the actual U.S. firearms market might have considered the fact that there is no way to ban nefarious black AR-15 rifles without also prohibiting common hunting rifles (never mind that the AR-15 is a common hunting rifle) or — sillier still — prohibiting the modestly powered “military” guns while leaving the much more powerful hunting rifles on the market. But that thinking man would probably have a hard time writing for the Times, which apparently is opposed to thinking at all on this subject.

So-called assault rifles are so rarely used in crimes that the federal government doesn’t keep separate data on them. Actual military weapons — fully automatic rifles and other ballistic exotica — are statistical unicorns when it comes to violent crime.

All long guns (which is to say, all rifles and shotguns) combined account for a tiny fraction of the firearms used in violent crimes in the United States; so-called assault rifles are so rarely used in crimes that the federal government doesn’t keep separate data on them. Actual military weapons — fully automatic rifles and other ballistic exotica — are statistical unicorns when it comes to violent crime. Do you know which firearms are most commonly used to commit crimes? The most common ones.

Our progressive friends enjoy boasting of their purportedly evidence-based approach to social problems, but when it comes to firearms, it is pure Kulturkampf. Firearms, in their view, are an atavistic enthusiasm for rural primitives and right-wing militia nuts, a hobby that must be tolerated — if only barely — because of some vestigial 18th-century political compromise. And that is why the Times can publish observations such as this one from psychiatrist Amy Barnhorst — “laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will” — without even bothering to try to account for the fact that we also have some laws, right there in the Bill of Rights, that limit the ways in which government can impose on other civil rights, including the right to keep and bear arms. That’s why they don’t even understand the right protected in the Second Amendment as a civil right.

And that’s why the Times remains unembarrassed by routinely displaying on this subject a level of ignorance that would cause its editors to blush in shame if the subject were, say, Shia–Sunni relations or the geography of Togo. This has many unhappy consequences, one of which is that the Times is distorting public discourse about this important subject when it should be enriching it.

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