The right of the people to keep and bear arms — Part I

Exploring the arguments, myths of people for and against guns

March 31, 2018 — “You cannot pussyfoot around it, it’s about guns,” Karin Radtke said as she stood with a group of like-minded gun reform advocates during a demonstration on March 24. The march was held in solidarity with the March for Our Lives campaign, a nationwide protest asking for various forms of gun reform.

The reasons people gave for attending the Florence march were varied. Some said they were there to support the teenagers of Stoneman Douglas High School.

But for Radtke, who helped organize the Florence march, the whole conversation boiled down to guns.

“You can’t say it’s about the Second Amendment, you can’t say it’s about safety in schools,” Radtke continued. “No, it’s about guns. Every country all over the world has mental health problems. But this is the only country where you have such an ingrained, set in stone mentality of gun ownership, that it’s a problem.”

The debate over the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms has been raging for years, with some calling for limited restrictions on guns, others demanding a complete ban on them, and multiple variations of the argument in between.

For reformers, various claims have been made about guns and the culture that surround them, from accusations that semi-automatic rifles only exist to kill, and that bans on weapons like the heavily contested AR-15 will lead to a safer society.

However, most of those interviewed at Saturday’s march had no experience with guns, neither owning nor using them. The terminology they used was different from gun rights advocates, and proposals that they made to curb gun violence varied in specificity.

“If young kids can walk into a house and get a gun and kill themselves or somebody else because it’s easy for them to do, I don’t care what the definition of gun ‘safety’ is, or what an assault rifle is,” Maureen Miltenberger, who helped organize the Florence demonstration, said. “I think definitions of who knows what about what isn’t important when our kids are dying.”

But for gun rights advocates, definitions are vital.

A March 2018 article by the liberal leaning news blog ThinkProgress stated, “Until those who want rational gun control laws master the basics of talking about firearms, they will never be taken seriously by their National Rifle Association (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.”

However, gun reformers don’t own the market on lack of information. Many myths permeate the talking points of gun rights advocates, which will be examined in this series as well.

To help parse the facts of the debate, over the next month the Siuslaw News will be examining some of the myths surrounding the issue through a analysis of articles and studies done on the issue.

As with any controversial topic, many of the presented facts are in dispute. Much of this has to do with restrictions placed on some of the research regarding the issue, but how this came about illustrates how rhetoric can derail a conversation before it even begins.

The majority of the statistics and studies referenced in this series come from independent sources. One of the main reasons for this stems from a 1996 congressional amendment, sponsored by Arkansas congressman Jay Dickey. The amendment was attached to a spending bill for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that forbade the organization from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.”

An often-cited claim is that the Dickey Amendment bans all research regarding gun violence, but this is not true, according to a February 2018 article by The Atlantic.

But at the same time, the spending bill stripped any CDC funding for such research.

The NRA had pushed for the amendment, stating it was politically motivated, and the agency may have had cause to believe this.

The NRA focused on a statement by CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control then-spokesman Mark Rosenberg who stated, “We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. … It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol — cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly and banned.”

To have a governmental scientist enter the gun debate with a preconceived bias would be considered unethical by many in the scientific community and goes to show why gun rights advocates would be wary of this, particularly in light of Rosenberg’s statements.

Since then, multiple organizations such as the American Public Health Association and American Medical Association have been calling gun violence a public health problem, and many more have petitioned for a lifting of the Dickey Amendment, including Dickey himself. In 2012, he coauthored a Washington Post op-ed with Rosenberg, calling for more governmental research.

“I wish I had not been so reactionary,” Dickey told reporters.

The reason scientists want more robust and regulated research on the issue of guns involves the role of the CDC. The agency studies a multitude of issues surrounding unnatural death, including drownings, accidental falls, car crashes and suicides. Thus far, the CDC has not made regulations to ban automobiles, swimming pools and steep stairs.

This is not to say that the CDC would act as a final word on the subject of gun violence, and that it would always provide correct information. Science is an ongoing conversation, with studies building on one another until a majority of peer-reviewed research comes to a consensus.

But to reach a consensus, multiple studies have to be done. For that to happen, all hands need to be on deck.

