Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Primer on Gun Terms for Liberals and Reporters

Whenever there is a mass shooting, the media, the gun control lobby, and liberals in general howl about our nation's "lax gun laws."  In doing so, they usually reveal themselves to be ignorant of basic gun terms.  For example, they might whine about the fact that semi-automatic handguns are freely available, without realizing that most handguns today are semi-automatic, or they might claim that AK-47s are legally available for purchase in America, failing to note that the version available is not the one that most people think of when they hear "AK-47."

So, I've created a helpful little primer for liberals and reporters (or do I repeat myself) who don't know anything about guns except that they are used by creepy tea bagging racist rednecks in flyover country.

Automatic firearm: A gun that fires and reloads automatically as long as the trigger is held down.  Purchasing or transferring one in the United States is a highly regulated, difficult, and long process.

Semi-automatic firearm: A gun in that reloads automatically, but requires the trigger to be pulled to fire one bullet.  Semi-automatic handguns and rifles are extremely common today.  Most handguns are semi-automatic, although non-semi-automatic bolt-action rifles are still popular amongst snipers and hunters.

Assault rifle: A rifle with switch allowing it to fire either automatically, semi-automatically, or in bursts (2 or 3 bullets per one pull of the trigger).

Assault weapon: A word used by politicians to refer to "scary" looking semi-automatic weapons with "scary" looking features including bayonet mounts, pistol grips, large magazines, and barrel shrouds (which are not, as Carolyn McCarthy claimed, "a shoulder thing that goes up").

AK-47: A Soviet-designed assault rifle used for over sixty years by dozens of militaries, police forces, paramilitaries, and terrorists.  AK-47s capable of automatic fire are very difficult to purchase in the US.  Buying one or any other fully automatic weapon requires a tax stamp and much paperwork.  Semi-automatic versions, which have less power than the typical hunting rifle, are as legal as any other semi-automatic rifle.


  1. To me, the phrase "assault weapon" is one of the most repulsive weasel words used by the media. By definition, anything used to assault another person is a weapon, so the only reason to use this phrase is to blend the meaning with assault rifle, and promote a climate of fear towards guns.

  2. Is a revolver a semi-automatic then, too?

  3. Only if it's a Webley-Fosbery.

  4. My favorites:

    Clip: A metal device that holds rounds of ammunition together so that they can be easily loaded into the weapon. Composed of a bent piece of metal that normally only encloses the bottoms of the rounds.

    Magazine: A place in a weapon where ammunition is stored before it is loaded into the chamber. May be detachable or built-in. Composed of a box, a spring and a follower.

    Glock 19s use magazines, not clips.

    Revolvers chambered for .45ACP use clips.
    M-1 Garand rifles use clips.

    M-16, M-4 and AR-15 use stripper clips to load ammo into magazines, then they use magazines to load ammo into the weapons.


  5. Your list is good and accurate.

    Regarding the prickly definition of semi-automatic:
    Near as I can tell, semi-automatic and autoloader have almost, but not quite, identical definitions. A semi-automatic is a weapon that uses evolved gas or recoil energy from the round just fired to ready itself to be fired again; bhodisatta is thus correct that there are a few semi-automatic revolvers (wonderful inventions; I've never fired one). The top of the weapon recoils backward like the slide of an autoloading pistol, and this causes the cylinder of the revolver to revolve, which means you have a nice light single-action trigger pull with every shot, but no need to cock between shots.

    To be an autoloader, the weapon has to load its own chamber, as Flyover Libertarian alluded in his post. Revolvers never do this - a human has to. Still, with modern clips and speedloaders, loading six or even eight chambers on revolver is quite fast. (And of course, loading doesn't have its usual meaning in this instance: either charging a magazine or inserting a magazine. Nor does it mean "completing a round of ammunition with bullet, primer, case, and propellant". The term "load" applied to firearms before there were magazines or metallic cartridges, so now it does quadruple duty.) Thus, while double-action revolvers, semi-automatic revolvers, and self-load pistols all have the "fire as often as the trigger pulled with no other actions required", only the last two are semi-auto, and only the last is an autoloader.

    The term most people are missing, as regards mid-century Soviet rifles, is "Kalashnikov". That brilliant Slav designed a vast and complex family of weapons, many of whom, like the MAK-90, ROMAK, etc., are autoloaders perfectly legal (in regulated but not taxed form) for Americans to import and take elk hunting, competing in 3-gun, etc. As you've noted, the Automatic Kalashnikov of 1947 is not among them!

