Democrats, please stop screwing up basic gun terms

"Massacre machine gun magazines?" "Multi-automatic rounds?" Come on, people.

Getty Images / Diana Ofosu
Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

On Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) called for banning “massacre machine gun magazines.”

“We really need to act in a number of ways,” Maloney said. “We need to pass an assault weapons ban. We need to ban the massacre machine gun magazines, and we need comprehensive background checks.”

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What Maloney seems to be unaware of is that machine guns — fully automatic weapons — have been banned in the United States since 1986 (though the transfer of those made before 1986 is still legal). Either that, or Maloney doesn’t know what qualifies as a “machine gun.”

She’s not the only one.

In a 2008 Democratic primary debate, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), called for sensible regulations to keep “machine guns” out of the hands of people who “shouldn’t have them.”

“I think a total ban, with no exceptions under any circumstances, might be found by the court not to be [constitutional]. But I don’t know the facts,” Clinton said. “But I don’t think that should blow open a hole that says that D.C. or Philadelphia or anybody else cannot come up with sensible regulations to protect their people and keep, you know, machine guns and assault weapons out of the hands of folks who shouldn’t have them.”

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And on Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) shared an article which not only likened a handgun wound to a “stabbing with a bullet,” but went on to compare the sorts of wounds that an AR-15 could deliver like so: “It’s as if you shot somebody with a Coke can.”

“#BanAssaultWeapons,” Feinstein added.

The comparison is absurd and, frankly, doesn’t serve the point Feinstein was attempting to make. AR-15 wounds, as Heather Sher wrote in The Atlantic last week, leave organs looking like “an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer.”

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These errors are easy to mock, but correcting and avoiding them is even easier, with just a little conscientious effort. And there’s an urgent need for such corrective measures. Until those who want rational gun control laws master the basics of talking about firearms, they will never be taken seriously by their NRA-funded counterparts when discussing gun control legislation. What’s more, they will never, within their own caucuses, successfully craft effective policy until they can speak about guns with more dexterity.

A majority of both Democrats and Republicans support tightening restrictions on firearms. Last October, an NPR/Ipsos poll found that eight in 10 Americans favor bans on “assault weapons,” high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks, as well as a federal database to track all gun sales.

Pew Research also found that 87 percent of gun owners support background checks for private sales and at gun shows, 82 percent support barring gun purchases by people on no-fly or watch lists, and 54 percent support creating a federal tracking database. Almost half of gun owners — 48 percent — even support banning assault-style weapons, and 44 percent support banning high-capacity magazines.

The imprecise babble Democrats too often use when discussing firearms is an impediment to reaching these people. Until Democrats develop a facility for proper gun terminology, they will likely continue to get an icy reception from the sort of responsible gun owner who might be appalled by the NRA’s absolutist rhetoric but nevertheless doesn’t see any other home for themselves in the broader politics of firearms policy.

And Democratic lawmakers have a long history of imprecision when talking about guns.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama described the gun shooter Adam Lanza used as “a fully automatic weapon.”

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“I just came from Denver, where the issue of gun violence is something that has haunted families for way too long,” Obama said in April 2013. “It is possible for us to create common-sense gun safety measures that respect the traditions of gun ownership in this country and hunters and sportsmen, but also make sure that we don’t have another 20 children in a classroom gunned down by a semi-automatic weapon—by a fully automatic weapon in that case, sadly.”

It was not a fully automatic weapon that Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults in December 2012. It was an AR-15 — a legal, semi-automatic rifle. There are major differences between semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles — the first being that one is legal while the other is not.

Additionally, a typical semi-automatic rifle fires at the rate of 45 to 60 rounds per minute, while certain fully automatic rifles can fire up more than 800 rounds per minute.

The shooter in the San Bernardino shooting three years ago used a variation of the AR-15, and, following the shooting, former Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), talked about “multi-automatic rounds” on in an interview with MSNBC.

“We let the assault weapons ban, which was led by our Senator Dianne Feinstein, we let that lapse, so, you know, multi-automatic rounds, weapons are easily available,” Sanchez said.

In 2014, another California lawmaker, Democratic State Sen. Kevin de Leon, was mocked for the way he described the power of what was reportedly a homemade fully automatic rifle.

