If you ever have had any dealings with the Associated Press, you know it to be a placid, slow-moving bureaucracy. But it can spur itself into action, as when it revises its style book (the standard for newspaper editors) which it often does along ideological lines, e.g., barring the phrase “illegal immigrants” to describe illegal immigrants, or its recent insistence that services such as Uber and Lyft cannot be described as “ride-sharing” arrangements. (The Left has decided it dislikes the phrase “sharing economy.”) Some suggestions have not made it into recent editions, e.g., “A ‘burro’ is an ass; a ‘burrow’ is a hole in the ground. A good editor knows the difference.”
There is a change that I would like to see the AP and the New York Times and the rest of them make, one that might be a little more useful than splitting ideological hairs about what we call Uber: correcting how we describe firearms.
Newspaper accounts of firearms are almost always illiterate and inaccurate. If you see something described as an AK-47 being used in a crime in the United States, you can be almost certain that it is not an actual AK-47. (This is not helped by the fact that many different kinds of firearms are marketed under the name AK-47.) An AK-47 is a select-fire rifle, i.e., a rifle that can be fired in fully automatic or semiautomatic mode, chambered for the 7.62×39mm round. These are pretty rare beasts in the United States; what’s normally meant by “AK-47″ is a semiautomatic rifle styled like an AK-47 and/or operating with a similar mechanism, and this elides the fact that one of these things is a full-auto machine gun and one isn’t. Given the rather energetic efforts of the anti-gun lobby and the press to conflate automatic and semiautomatic weapons, one cannot help but think this is at least partly intentional. In any case, it is misleading and confusing, and therefore bad journalism.
Similar problems come up with other firearms. “Uzi” is a brand name for everything from submachine guns to wristwatches. Some Uzi firearms you can buy at your local gun shop, and some a private citizen cannot legally buy under practically any circumstance. A great many different firearms are sold under the “AR” designation as well. When Bushmaster rifles were the evil black gun of the moment, “Bushmaster” was similarly treated as though it were a particular kind of rifle rather than a brand name for many different rifles. There are many different kinds of Glocks.
Beyond using evocative and inaccurate brand and model names, the usual media practice is to use qualitative descriptors, many of which are meaningless (“assault weapon”) or generally misleading (“high-powered rifle”). That’s obviously unsatisfactory, too.
The best course of action would be for reporters and copy editors to commit an act of journalism and actually convey some accurate, relevant information about what is being discussed. The most straightforward way to do this would be to describe firearms by their caliber and action: .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle, .308-caliber bolt-action rifle, 9-mm semiautomatic handgun, .44-caliber revolver, etc. If the brand name is known and seems relevant, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be included, too: 5.56-mm semiautomatic Colt rifle, .40-caliber semiautomatic Glock handgun, etc. That a crime was committed by a man wielding a “high-powered Bushmaster” tells us almost nothing; better to tell us that a crime was committed by a man wielding a .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle with a 15-round magazine.
You rarely go wrong by conveying too much information. Getting it right on firearms would require some work on the part of reporters and editors, but in these days of 27 genders we are entitled to expect the media to master a few details.