PSA: A primer on gun terminology

As we continue the gun debate, I want to make one clarification in terminology. It’s one of those things that can quickly derail a debate because of semantics: a lot of people confuse the term “semiautomatic” with “automatic.

Glock 17, a semiautomatic pistol that fires 9-mm rounds

A SEMIAUTOMATIC firearm is one that, when you pull the trigger, uses the recoil from the bullet to eject the spent cartridge and reload a fresh one, so that the next time you want to fire, all you have to do is pull the trigger again.

This is different from an AUTOMATIC firearm, where once you pull the trigger, the gun will keep re-cycling and re-firing until you release the trigger or run out of ammunition.

Uzi of the israeli armed forces.jpg
Uzi, an automatic weapon that also fires 9-mm rounds. This particular type of automatic weapon, which fires pistol rounds, is sometimes called a submachine gun. Because of its small size, the Uzi is also sometimes called a machine pistol.

The majority of handguns made and sold in the US are semiautomatics. That’s what most people think of when they’re thinking of pistols. Think of the classic Hollywood image of somebody pulling back on the slide of a pistol (usually ejecting a perfectly good round, but that’s a separate matter).

A Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver.

The alternative is a revolver, which, instead of using the recoil to line up the next shot, uses a rotating cylinder to hold the bullets, and the trigger mechanically moves the cylinder while pulling the hammer back to strike and fire the next bullet. Likewise, many rifles and shotguns are semiautomatic as well, as opposed to bolt-action/lever-action rifles and pump-action/lever-action/break-action shotguns.

(above) A Remington semiautomatic shotgun, (below) A Maverick pump-action shotgun

I’ve heard a lot of gun control advocates call for a ban on “semiautomatic” weapons, including former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. I’m not sure that’s what all gun control advocates mean when they use that term, and moreover the gun lobby quickly picks up on that as evidence that those advocating for gun control either don’t know what we’re talking about or are trying to ban all guns. I think most people who say they want to ban “semiautomatic” weapons mean they want to ban civilian ownership of AUTOMATIC weapons (that is, what we might colloquially call “machine guns”).

But, believe it or not, this, too, is problematic, as most automatic weapons are already illegal or heavily restricted. The problem is that many legal semiautomatic weapons are not that far off from their illegal/military-only automatic counterparts. The AR-15 is a classic example of this. And, there exist modifications that can easily convert a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon (e.g., the infamous bump stock).

So, what term do we use? Here we get into terms like “assault weapon,” with no universally agreed definition. In 1994, an “assault weapons ban” did become law, but its definition of “assault weapon” was so loose that many weapons easily slipped out from under it. Congress allowed the law to expire in 2004.

What it really boils down to is that people feel there are certain high-powered weapons that far exceed what is needed for hunting or home defense, and which solely exist to maximize the power to kill human beings quickly and indiscriminately — weapons of war. What most gun control supporters are arguing is that weapons of war should be kept out of the hands of civilians — or at least, away from maniacs.

When the NRA argues that civilians should be allowed indiscriminate ownership of weapons of war to stave off a hypothetical threat of tyranny from the government, and all we’re actually seeing is weapons of war being used by maniacs against civilians, we have a problem. (Also, I should point out that if people ever do use guns to “fight government tyranny,” this would mean they’d be using guns against military and law enforcement, as those are the agents of government. I just wanted that to be clear, as the NRA loves to smear gun control advocates by saying we don’t respect our troops or the police.)

I make this point about terminology because as we effect change in this country, I want to make sure we’re clear in what we say, and that we leave no room for opponents to derail our arguments with semantics.

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