Deadly Falsehoods About the Orlando Shooting and Gun Control

In the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre, many public figures have littered the issue of gun control with falsehoods that have deadly implications. The facts below address some of the most pervasive ones.

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“Weapons of War” and “Assault Rifles”

A number of prominent individuals and major media outlets have said that the killer used a “weapon of war” or “assault rifle” to carry out this crime. These claims are untrue, and they accord with a written strategy of the gun control lobby to deceive the public about this issue.

As detailed by ABC News, the killer used a “.223 AR-style Sig Sauer MCX semiautomatic rifle and a Glock 17 [9 mm] handgun.” Like the Sig MCX, the Glock 17 is a semi-automatic firearm, which means it fires one bullet for each pull of the trigger.

In stark contrast, the “most common military” firearms, as explained in the book Military Technology, are fully “automatic rifles and machine guns” that fire multiple bullets “with a single pull of the trigger.” A key advantage of these guns is that soldiers don’t need to aim them with pinpoint accuracy to hit the enemy. Instead, they can “point the weapon in the general direction of” their adversaries and mow them down en masse. The book notes that these firearms have “made war a far more deadly business.”

A federal law called the National Firearms Act effectively bans the vast majority of civilians from owning fully automatic firearms. Since 1934, this law has strictly regulated the sale and ownership of such guns. Furthermore, a 1986 revision to the law banned all fully automatic firearms except for those grandfathered under previous law. In January 2016, the Department of Justice reported “there is no evidence that” any legal owner of a firearm covered by this act was convicted of using these guns to commit a crime from 2006 through 2014.

The same applies to assault rifles, which are a class of fully automatic weapons. The 2011 Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law explains that an “assault rifle” is “capable of being fired in fully automatic and semi-automatic modes, at the user’s option.” Due to their fully automatic mode, these are also banned by the National Firearms Act.

The gun used by the Orlando shooter is what certain journalists and politicians call an “assault weapon.” The 2011 AP Stylebook defines this term as follows:

A semi-automatic firearm similar in appearance to a fully automatic firearm or military weapon. Not synonymous with assault rifle, which can be used in fully automatic mode.

To reiterate, “assault weapons” are not fully automatic, not military weapons, and not assault rifles.

The AP’s use of similar terms (“assault rifle” and “assault weapon”) to describe materially different firearms is not accidental. The term “assault weapon” was introduced into the gun control debate in the 1980s and popularized with the expressed intent of leading people to believe that certain semi-automatic guns are fully automatic.

In 1988, the newly formed Violence Policy Center (which would grow to become the nation’s “most effective” gun control organization) published a booklet entitled Assault Weapons and Accessories in America. In its conclusion, Josh Sugermann, the founder and current executive director of this organization, strategized how the “new topic” of “assault weapons” will “strengthen the handgun restriction lobby for the following reasons:”

… The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. …

In accord with this strategy, numerous politicians and media outlets have amplified this confusion in the wake of the Orlando shooting. For example:

  • Hillary Clinton wrote that “this is the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States and it reminds us once more that weapons of war have no place on our streets.”
  • President Obama’s press secretary, John Earnest, called for a ban on “weapons of war” and said that the killer’s weapon was “intended not for the streets of Orlando, but for a battlefield.”
  • The Washington Post ran a headline declaring that “Assault rifles are becoming mass shooters’ weapon of choice.”
  • CNN reported that the shooter used “an assault rifle.”
  • The New York Times reported that the shooter used “an assault rifle.”
  • The Huffington Post published an article entitled “Here’s What You Need To Know About The Weapons Of War Used In Mass Shootings.”

Politicians and media outlets spread similar falsehoods in the wake of the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Yet, instead of improving its choice of terminology to prevent the confusion desired by the gun control lobby, the Associated Press revised its Stylebook to further blur the distinction between fully automatic and semi-automatic weapons. As opposed to its 2011 version, the AP’s 2015 version combined the terms “assault rifle” and “assault weapon” into a single definition and wrote that they “are often used interchangeably” but “some” journalists “make the distinction that assault rifle is a military weapon….”

