I write a great deal about firearms and the gun-control debate, and I’ve found that many of the same questions come up repeatedly. To that end, I’ve decided to try to create a kind of permanent FAQ on gun policy. This is a first blast, but I expect to keep adding to it. As with any technical subject, it is easy to make mistakes here, and, if I have made any, I trust that you will inform me so that I may correct them ASAP. In the Dispatch tradition, I come to this with a conservative point of view but without, I hope, ideological blinders.
To that end, it might be helpful to tell you exactly where I stand politically on this: I’m a constitutionalist who believes that the Bill of Rights really does mean what it says and that Americans’ civil rights include a broad and very inclusive right to keep and bear arms. I’m also a federalist who believes that there is no reason that the gun laws have to be precisely the same in every jurisdiction, and that we might within the boundaries of the Second Amendment reasonably conclude that the gun laws in rural Wyoming don’t have to be precisely the same as those in Manhattan, in much the same way that the First Amendment accommodates a variety of different regulatory approaches to things such as rally permits or marches. For example, the same line of thinking that generally leads most jurisdictions to (quite reasonably) prohibit the carrying of firearms in bars might also lead us to reasonably prohibit the carrying of firearms in nightlife districts such as Austin’s Sixth Street or the Las Vegas Strip. As with freedom of speech, time-and-place restrictions seem to me much more in accord with our constitutional rights–and I think that with firearms they are more likely to be effective than, say, trying to ban this or that scary-looking rifle.
President Joe Biden’s mental meanderings notwithstanding, I think that attempts to ban ordinary weapons such as semiautomatic rifles and handguns are plainly unconstitutional, that they would be unlikely to do much to deter violent crime, and that they are at root intellectually dishonest: They are more genuinely a culture-war assault by progressive-leaning urbanites and suburbanites on gun owners as a demographic, one that is perceived (not entirely accurately) as being socially retrograde, white, male, rural, Southern, middle-aged—everything that communicates “Trump voter” to people living in Greenwich, Connecticut.
That being written, we already have some reasonable regulations in place that are consistent with the Second Amendment, and I think that there are additional constitutionally permissible gun-control policies that might be pursued. The problem with the regulatory approach is that it targets licensed dealers and the people who do business with them, who represent a vanishingly small share of criminals: Less than 2 percent of the criminals in custody today who had a gun with them when they committed their crimes acquired that gun from a licensed gun dealer, and only 0.8 percent from one of those gun shows we hear about all the time. Most violent crimes in the United States are committed by people with prior arrests and convictions for serious and often violent crimes, and the majority of murders in our country are committed by people who would not be legally eligible to purchase a firearm under existing law. We do shamefully little to prosecute straw buyers, and in many jurisdictions, particularly in the big cities, prosecutors throw out more gun cases thhan they prosecute, in some cases by a 2-to-1 margin.
And so, in alphanumeric order, here is some of what I think you should know about …
5.56mm NATO ammunition and “high-powered” rifles: The 5.56 x 45mm NATO cartridge is the round that the overwhelming majority of AR-style rifles are chambered to fire, and it is an iteration of the .223 Remington round developed for the U.S. military in the 1960s. The 5.56mm is basically a high-pressure version of the .223 Remington; the two rounds are so close to identical that .223 rounds can be fired in a 5.56mm rifle and vice versa, though the latter is generally considered unsafe as some .223 chambers are not sturdy enough to handle the higher pressure of the 5.56mm. The 5.56mm is, as you might guess from its relationship to the .223, a member of the .22-caliber centerfire family. It is not, however often the press may say otherwise, a “high-powered” rifle. The .22-caliber centerfire cartridges are relative lightweights, and the 5.56mm round is not even the most powerful member of the family: Rounds such as the .22-250 Remington are substantially more powerful as measured by the standard of muzzle energy, but even these more powerful rounds are generally classified as “varmint” cartridges, adequate for hunting prairie dogs or coyotes but not powerful enough to hunt deer or other game. In fact, the 5.56mm round is prohibited in many jurisdictions for deer hunting—not because it is so high-powered but because it is not high-powered enough; Colorado, for example, specifies a minimum of .24-caliber (or 6mm) bullets for deer hunting, excluding the relatively small 5.56mm.