It would be a misconception to believe that banning research would lead to gun control. Many of the independent studies thus far point to the opposite in certain circumstances. To understand that research, it is important to look at what guns actually are.

“Assault weapons”

Before the Florence March for Our Lives began, one demonstrator spoke about what types of guns they wanted to ban.

“I don’t want to take away the gun of a hunter, but I don’t think anybody needs a semi-automatic machine gun,” she said. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Those guns are used for warfare. They’re made to kill. They’re not made to aim accurately. They’re just made to kill as many people as possible, and I don’t think that’s something that should be owned by the average person.”

The demonstrator was speaking off the cuff and stated there would be others better suited to speak on the issue. However, the same phrasing they used to describe the guns was echoed by many others at the protest — “machine guns,” “assault weapons” and “semi-automatic” were terms that were used interchangeably.

By misusing terms, gun reform advocates can find themselves inadvertently calling for either unnecessary action, when some types of guns are already prohibited, or advocating a ban on the majority of weapons in the United States.

When the demonstrator stated that nobody needs “semi-automatic machine guns,” they conflated two types of guns, semi-automatic and machine.

A machine gun is a firearm that only fires in full-automatic mode, meaning it continuously fires with a single pull of the trigger, and stops only when the trigger is released.

A semi-automatic gun is one which fires a single shot with every pull, but the bullets are automatically reloaded between shots. This is different from single-shot guns, which requires the user to either cock the gun between shots, such as revolvers, or hand-feed ammunition between shots, like bolt-action rifles.

The distinction is important for a number of reasons.

Since the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986, the manufacturing and selling of machine guns became illegal, though ownership or selling these guns made before the ban are still allowed. Most of the machine guns still in existence are cost prohibitive though, with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Pre-1986 machine guns are still transferable between individuals. Dealers are able to buy newly manufactured machine guns, but are not allowed to sell them to the general public.

When a gun reformer states they want machine guns banned, they are talking about policy that was decided decades earlier.

More regularly, gun reformers refer to semi-automatic guns when they speak of gun control. However, most of the guns sold in America, from handguns to rifles, are semi-automatic.

In 2013, more than four million pistols (semi-automatic) were sold in America, while less than one million revolvers (single shot) were sold, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Creating a blanket ban on all semi-automatic weapons would essentially ban 3/4 of all handguns and rifles in America.

To differentiate, gun reformers often lean on the term “assault weapon” to describe weapons to control, but even that term is fraught with problems.

The term “assault weapon” has been used in various capacities throughout the decades. A January 2013 New York Times article laid out the problems surrounding the term.

“Assault weapon” was first used to describe a military weapon, the Sturmgewher, produced by the Germans in World War II. That weapon was capable of both semiautomatic and fully automatic fire.

By 1984, as manufacturers began to sell firearms modeled after new military rifles, advertisers like Guns & Ammo promoted a book called “Assault Firearms,” which it said was “full of the hottest hardware available today.”

 But since then, the term has become mostly a political phrase.

Generally, gun reform advocates refer to “assault weapons” as firearms like those used in recent mass shooting like the Pulse Nightclub in Florida and the Las Vegas shooting earlier this year. The focus is on semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines and “military” features like pistol grips, flash suppressors and collapsible or folding stocks, as the NY Times article stated.

But gun rights advocates argue that the term should only apply to weapons that have fully automatic capabilities, as defined in the WWII era. Because fully automatic weapons were essentially banned in 1986, the discussion on further banning assault weapons is moot.

They also contend that there is very little difference between any sporting firearm and assault weapons, which is true.

The general consensus for those who use the term is that an “assault weapon” is a semiautomatic weapon that has detachable magazines, allowing them to fire 10 to 100 rounds with a single magazine. But this definition covers a wide variety of guns, including handguns.

After that, it becomes a question of “cosmetics.” Does a gun have a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and perhaps concealed? Does the gun have a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil?

These types of arguments are considered crucial to those in the gun debate, particularly for guns rights advocates. Because of the nebulous nature of the term, different states have come up with different laws based upon their own interpretation of the phrase. For example, California bans magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.

Many gun rights advocates contend that by simply saying “assault weapons” should be banned; gun reformers are ignoring the complexity of the issue.

