The rhetoric we use to discuss and debate a given subject is powerful, perhaps more so than any other aspect of a political battle. In the fight to win back our liberties from over a century of legislation, written to strip us of our right to keep and bear arms, we are losing. The question that must be asked is why? Most Americans do not even support stricter gun control, yet we are quickly losing in the context of legislation and in the culture war. The real engine behind the attack on our rights is the language used, not only by anti-gun activists and politicians but also by those of us who support gun rights.
Anyone who has listened to the news or read an article regarding gun control has undoubtedly heard the term “assault weapon.” The actual etymology of the term is debated, but most claims about its origin place it in the early 1980s. For the purposes of this article, let us consider its origin to be the first “assault weapons” ban: the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989. For about half a decade before this law came about, other AWBs (assault weapon bans) had been proposed but failed to pass. The Roberti-Roos AWCA banned a list of about 60 firearms by name and imposed a features-based ban. However, this article is not about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of such laws, but rather the language surrounding them. In the text of the Roberti-Roos AWCA, the legislature claimed that the law was justified because:
The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the proliferation and use of assault weapons poses a threat to the health, safety, and security of all citizens of this state. The Legislature has restricted the assault weapons specified in Section 30510 based upon finding that each firearm has such a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings. It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this chapter to place restrictions on the use of assault weapons and to establish a registration and permit procedure for their lawful sale and possession. It is not, however, the intent of the Legislature by this chapter to place restrictions on the use of those weapons which are primarily designed and intended for hunting, target practice, or other legitimate sports or recreational activities.
In this text is the basis for the most commonly used argument by gun control activists to indoctrinate the unconvinced: gun control is about safety and it will not be used to take away “sporting” guns. This is a dichotomy that those seeking to infringe on rights have created, and that gun rights supporters have failed to rebuke in any effective way.
As anyone familiar with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (FBI-UCR) knows, rifles, of any kind, make up a tiny fraction of all murders committed each year. In 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), there were 297 murders committed with rifles out of 14,123 murders committed with firearms of any kind. Despite this, rifles, especially those descended from the AR-15 and AK-47/AKM patterns, have become synonymous with the term “assault weapon” and with calls for gun control (although every AWB since the Roberti-Roos AWCA has also banned certain handguns and shotguns). We know that these firearms are even less of a threat than blunt objects, which were used in 443 murders in 2018, despite being some of the most common models in the United States. As I mentioned, “assault weapon” is a legal and political term without a singular definition, as opposed to “assault rifle,” defined by the US Army’s Small Arms Identification Guide – Eurasian Communist Countries (November 1970) as:
…short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges. Assault rifles have mild recoil characteristics and, because of this, are capable of delivering effective full-automatic fire at ranges up to 300 meters. (pg 67)
This definition does not match the definition used by any AWB, even the Roberti-Roos AWCA expressly categorizes “assault weapons” as being semi-automatic, and yet they have become used so interchangeably that even the Associated Press categorizes them under the same entry:
assault rifle, assault weapon Terms for military or police-style weapons that are shorter than a conventional rifle and technically known as carbines. The precise definitions may vary from one law or jurisdiction to another. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, some make the distinction that assault rifle is a military weapon with a selector switch for firing in either fully automatic or semi-automatic mode from a detachable, 10- to 30-round magazine. Comparatively lightweight and easy to aim, this carbine was designed for tactical operations and is used by some law enforcement agencies. The form: an M16 assault rifle, an AK-47 assault rifle, a Kalashnikov assault rifle. An assault weapon is the civilian version of the military carbine with a similar appearance. This gun is semi-automatic, meaning one shot per trigger pull. Ammunition magazines ranging from 10 to 30 rounds or more allow rapid-fire capability. Other common characteristics include folding stock, muzzle flash suppressor, bayonet mount and pistol grip. Assault weapon sales were largely banned under federal law from 1994 to 2004 to curb gun crimes. The form: AR-15 carbine with military-style appearance.
This categorization even goes so far as to effectively deny whether there truly is a difference by saying that “some make the distinction” as opposed to “there is a distinction”. Media apathy (or intentional obfuscation) towards accurate terminology is just one of the means by which we are losing the battle for our rights, but it is a crucial one, as it is through the left-biased mainstream (and even alternative) media that most people learn about firearms.
The gun rights movement has tried to rebrand these semi-automatic firearms as “modern sporting rifles”, the term even being adopted by Savage arms for their MSR-15 line of rifles (the name AR-15 is still owned by Colt, although the patents for the design expired decades ago). This rebranding of the guns that get caught in the myriad of AWBs (each state’s AWB is different, just as the 1994 AWB was different from frequently proposed legislation to introduce a new AWB) has been largely unsuccessful and misses the point altogether.While I agree that these firearms are amongst the most useful and practical designs– for a wide variety of purposes– to frame their ownership as such means that we have already lost the argument. Returning to the quote from the Roberti-Roos AWCA, the justification of the ban was that it was permissible and necessary to ban “non-sporting” arms. The sporting capability of an AR-15, AK-47, AKM, or other pattern firearm is irrelevant to the discussion. In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled in US v Miller that a sawed-off shotgun was not constitutionally protected because “Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.” The shotgun in question’s “sporting purpose” was never mentioned in the decision, nor should we allow the issue of gun rights to be framed in this way. While it may make uneasy the more timid amongst us – those who don’t like to acknowledge the utility of a firearm outside of shooting clays or hunting deer – we cannot forget that the right to defense of life, liberty, and property is the purpose of the second amendment. It is for this reason that we must continue our efforts in defense of the right to keep and bear arms.
Between 500,000 to 3,000,000 Americans use firearms in a defensive capacity each year according to the CDC. By adopting the rhetoric that allows for gun control to proliferate uncontested, we are paving the way for thousands, if not millions, of our fellow Americans to be victimized by murderers, thieves, and rapists. Furthermore, we will be enabling our subjugation, sacrificing our place as the militia of this nation, and allowing for tyranny to infest our government.
“Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom? Congress shall have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American … The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the People.”
Tench Coxe, 1788.