(A word about nomenclature here: The names of gunmakers sometimes end up attached to the names of particular cartridges, as with the .223 Remington. But the fact that a rifle is chambered for the .223 Remington doesn’t mean it is a Remington-brand rifle—lots and lots of firearms are chambered for that round. Many famous cartridges share a name with a famous gunmaker—Remington, Weatherby, Rigby, Colt—but the name of the chambering doesn’t imply anything about the maker of the firearm. Other designations are more straightforward—you can probably guess who commissioned the development of the .45-70 Government—and some are less obvious: The .30-06, pronounced “thirty-ought-six,” is called that because it is a .30-caliber round developed in 1906, whereas the 6.5mm Creedmoor is named for the old Creedmoor Rifle Range in Queens, New York.)
U.S. shooters have access to some very high-powered rifles, which fall into two partly overlapping categories: Long-distance precision rifles chambered for military-derived rounds such as the .50 BMG and the .338 Lapua or big-game rifles chambered for heavy rounds such as the .458 Winchester Magnum and safari cartridges such as the .416 Rigby. For comparison, the .416 Rigby hunting rifle produces about four times as much muzzle energy as the 5.56mm, while the .50 BMG produces about 10 times as much. These are the real high-powered rifles, but you will almost never hear about one being used in a crime, because they are large, heavy, and expensive: Nobody is going around with a five-foot-long, 40-pound rifle stuck in his pants or in the glovebox of his car, and the people who can afford a really nice John Rigby safari rifle ($160,000 or so) mostly commit white-collar crimes. Some of these high-powered rifles go across categories: The .338 Lapua is used as a military sniper rifle, as a precision rifle for competitive target shooters who want to shoot milk jugs that are literally a mile away, and as a hunting rifle popular among some Western hunters who take game such as elk or bighorn sheep at great distances.
I don’t want to get shot with a 5.56mm rifle, and neither do you. But when we are talking about high-powered rifles, we are talking about your granddad’s hunting rifle, which might very well be two or three times as powerful as an AR-type rifle firing a 5.56mm round. This matters because there are people in the gun-control debate who say that they don’t care about hunting rifles but only want to come after AR-style rifles because these are thought to be powerful or especially dangerous in some way. Which they aren’t. And, and top of that, they are hunting rifles, albeit mostly varmint and small-game hunting rifles.
Ammunition jargon: The above may raise the question: Why is some ammunition measured in caliber and some in millimeters? The answer is history and tradition. A caliber measurement is a fraction of an inch: a .25-caliber bullet is a quarter of an inch in diameter, a .50-caliber bullet is a half an inch in diameter, a .338-caliber bullet is just a little over a third of an inch in diameter, etc. Because these are decimals, a .30-caliber measurement is the same as a .300-caliber or (not that anybody writes it this way) a .3000-caliber. Ammunition developed in the modern era, particularly ammunition developed for military purposes with our metric-using NATO allies in mind, usually is measured in millimeters. This tells you less than you might think it does: There are .50-caliber handguns and .50-caliber rifles, but they typically fire very different rounds: The infamous .50-caliber Desert Eagle handgun fires the .50 Action Express round, while long-range rifles often fire the .50 BMG round, which is .50 caliber but twice as heavy and three times as long as the handgun round. Bullet weights are measured in grains, a grain being 1/7000th of a pound. Why? Because. Shotgun gauges are even more obscure: A 12-gauge shotgun is a shotgun with a bore of such a size that a lead ball fitting precisely into it would weigh 1/12th of a pound, whereas it would take 20 balls the size of a 20-gauge shotgun’s bore to weigh a pound. That’s why shotguns are smaller the larger the bore number is, except for .410 shotguns, which are measured in caliber for reasons of ancient history. The thing to keep in mind is that caliber doesn’t tell you everything: a .45-caliber handgun and a .45-caliber buffalo rifle have, in theory, the same bore measurement, but one fires a larger, heavier bullet. Speaker of which: The bullet is only one part of the cartridge–the part that comes out. There are some firearms that shoot different cartridges but, in some cases, those different cartridges will use the same bullet: The .308 Winchester and the .30-06 fire the same .308-caliber bullet, but the .30-06 fires it from a case that is longer and holds more propellant, which means it fires the bullet a little bit faster, with more muzzle energy. The kind of guy who corrects you if you say “clip” when you mean “magazine” may also correct you if you say “bullet” instead of “round” or “cartridge” or whatever, but you shouldn’t go shooting with that guy.