The March for Our Lives demonstrator suggested that long guns like AR-15s are not made to shoot accurately, inferring that the only reason to own a long gun would be to indiscriminately shoot at multiple targets. The statement is false, as most models have a Minute of Angle (MOA) of one or two.

MOA refers to the capability a firearm has to consistently deliver a grouping of shots at a particular distance. A one-MOA gun can be accurate within 1 inch when shooting from 100 yards away. At 200 yards, it’s 2 inches, 300 yards, 3 inches, etc. Many long guns like the AR-15 have MOA ratings that make the accuracy even better.

The targeting accuracy of a long gun like the AR-15 is important to understand how they are typically used in the general population.

A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center studied why people own guns. Asking what the “major” reason was for gun ownership, 67 percent said for protection, 38 percent for hunting, 30 percent for sport shooting, 13 percent for collecting and eight percent for work.

If people had to choose one specific reason for gun ownership, protection drops to 48 percent and hunting down to 32 percent, per a 2013 Pew report.

But the guns people use for protection differs.

A 2014 Baylor Religion Survey found that handguns were the preferred weapon at 37.5 percent. Long guns, like the AR-15, drop to 27 percent, with 58 percent reporting long gun use as recreational only, and 9 percent as collector’s items.

In this light, AR-15s are typically used for hunting and target practice, something that most of the March for Our Lives demonstrators listed as suitable reasons to own a gun.

It should also be noted that the “AR” in AR-15 does not stand for “assault rifle,” which is an oft-stated claim. Instead, it stands for ArmaLite Rifle 15. It was originally manufactured for military use as an automatic weapon, but in 1959 the trademark was sold to Colt’s Manufacturing Company. In 1964, Colt began selling the rifle in a semi-automatic form. Then in 1977, the patent ran out and the gun proliferated the market, fast becoming one of the most popular guns in America.

It is important to point out that the gun has been sold publicly for 54 years, but is only now being used in mass shootings, which have occurred in America since before the Constitution was signed. To single the AR-15 out as the main reason for deadly mass shootings would be a misnomer, as it has existed for decades as an uncontroversial gun for hunting and target shooting.

Handguns make up the vast majority of gun violence in the United States. In 2016, 7,105 handguns were tied to homicides, compared to 374 with rifles and 262 with shotguns.

When the March for Our Lives demonstrators were asked if they believed handguns should be banned, most stated no.

“They’re okay,” one demonstrator said. “They’re okay in the hands of people that know how to use them or keep them secure.”

When a gun reformer infers that guns like the AR-15 are only used to kill mass amounts of people, it can have the effect of completely disregarding the culture of those who own guns, painting gun owners as uncaring. This in turn makes it difficult for both sides of the issue to debate guns in good faith.

In an October 2017 article in The Federalist written by Meredith Dake-O’Connor, a gun rights advocate spoke about the pain of the misconceptions regarding how they are viewed in the debate:

“The most destructive, divisive response when dealing with Second Amendment advocates is the notion that we aren’t on your side of the issue because we ‘don’t care’ about the tragedy and loss of life. Two years ago, at Christmas I had a family member, exasperated that I wasn’t agreeing about gun control, snarl, ‘It appears that if your [step] daughter was killed because of gun violence you wouldn’t even care!’ … The obvious implication is that we are unmoved by the loss of life.”

Dake-O’Connor wrote that the debate often “dehumanizes” Second Amendment advocates, even those who empathize with the pain over the loss of life.

“As hard as it may be to imagine, a person can watch this, ache, hurt and be profoundly affected by these events and not change his or her position on the Second Amendment,” she wrote.

If both sides view each other as monsters, will a constructive discussion on the issue ever be had? And if the discussion cannot be had, will meaningful and lasting solutions to issues of mass shootings ever be accomplished?

In different times, it’s possible that this debate could be better served without the specter of mass shootings. As it stands, however, mass shootings are where the debate currently is.

The questions is whether there are misconceptions about mass shootings as well.

In part two of this series, the Siuslaw News will examine another component of the ongoing debate on guns: mental health.

Note: This is part 1 of a continuing series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.