  6. Oh, that is way more long-winded and pedantic than I intended. Give a nerd a gun ... *sheesh*

  7. As regards "assault weapon", it is a legalistic term only; it is not a term shooters use. Before the 1994 ban, haters always banned assault weapons simply by listing models that they didn't like! In '94, the intrepid anti-gunners came up with a very complex definition of assault weapon, different for rifles, pistols, and shotguns. Thus a rifle could be an assault weapon without being an assault rifle.
    Thanks, Congress.

    Nowadays the ban isn't in effect so I think the term should be forgotten ASAP. The ban had hardly any effect anyway, since it's not that hard to eliminate flash hiders and bayonet lugs from rifle designs. (Rival designs retained flash hiders but replaced their pistol grip stocks with near-identical thumbhole stocks, using ... a piece of metal.)

  8. At Virginia gunshows I have noticed some weapons marked "military and police only". But they are for sale to the public. Is this just marketing or does that labeling have some legal significance?

  9. So help me out here, do libertarians feel that there should be NO restrictions on weapons? For example, would a libertarian want Americans to be able to buy fully automatic machine guns, grenade launchers, land mines, etc? If not, why not? The second amendment just says 'arms', correct?

  10. I used to be a Libertarian (i.e., registered with the LP) but I'm not very libertarian. So my reply is a little unwarranted.

    I believe:

    I. The Constitution allows only the Federal government to regulate individual gun-owners in terms of training, what they can buy, and how they can store their guns. The Second Amendment bars "infringement" to all levels of government, but at the Federal level that must be balanced with Congress's right to "organize, arm, and discipline" (Article I, Section 8, one of the teen clauses).
    Concealed carry can be regulated or prohibited, since it combines bearing arms with secrecy, but it should be regulated at the lowest possible level, i.e. by city councils when on the street, by Wal-Mart when in Wal-Mart, by Jim and Martha when at the Jacksons' house, etc. Open carry is pretty much untouchable, but I have nothing wrong with civic reaction to it - if people want to turn pale cause a fellow has a pistol on his hip, they're welcome to go white as a sheet.

    II. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was plenty enough regulation of firearms. I am basically neutral to it. AFAIK it didn't ban anything, but it did regulate & tax some oddball categories of weapon (smoothbore pistols, full autos, etc.). Some gun-rights people say this "opened the door" to more anti-gun legislation in the future, and I think they're right. I don't trust legislation like the NFA for this reason. On its own, though, the NFA did little damage and it funnels criminal buyers away from machineguns, sawed-off shotguns, etc.
    The logical compromise right now, if the pro-gunners keep growing in power for a while, would be to roll back legislation to that point. Civilian machinegun ownership, while it is technically still legal, is such a bugbear to the average citizen that I figure we should do our best not to scare them by increasing it.

  11. III. The Second Amendment say "arms" only, but it is clearly talking about arms that can be carried. It makes no sense to allow an individual to own a crew-served weapon, because it would screw up the legal responsibility if a "shoot went bad". If you defend your farm against coyotes with a tripod-mounted machinegun, and (as would be inevitable) a stray bullet kills somebody 800 yards away, who would be in trouble? The commander, the gunner, or the fellow who made sure the belt fed properly? A three-man gun is naturally the property of organized militia.

    The same goes for guided weapons (which can be man-portable, a la the Stinger, Javelin, etc.) If you decide to blow up an elk or neighborhood stalker with a guided missile and it blows up Mrs. Beasley instead, who gets the blame - you, or the company that designed the guidance system? A guided missile is not just an arm but also a computer brain, and the framers of the Constitution couldn't have foreseen (or protected) those.

    Explosives are harder to finesse with theory. A bazooka isn't a guided weapon, nor does it take two men to carry. Still, like the guided missile and the heavy machinegun, it makes no sense for home defense, hunting, or sports. I don't want individuals owning them unless they have a good reason. For explosives, I think the way they are currently regulated (as heavily-taxed destructive devices) is fine, even if it only work in practice rather than in theory.

  12. At Virginia gunshows I have noticed some weapons marked "military and police only". But they are for sale to the public. - Professor Hale

    Are they marked that way on little signs, or an enscription on the weapon, or something? I haven't heard of such a thing. I think it would be EXCELLENT marketing to say you'll only sell to cops and the soldiers and then "make an exception" since it is "easy to get around this particular restriction" if you "know what you're doing".