AR-15 rifles: As the gun pedant in your life no doubt already has informed you, the “AR” in “AR-15” does not, contrary to myth, stand for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle” but instead denotes “ArmaLite rifle,” after the company that developed the weapon for the U.S. military in the 1950s. As it does today, the U.S. military at that time did not conceive of itself as some kind of big, lumbering, Soviet-style piece of heavy imperial machinery, but preferred to be lightweight, precise, and quick on its feet. The contract for the new military rifle that became the AR-15 specified a .22-caliber centerfire rifle with a 20-round magazine, the idea being that, among other considerations, troops carrying the smaller, lighter rifle would be more mobile and that many more rounds of ammunition could be transported at the same weight as fewer rounds of the heavier stuff. ArmaLite had financial problems, and Colt acquired both its contract for what became the M16 military rifle and the rights to the name AR-15, which it used for semiautomatic 5.56mm rifles sold to civilians and law-enforcement agencies. An AR-15 is a particular rifle with a particular design, and it is a particular piece of intellectual property, a brand name. For these reasons—and, because the name AR-15 has become a kind of scare term in the gun debate—people in the know generally refer to “MSRs,” or “modern sporting rifles.” These may differ from the classic AR design in important technical ways, but they are, in most cases, semiautomatic rifles with detachable box magazines.
Most of them are chambered either for the 5.56mm NATO round or for the larger 7.62mm x 51 NATO round, a fraternal twin to the .308 Winchester, associated with the larger AR-10 design. But, in recent years, there has been a great proliferation of chamberings for MSRs and AR-platform rifles, which can now be had in precision-shooting chamberings such as the 6.5mm Creedmoor and in proper hunting chamberings, too. The cheekily named .458 HAM’R cartridge, for example, was developed for feral hog hunting, one of the most popular kinds of hunting in the United States.
This is important because, contrary to what you often hear from figures such as Joe Biden, AR-type rifles and other semiautomatic firearms have been used by U.S. hunters for years and years, going back at least to the early 1960s. AR-pattern rifles are now among the most common hunting rifles in the United States, used for everything from pest-control to hunting everything from coyotes to elk. “We don’t want your hunting rifles, only the AR-15s” is a nonsense sentence.
Are AR-type rifles especially dangerous? Look at the FBI data: In 2019, there were almost 14,000 homicide victims in the United States. All rifles combined—not just AR-type rifles, but all rifles—accounted for only 364 of those incidents. Even if we assume that all of those rifles were AR-type rifles (and they weren’t), we’d still have four times as many murders with knives, more murders with blunt objects, more murders with fists and feet, etc. For crimes short of murder, rifles are even more scarce: Only 13 show up in robberies in the 2019 FBI statistics, three in burglaries, eight in narcotics cases, and two in domestic-violence cases—in a country of 345 million souls, these are not big numbers.
What about mass shootings? In our time as in decades past, the most common sort of firearm to be used in a murder of any kind is simply the most common sort of handgun at the time: It was single-action “thumb-buster” revolvers in the Old West and 9mm semiautomatic handguns in our time. AR-type rifles have been used in a number of high-profile mass shootings, but handguns remain by far the most common weapon of choice for mass shooters as well as for ordinary criminals.