“This is a ghost gun,” de Leon said. “This right here has the ability with a .30-caliber clip to disperse with 30 bullets within half a second. Thirty magazine clip in half a second.”

While Sanchez and de Leon were both speaking with earnest concern, they weren’t actually saying anything that made any sense. Neither “multi-automatic rounds” nor “thirty-magazine clip” mean anything. Those are literally not things.

Just last week, former senior advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry and current Fox News commentator Marie Harf fell into a similar trap, deriding “high magazine clips” during a Friday segment on Outnumbered.

“Republicans, and you just did it, like to say that any gun restrictions that Democrats want to put forward is, quote, against the Second Amendment,” Harf said. “That is not the case. You can be a supporter of the Second Amendment and also say maybe we shouldn’t have high magazine clips, for example.”

Nope! A magazine is different than a clip. A clip stores individual rounds of ammunition and can be inserted into a magazine. Unless you are a staff writer for an actual print magazine, like Vanity Fair or Cat Fancy, “magazine clips” aren’t anything at all.

A clip (left) and three magazines (right). Credit: Creative commons
A clip (left) and three magazines (right). Credit: Creative commons

Like Sanchez and de Leon before her, Harf was mocked by conservative media for her word salad of gun words.

Which is a pity, because Harf did seem to be trying to make a valuable point: Most Democrats aren’t anti-Second Amendment, and gun reforms — like, say, restricting high-capacity magazines — aren’t inherently anti-gun. But because she flubbed the terminology, conservative media — and the conservative lawmakers that read it — can write off the entire argument and say Harf doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Another mistake Democrats and gun control advocates often make is imprecision when talking about “assault rifles.”

Last week at a CNN town hall, Parkland students pressed lawmakers on what they were going to do, and  “assault rifles” (or “assault weapons”) were seemingly on everybody’s mind.

“What am I going to do?” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) vowed. “Well, as a starter, next week when we go back to Washington, we’re going to introduce legislation to make sure that assault weapons are illegal in every part of this country.”

Any time Deutch and his fellow town hall participants discussed “assault rifles,” they were clearly referring to AR-15s like the one the used by the Parkland shooter. Here’s the thing, though: AR-15s aren’t technically assault rifles.

In an email to ThinkProgress, CATO Institute researcher Jonathan Blanks outlined what does qualify as an assault rifle.

“Assault rifle’s most precise definition, is a military rifle that, among other attributes, has automatic capacity,” Blanks said. “‘Military style assault weapon’ is just a fancy way to say ‘looks and carries like’ a military rifle.”

That means that AR-15s, which don’t have select fire capabilities, don’t actually fall under the definition of assault rifles.

Those who tend to use firearm terminology with imprecision are putting themselves at a tremendous disadvantage any time they find themselves in an argument with those with a better command of the subject. For example, following the Las Vegas shooting, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch repeatedly conflated bump stocks with bump fire.

Bump stocks are inexpensive devices that can be used on semi-automatic rifles to increase their rate of fire, making it possible for semi-automatic rifles to fire as quickly as automatic rifles. Bump fire, on the other hand, refers to a shooting technique that, if mastered, can be used to increase the rate at which a semi-automatic rifle fires.

While learning this “bump fire” technique will allow the shooter to fire more quickly, it doesn’t allow the shooter to fire as quickly as they could with a bump stock modification. Loesch cleverly conflates the two, making it seem like a bump stock ban wouldn’t be effective.

And while Loesch will never give ground to Democrats no matter how literate they are, understanding the differences between bump fire and bump stocks or magazine and clips are vital when it comes to actually making and passing legislation. How can Democrats, within their own caucus, craft gun control policy if “machine gun” means something different to everyone in the room? How can they build effective policies if no one knows what a clip is? How can they get a Republican president to sign gun restrictions into law if none of them know what gun restrictions we already have?

Correcting basic errors when talking about firearms doesn’t require bending the knee to the absolutist Cult of the Gun preached by the NRA today. But those who favor rational gun policies must make more of an effort to master a basic understanding of the thing they are trying to regulate. If they don’t, they will never win over the kind of person whose help they need: People dismayed by the Dana Loesches of the world but nevertheless convinced their family’s safety is locked away in a gun safe in the garage.