NRA supporters can’t debate the facts on assault weapons, so they use this dumb argument

But they might have finally met their match.

Marty Combs openly carries his AR-15 pistol at a pro gun rally on April 21, 2018 in Boulder, Colorado. (CREDIT: Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)
Marty Combs openly carries his AR-15 pistol at a pro gun rally on April 21, 2018 in Boulder, Colorado. (CREDIT: Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)

If you’re ever feeling particularly masochistic, here’s an experiment for you to try. Open up Twitter, find a recent tweet from the official account of the NRA or any other gun-loving group, and reply with your objections to civilians being able to easily purchase an AR-15, the kind of gun used in several recent mass shootings. For the bravest among you, add the #2a hashtag for maximum visibility amongst the gun nut crowd.

Within minutes, the vitriolic replies begin. And in short order, you will, without fail, receive a response along these lines: “An AR-15 is not an assault weapon.  It shoots .223 ammo in semi-auto mode from a magazine.”

Any attempt, made in good faith, to debate the issue of gun control and limiting access to deadly weapons like the AR-15, which have now been used in at least seven of the ten deadliest mass shootings since 2010, will quickly be derailed by gun nuts who drag the entire conversation into a war of semantics.

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The phenomenon has taken off in tandem with the renewed debate on gun control. Advocacy organizations fighting for gun reform have set their sights on more modest proposals, including bans on assault weapons and stiffer age requirements for the purchase of many guns, including AR-15s. As part of those efforts, groups have used broad terminology to describe the weapons they are targeting, often referring to “military-grade weapons,” “assault rifles,” “semi-automatic” and “automatic” guns, and more.

For most Americans, those terms can — are are — used interchangeably to describe the same thing: guns, like the AR-15, that allow mass shooters to fire off dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds.

For school shooting apologists though, the inexactitude of the language being used by the other side is an opening through which they gleefully climb in an attempt to derail any debate and deprive it of substance. These people do not want to find themselves in the untenable position of defending the rights of convicted felons and domestic abusers to purchase deadly weapons, so they muddy the waters before the debate can even get there. It is, in no uncertain terms, the world’s dumbest argument.

“It’s a weak argument, but that’s what happens when you don’t really have a strong argument,” said Brandon Friedman, a former Obama administration official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a U.S. Army veteran. “It’s silly.”

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And it’s one that the NRA and its adherents are worried about losing. When confronted by political ideologues who are not well-versed in the intricacies of weapons manufacturing (say, this author for instance), the #2A crowd can scoff and tell itself that because a person cannot accurately identify the caliber bullet that entered a five year old’s skull in Newtown, Connecticut, that person’s opinion on whether or not children should be murdered is invalid.

But when confronted by someone with years of experience around guns — an Army veteran, for instance — that argument becomes much harder to make.

Take one common refrain from the #2A crowd: the hang-up over whether an AR-15 constitutes a “military-grade weapon.” The gun in question is a civilian version of the M4, a weapon that, along with the newer M4A1, is commonly issued in the U.S. military. Both guns fire rounds at roughly the same velocity. Both have 30 round magazines. Both have semi-automatic firing. The only appreciable difference between the two is that the M4 comes equipped with a burst functionality, allowing the shooter to unload three rounds with one pull of the trigger.

In practice though, the two weapons are functionally identical. According to Friedman, it’s practically unheard of for anyone in the Army or in the Marines to utilize the M4’s burst capability.

Friedman, who also served roles at the Department of Veterans Affairs and VoteVets.org before starting his own consulting firm, is among the more prominent and outspoken veterans on issues of gun control. He has seen firsthand how the NRA’s tactics have shifted in recent years.

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“When I used to talk about this stuff, the NRA largely ignored me,” he told ThinkProgress this week. “It feels to me like they largely just pretend like these debates aren’t happening, until recently.”

Lately, though, as more and more veterans, police officers, and responsible gun owners have come to see the need for meaningful gun reform, the NRA has struck a more aggressive tone.

“Somebody has made a decision that they’re going to come after veterans who talk about this stuff,” said Friedman “It just seems somewhat coordinated. The reason it’s going to bother them and get under their skin is because vets who use these weapons in combat know more about them than gun theorists.”

Whether or not gun zealots slowly phase out their use of this questionable line of argument does not change the central premise: from the beginning, the argument itself was incredibly dumb. It is analogous to telling someone their criticism of a recent movie is invalid because they don’t know the make and model of the camera used to shoot it on.

All you need to know about the gun debate is this: deadly, largely unregulated weapons are being used to murder school kids, parishioners, concert goers, and fast food eaters, and the people who continue to fight on behalf of these weapons and their manufacturers are paying for their work with the lives of other people’s children.