There is some statistical trickiness in that to be aware of: Because different sources define “mass shooting” in different ways, a lot of gang fights and Saturday-evening shootouts get lumped in with the horribly familiar episodes in which deranged killers carry out carefully planned theatrical assaults on schools or other public places. Dead is dead, of course, but, for the purposes of our discussion here, the social resonance of two gangs fighting for control of some criminal enterprise or territory is a different thing from a troubled teenager shooting up his school. If you define “mass shooting” as a premeditated killing by a guy with a plan and a manifesto, then you’ll get more AR-type rifles as a share of the total, without a doubt. There is no denying that these rifles occupy a particular cultural position that is not directly related to their lethality or that this affects the choices of programmatic killers. The “black rifles” are at the center of our gun-policy debate not because they are especially dangerous but because they are cultural totems.
“Assault rifles” and “assault weapons.” These are terms without very robust definitions. But I’ll try to shed some light.
“Assault rifle” is a military term of art, but a vague one, usually meant to describe a weapon that is lighter and more portable than an army’s standard-issue battle rifle. A working definition would be something like, “medium-caliber select-fire rifle with a detachable magazine.” “Select-fire” designates a weapon that can be fired in semiautomatic, burst, or fully automatic modes, and, in that sense, “assault rifles” are really a non-issue for the U.S. gun-control debate: It is very difficult for civilians to buy any firearm capable of full-auto fire, and in almost every circumstance illegal to own such weapons if they were manufactured after 1986. Like those .338 Lapua rifles that cost $7 a round to shoot and $50,000 safari rifles, machine guns are a rich man’s hobby. Fully automatic weapons legally owned by civilians in the United States are almost never used in homicides—I have found documentation of exactly one such case since 1934, along with one case of a legally owned full-auto weapon being used by a corrupt police officer to murder an informant. What happened in 1934 was the implementation of the National Firearms Act, which restricted fully automatic weapons in response to a national panic about gangland gun battles in Chicago. Obviously, this didn’t cure murder, and Chicago’s homicide rate in 1980 was about twice what it had been in 1930, but the killers used fewer Tommy guns and wore fewer fedoras. That isn’t a gun-control success story—it’s a change in fashion.
“Assault weapon” is even more vague. I don’t want to be unfair to the other side here, but it basically ends up meaning, “A firearm that makes a nice liberal uncomfortable.” The Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) of 1994 was mainly an exercise in aesthetics: The law specifically exempted the Ruger Mini Thirty and specifically prohibited Kalashnikov rifles—both of those are semiautomatic rifles, both are chambered for the 7.62 x 39mm round, both accept detachable box magazines of any size you like, etc., but only one of them was associated with Boris Badenov and the Black Panthers. Rather than any ballistic criterion, “assault weapons” were defined by such features as stock configuration (fixed good, folding bad) or whether there was a lug for mounting a bayonet.* (You will search the crime data in vain for a spate of 1990s bayonet murders.) Flash hiders and barrel shrouds were on the naughty list, too, even though these are safety features. Pistol grips also were targeted, which was particularly silly: Check out the pistol grip on this particularly lovely 1840 Lesoinne et Pirlot fils carbine, an “assault weapon” that Queen Victoria might have enjoyed.
(One good definition of “assault weapon” is: a weapon that is pointed at you.)
The AWB doesn’t seem to have had any effect on firearms deaths on gun-related crime—it mainly had the effect of raising the prices of certain firearms about 50 percent between 1993 and 1994.
Gun manufacturers—and, in particular, the guys down in marketing—are not always the most responsible people in the world, and lots of them have relied on silly, macho military imagery, and lots of them have in the past used the word “assault weapon” in their advertising, though “assault” has largely been displaced by the equally dopey “tactical,” the favorite adjective of Walter Mitty-type mall commandos everywhere. “Tacticool,” they call it—and this guy gets it:
I’m pretty old-school about this stuff: I like Winchester rifles with walnut stocks and fancy Italian shotguns like the one Dick Cheney shot that guy in the face with. (The kids call us “Fudds.”) I get the aesthetic queasiness with some of this stuff: We have those dopes in the Hawaiian shirts (some of you the ones I mean) at my gun range, too. But aesthetics are not really a very good way to organize a crime-control policy or to understand a constitution.
