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How Terminology Influences the Gun Control Debate
by Dr. Michael S. Brown

The ability to control the terminology in a debate conveys a powerful advantage.  In the national gun control debate, this principle has been expertly exploited by gun control advocates.  The emotionally charged, but technically meaningless term, “assault weapon”, is a perfect example.

The term “assault rifle” dates from WWII Germany, where it was intended to be less powerful than a normal rifle so that soldiers could more easily use it in fully automatic mode and carry more rounds of the smaller ammunition.  These guns started life with the unimposing, but technically correct name, “machine carbine”.

These fully automatic rifles of reduced power were not favored by Adolf Hitler, because his experience in WW1 convinced him that rifles must fire powerful, long range ammunition.  Only after the machine carbines had been produced without his permission, did he angrily sanction the project, assigning the more heroic title, “assault rifle” (sturmgewehr).  It was a sensationalist name, chosen for propagandistic reasons.  It is not known for sure if Hitler invented the term himself or if it was offered by his officers to appease the propaganda loving dictator.   It is ironic that anti-gun groups have appropriated Hitler’s dramatic term for their own purposes today.

This less-powerful, fully automatic rifle concept was copied by the Soviets immediately after the war, resulting in the AK-47. (The '47' stands for 1947)   The US and other countries followed suit after military theorists decided that a smaller caliber, less lethal, automatic rifle could actually be an asset on the battlefield, since a wounded soldier weakened the enemy forces more than one who was killed.

Civilian ownership of assault rifles has been extremely rare in the Unites States, since they are capable of fully automatic fire and have therefore been regulated to near non-existence by the National Firearms Act of 1934.   Unfortunately, weapons that look even vaguely like AK-47’s are now labeled as “assault weapons” by journalists and gun control advocates, implying that a ban is needed to stop an epidemic of automatic weapons, when such a ban has already been around for over six decades.

Semi-automatic variants of the AK-47 and other assault rifles are properly called carbines.  They are sold and used for a variety of legitimate civilian purposes, including hunting.  In fact, they are functionally similar to many common hunting rifles, except that they fire a less powerful cartridge.  When gun control advocates call for a ban on “powerful assault weapons”,  hunters are justifiably concerned about their right to own their even more powerful hunting rifles and shotguns.

Although many experts have pointed out that “assault weapon” is a confusing and illegitimate term, it lends drama to media stories.  Therefore, sound bites from gun control organizations are heavily laced with such misleading terms.  Emboldened by their media victories, anti-gun groups fabricated another new oxymoron, “semi-automatic assault weapon”, to aid their attacks on other types of weapons.  The media loved it and added their own variations.  One reporter for NPR  recently made up the bizarre term, “large caliber urban assault rifle.”

Where will this blatant misuse of terminology stop?  Even some handguns are now miscast as “semi-automatic assault weapons”.  One example is the Tec-9, which is a rather low-tech pistol that fires a low-powered cartridge (the 9mm).  The 9mm cartridge, exaggerated in the press as a deadly high-tech bullet, was put in service in 1898, but the media often specifies this cartridge by name, implying that it is especially modern and deadly, or worse, “high powered”.   Media reports now routinely mention the fact that a particular crime was committed with a semi-automatic firearm, as if this somehow makes the crime more alarming.

Gun control advocates and poorly educated journalists have mis-labeled many very old and ordinary firearms with intimidating, technical-sounding, multi-syllable terms.   The result is that the public has been led to believe that a wave of high-tech, military arms and machine guns are flooding the streets, when these weapons have been heavily restricted for decades and very rarely involved in crimes.

Anti-gun groups use these misleading messages to frighten the general public and dupe journalists into promoting their real agenda, which is to ban guns one class at a time. Each time they declare that they are only targeting this one class of particularly evil weapons.  Each time they say that this is the “criminal’s weapon of choice”.  The definitions are kept deliberately vague, but with catchy titles, like “Saturday night specials”, “junk guns” or “assault weapons”.  Later, those vague definitions can be expanded to include all guns.

Since most Americans do not support total gun prohibition, the deliberate misuse of terminology is a brilliant tactic to both promote and obscure the ultimate goal.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist in Vancouver, WA who moderates a large email list for discussion of gun issues in Washington State. You can reach the rest of his archive here.  He may be reached at

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Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. — St. George Tucker, in his edition of 'Blackstone's Commentaries,' 1:300 (1803).

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