    I really don't know if it is illegal to imply that a legal weapon is illegal to try to make a sale - it's certainly fishy and exactly the sort of thing that would allow an unscrupulous seller to help himself to the contents of some 19-year-old mall ninjas billfold.

    Or, maybe the guy was a Smith and Wesson seller and he had a table only for their line of "Military and Police" products, which includes AR-15s, .38-caliber revolvers, and everything in between. Just a thought!

  13. Let me elaborate (yes! I'm long-winded! I know!) on my "training" comment under part I. The "organize, arm, and discipline" clause of Article I Section 8 basically allows the Feds to require training in order to become one of America's gun-owners, since the militia is all of America's gun-owners! This is a very radical political view which would get me booted out of any shooting club in the country, I'll wager.

    What the Constitution bars the government (any level) from doing is preventing someone from owning any (pure) weapon (i.e., no guided missiles) that he can carry (no heavy machineguns) for any reason OTHER than her or his lack of training or lack of discipline. The Second Amendment empowers the court, in my humble opinion, to strike down excessive taxes, tuition, etc. which would regulate by overpricing, so no using "taxation up to infinity" as a way of sneaking in regs. (IMHO, the NFA $200 transfer tax on sawed-off shotguns/rifles is bordering on excessive right now - in 1934 it was way too high.)

    So, if the Feds want to cut down on "the wrong sort of people owning guns", they should do so in a sensible, cheap way - requiring each gun-owner under a certain age (say, 50) to prove he can handle a gun safely, and that he has decent eyesight, and that he's not a felon, etc. The people executing this law must be state employees (same clause) and they have to provide training (which need not be any more extensive than just handing out the pamphlet and administering the gun test). The Brady Law isn't that bad, but it goes to far since it is invoked each time a gun is purchased (which is bunk, IMHO, since either you are a legit militia member or not).

    Basically, it should be like a driving test, only they wouldn't be able to revoke your license for anything except criminal convictions, insanity pleas, blindness, etc. Also, testing standards would be Federal, not up to the states.

    That is my rigorously textualist take on the whole matter. Over and out.

  14. B Lode,
    You start off making a Constitutional argument and then sumarize with your opinion, based on nothing more than your own preferences.

    The Constitution established the principle that private individuals shall have the right to keep and bear arms for their mutual protection (what a militia does). That protection could be from a wild animal (hunting arms needed), from the criminal gangs (handguns needed) AND FROM A TYRANICAL GOVERNMENT (guided missiles, artillery, crew served weapons needed). The framers of the constitution did envision that private individuals would need the same arms that were available to the national government. The fact that most of those arms are impractical or unaffordable is an issue of reasonableness, not the Constitution. If the National army or state police has armored vehicles that they would use against US citizens, then the US citizens NEED weapons capable to defeating armor.

    All people have a God given right to self defense.
    Our Constitution recognizes that right by enabling it with a right to the means of self defense and collective defense. A right to self defense without the means is a feable right indeed.

    THe illogical libertarian extension is nukes. Should private individuals have a right to nuclear arms? There I would say no but only because a nuke is not a weapon with any practical value for self defense or collective defense.

  15. Thanks Professor -- in my opinion this is a more consistent argument regarding the second amendment. I would think that a libertarian or anyone who values the Constitution in its purest form would not care what scares "the average citizen" in regards to the second amendment or "arms" ownership.

  16. Gee Prof. Hale are you using your own preferences too? A militia is a group of people who are trained in the using of weapons and geurilla tactics in the event that they can be called up if needed to help defend the State or Nation. It's akin to a group of volunteer firefighters who train and familiarise themselves with firefighting equipment and tactics to help out the professional firefighters if situation is more than the professionals can handle. This is opposed to the general populace at large owning arms for personal reasons. In other words, it's akin to sheriff who can deputise civilians to help him versus people who decide play cop just because they own a gun. Someone who has been deputised can lawfully carry out police duties whereas an outright civilian has to be careful because what qualifies as a "citizens arrest" varies in different jurisdictions.

    To say the militias can turn around and attack the government because it had been deemed "too tyrannical" makes as much sense as volunteer firefighters can burn down local government building because the politicians seem too tyrannical. For that logic to make sense Jared Loughner has committed no crime but merely fought tyranny and preserved freedom. In reality such a group would be considered traitors (and yes King George III did consider the Revolutionaries as traitors) and be treated as such. Besides, far from fighting the government and protecting citizens' rights, the militias have been called up to fire upon citizens (e.g. the Pinkerton Strike).

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