Ballistics: The science of studying projectiles in flight. Ballistics is to the gun-control debate what climate-science is to the climate-change debate: The science doesn’t answer all the questions, because the big questions are political and economic questions and not scientific questions, but there are questions of fact that can and must be answered and addressed. Ignoring the facts as trivia for gun-nuts, as so many progressives do, is the mark of somebody who is not committed to having an honest and productive conversation. If you tell me a little ol’ .22-centerfire is a “high-powered rifle,” I’ll know you haven’t done your homework.
Bath school disaster: The worst massacre at a school in U.S. history happened at Bath, Michigan, in 1927. A failed politician murdered 38 children and six others. There were no firearms involved. The killer used explosives.
“Enforce the gun laws we have!” This is a common riposte from gun-rights advocates to gun-control proposals, and it is a good one. There are many examples here—Philadelphia dismisses 61 percent of all gun cases without trial or charges, the U.S. attorney for Chicago refuses to prosecute the great majority of straw-buyer cases, etc.—but here’s the one that really stands out for me: According to the hilariously misnamed Government Accountability Office, there were about 112,000 attempts by prohibited persons to buy firearms in 2017. These weren’t oopsies: 36 percent of those attempts were by convicted felons, 30 percent were subjects of protective orders, 16 percent had been convicted of disqualifying domestic-violence charges, etc. That’s 112,000 federal felonies in which all of the evidence is documented, dated, and signed by the offenders, who even go so far as to provide photocopies of their identification cards. Out of those 112,000 cases, there were only 12 prosecutions. These people are habitual criminals: According to the DOJ, about 30 percent of those who fail a background check go on to be arrested on unrelated criminal charges within five years.
In 2021, the NYPD made 4,456 gun arrests, which resulted in a grand total of one—one!—conviction at trial, along with 698 plea deals and 983 dismissals. Which is to say, if you get arrested for illegal gun possession in New York City, by far the most likely outcome is outright dismissal. In Philadelphia, dismissals outnumber prosecutions 2-to-1, with 61 percent of gun cases simply being thrown out.
FFL: The federal firearms license is what you have to have if you are in the business of selling guns. One of the live issues in the gun-control debate is what it means to be in the business of selling firearms. Some people have gun shops, and, about them, there is no question. Sometimes, a guy sells his buddy his shotgun when he wants to raise some cash for new golf clubs, and about that guy there is no question, either: He is not a gun dealer and not subject to the federal regulations we put on gun dealers. But what about a guy who has a regular full-time job but also is a shooting hobbyist or a collector, who may purchase 20 or 30 firearms a year and may also sell as many—is he a gun dealer? A fellow who inherits a large collection of firearms from his father and spends the next year or two selling them off for a substantial sum—gun dealer? Gun-control advocates complain that ATF interpretation of the definition of who is a gun dealer is too narrow, and that more people should be obliged to obtain licenses in order to continue their activities. My own view is that this is a fair question and that there are at least some cases in which people who obviously are in the business of selling firearms continue to do so without a license and face little or no risk of prosecution. See “Gun show loophole” below.
Ghost guns: These are homemade guns, ranging from those that are genuinely manufactured at home to the more common sort that are assembled mostly from readily available parts. There isn’t any law against making a gun for yourself at home, though you have to be licensed to manufacture them for commercial purposes. So-called ghost guns bring up a couple of questions, beginning with: What is a firearm? That’s a real question: If I sell you 60 percent of the parts needed to put together a gun on Monday, the other 40 percent on Tuesday, and charge you $200 for gunsmithing services to put them together on Wednesday, I have sold you a gun. But what if I sell you 90 percent of a gun and leave you to find the other 10 percent for yourself? Have I sold you a gun? Turn that around: Say you have a gun that needs some repairs, and you bring me a firearm that has 70 percent of what it needs to function and I provide you with the other 30 percent—did I sell you a gun? What if I sell you half of what you need and somebody else sells you half? Who sold you the gun? Anybody? Gun parts wear out, and people customize guns in various ways all the time, by upgrading triggers or barrels, replacing the stocks, etc. Federal regulators have tried to solve this problem by declaring that the gun is, for legal purposes, the “receiver,” meaning the main housing to which most of the components are attached. But this simply re-creates the same problem in miniature: What if somebody sells you a half-finished receiver? The ATF rules on this are vague, to such an extent that there are firms acting in good faith that sell unfinished receivers on the theory that these do not meet the legal definition of “firearm” while the ATF says otherwise. In some cases, you won’t know whether you sold somebody a gun until the ATF tells you. In theory, you shouldn’t be able to buy all the parts you need for a working firearm and simply assemble them—an unfinished receiver should require at least a little bit of machining work. My own limited experience with this is that it takes more know-how than putting together an IKEA bookshelf but is usually within the abilities of a reasonably mechanically competent person.