The media’s usage of such unclear and easily misunderstood terms violates basic standards of honest journalism. Per The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage, “a writer should use jargon only when necessary and define it carefully.”

Magazine Capacity

In a commentary blaming the National Rifle Association for the Orlando shooting, the editorial board of the New York Times declared that the killer “was able to kill 49 people largely because the assault rifle he was using could fire 30-round clips as fast as he could pull the trigger.”

Likewise, U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson told CNN that if the shooter had “nothing” more “than a Glock pistol—which was his other weapon today—he might have killed three or four people, and not fifty.”

The Times and Grayson provided no evidence to support their claims, and a basic knowledge of firearms refutes them. The standard magazine for the Glock 17 holds 17 bullets, and with practice, it can be swapped out in one second.

Furthermore, Glock handguns can also fire high-capacity magazines, and so can most other semi-automatic guns. Such clips are easy to make and inexpensive. For instance, a 31-round clip for the Glock 17 can be purchased for $15.95.

Concealed Carry & Self-Defense

During his speech in Orlando after the shooting, Obama said: “The notion that the answer to this tragedy would be to make sure that more people in a nightclub are similarly armed to the killer defies common sense.”

Similarly, the New York Times editorial board wrote that the NRA “clings to the absurd fantasy that a heavily-armed populace is the best way to keep Americans safe. That failed in Orlando, where an armed security guard was on the scene but could not stop the slaughter.”

The logic of Obama and the Times editors is specious because:

  • the outcomes of these situations are determined by factors like the physical locations of the shooters and guards, as well their relative numbers, skills, and weapons. In other words, just because the guard did not stop the shooter in this instance does not mean that guns are useless for protection. If that were so, Obama and the New York Times Building wouldn’t have armed security.
  • police officers and uniformed guards (like the one at the nightclub) are sometimes sitting ducks for premeditated killers, because the assassins can easily spot them and have the advantage of surprise. This is how a convict was able to murder two New York City police officers in their squad car.
  • civilians and undercover officers who carry a concealed firearm often have the advantage of surprise over would-be murderers.
  • when counting the bare minimum of defensive gun uses implied by the most rigorous surveys, civilian defensive gun uses in the U.S. far outnumber violent crimes committed with guns.

Florida is a right-to-carry state, but the law prohibits civilians from bringing a firearm into an establishment that makes most of its income by selling “alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises….” Hence, every law-abiding civilian in that nightclub was forbidden from armed defense. The shooter, on the other hand, simply ignored the law.

Hunting and Home Defense

According to Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, “assault weapons or high capacity magazines” have “nothing to do with self-defense or hunting and have no place in the hands of non-military and non-law enforcement personnel.”

Striking a similar note, Slate correspondent Justin Peters asserted that the weapon used by the shooter (which he misidentified as an AR-15) is “not exactly” “useful for hunting and home defense.”

These proclamations of Edelman and Peters are deflated by specialists in these fields. For one example of many, an article in Outdoor Life reveals that these guns are used for hunting:

Regardless of what you think or how you feel about using semi-automatic guns for hunting, autoloaders and AR-style rifles are becoming more common in [hunting] camps and virtually every major manufacturer is producing these guns in calibers heavy enough to drop deer, hogs and bears.

With regard to home defense, a 2015 article in the magazine Tactical Life summarized the views of eight firearm experts about what weapon they use to defend their home. Three of these individuals use a semi-automatic AR-style rifle, four use a semi-automatic handgun, and one uses both.

In a 2015 interview with American Riflemen, Kyle E. Lamb, one of the nation’s “most respected” gun trainers, explained why he prefers a semi-automatic AR rifle for home defense. Some of the reasons he details is that the rifle is more accurate than a handgun, has less recoil, and is easier to shoot for the average person. He concludes by stating, “When it comes right down to it, this discussion is about using what you are most comfortable and extremely confident with.”

The Implications

 False claims about the Orlando shooting distract from the root causes of this tragedy and can steeply reduce the chances of preventing similar ones in the future. Like many aspects of public policy, the issues surrounding this massacre extend far beyond this one event and have widespread life-or-death implications. Hence, it behooves people to get the facts correct.

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching publishing verifiable facts about public policy.

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