Homemade guns turn up in crimes from time to time, and some police agencies have reported an increase in them. The Colorado Springs shooter is reported to have used a ghost gun of some kind, though it is not clear that this was in order to avoid going through a background check: The killer appears to be a straight-up lunatic and was arrested in a bomb-scare case a while back but had not been convicted of a disqualifying crime or declared mentally incompetent, and probably could have made an ordinary retail purchase.
The problem with ghost guns, gun-control advocates say, is that they are untraceable. That is generally true: If no individual part meets the legal definition of a firearm, then there is no serial number, no background check, and no mandatory record of the sale. But, in reality, about 98 percent of the firearms used by criminals are effectively untraceable, too: Of the prisoners in the state-prison systems who were in possession of a firearm at the time of their crimes, less than 2 percent acquired that firearm through a retail purchase. Tracing a gun back to the point of its last sale by a licensed dealer can be useful for criminal investigators in some circumstances, but, outside of police-procedural television shows, that kind of tracing plays a mostly minor role in murder cases. (Most of the time; there are times when it really matters.) The thing about criminals is—they’re criminals. The majority of murders in our country are committed by people who would be legally prohibited from owning a firearm: More than half of all murders are committed by people with prior felony convictions, and once you throw in other disqualifiers—certain misdemeanors, open criminal cases, domestic-abuse orders, dishonorable military discharges, fugitive status, illegal alien status, a finding of mental incompetency, etc.—you end up covering a very large share of murderers. And, at the risk of sounding like a snoot, most of them aren’t highly organized people with access to a machine shop. They get their guns the old-fashioned way: They steal them, buy them illegally, and bully girlfriends and nephews with clean records into acting as straw buyers. In the case of straw buyers, tracing might be of some use in a prosecution. In cases such as the Colorado Springs massacre, tracing isn’t an issue.
It’s true we probably need a better regulatory model for deciding what constitutes a firearm and for deciding how many gun parts add up to a gun. It is a genuinely complex regulatory challenge: I have a hunting rifle that I’ve done a little work on, and there are parts from at least half a dozen manufacturers that I know of—and this is not an especially highly modified rifle. Think of how many different companies and supply chains are involved in the components that make up your car and you’ll have an idea of how complicated this can be.
Gun-show loophole: This does not actually exist. A licensed gun dealer has to do everything at a gun show that he would have to do at a store, and so do his customers. Likewise, a person who is not professionally in the business of selling firearms is not required to have a license or to comply with the associated regulations–not at a gun show and not anywhere else. I can sell you a gun in my kitchen, or I can sell you a gun at a gun show. Some gun shows are, at least in part, group garage sales for people looking to reduce their collections and increase their cash in hand. Some gun shows require that every transaction go through an FFL, and some jurisdictions put that requirement on gun shows. As I’ve said before, I think there are some fair questions to be asked about how we determine who is meaningfully in the business of being a gun dealer, but this is not really something related to gun shows per se. Gun shows are a big part of the debate for the same reason scary black rifles are: Some people are creeped out by them. A survey of criminals in custody found that almost none of those who were armed with a gun at the time of their crime got that gun at a gun show–and by “almost none” I mean 0.8 percent.
Hunting and hunting rifles: The Second Amendment is not about hunting—did you really think they put a country gentleman’s hobby in the Bill of Rights?—and the suitability of any class of weapons for the purpose of hunting is entirely immaterial to the gun-rights debate. That being said, hunting rifles are—by far—the most powerful firearms typically found in private hands in the United States. Granddad’s old .30-06 deer rifle is about two-and-a-half times as powerful as an AR-type rifle firing the common 5.56mm NATO cartridge. When Joe Biden and others say that nobody uses an AR-15 to hunt, they are absolutely wrong: AR-style rifles are among the most popular hunting rifles in the United States, probably the single most popular considering their prevalence in hunting the smallest game (“varmints” in the Yosemite Sam nomenclature of the hunting world) along with feral hogs and, increasingly, big game with AR-type rifles chambered for proper hunting rounds.
Hunting rifles and military rifles. Joe Biden can be relied upon to say some variation of this sentence about once a month: “Nobody needs an AR-15 to hunt deer.” Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times offers his own dopey variations of the formulation. Two things about that: One, as noted above, the Second Amendment is not, and never has been, about hunting—with its assumptions of militia deployment, what it is talking about is “arms” understood as infantry weapons, a fact about which there was very little misunderstanding until the gun-control people went about inventing that misunderstanding. The second thing, of course, is that military rifles are hunting rifles and vice versa, and always have been. Firearms in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries were expensive pieces of kit, and if you had one, it usually served all your shooting needs—hunting, fighting, whatever.
While many military rifles and rounds have been adopted by hunters over the years, the direction of the evolution is sometimes misunderstood: It was American hunters and their skill with the Pennsylvania rifle who really first demonstrated the potential of the rifle—still a relatively new invention at that point—over the old muskets carried by British soldiers. (A rifle has “rifling,” meaning spiral grooves cut into the bore, which cause the projectile to spin like a well-thrown football, increasing its effective range and accuracy.) But things have gone both ways: The AR-pattern rifle is commonly used by American hunters. In its most common 5.56mm chambering, it is used for pest control and small game, particularly coyote and other predators and whitetail deer; in the other most common U.S. military chambering, 7.62mm NATO, it is used for wild pigs and medium to large game. Many manufacturers offer AR-style rifles in hunting cartridges such as .243 Winchester and .260 Remington. The AR-style rifle is a hunting rifle and has been for more than half a century.
The classic American hunting cartridge, the .30-06, was originally developed for the military and popularized for hunting in considerable part by Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt. (If you’re rushing to email me that Roosevelt actually used the nearly forgotten .30-03 in his famous African safari, please don’t.) In the golden age of safaris, famous hunters such as W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell routinely hunted with the common British military rifle of the time, the .303 Lee-Enfield. The bison-slaying rifle that “won the West” was the AR-15 of its time, the military-issue Springfield 1873. The 7.62mm NATO cartridge began as a military experiment but first hit the market in its hunting form as the .308 Winchester. The first semiautomatic rifles in general use were, in fact, almost all hunting rifles—conservative military decisionmakers did not trust the newfangled mechanism. The AR-15 hit the hunting market the same year it was adopted by the U.S. military, 1963. But Winchester had been selling semiautomatic hunting rifles for six decades by that time.
Semiautomatic rifles are hunting rifles. AR-pattern rifles are hunting rifles. Military rifles are hunting rifles. They always have been. The distinction between hunting rifles and scary rifles is entirely synthetic. —Added January 31, 2023.
Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon, one that keeps firing as long as the trigger is depressed. You can own these legally in the United States, provided the firearm was manufactured before 1986 and you are willing to undergo some beady-eyed federal scrutiny. These are almost never used in homicides—a fully automatic weapon legally owned by a civilian has been used in one murder since 1934. One additional murder was perpetrated by a corrupt police officer. A submachine gun is a machine gun chambered for handgun rounds, e.g., the Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy gun, which fires the same round as the .45 automatics once issued to U.S. soldiers. The same rules apply to these as to machine guns, and they are similarly absent from the crime data of the past century or so.
MSR: That’s “modern sporting rifle,” which is what people mostly mean when they talk about “AR-15s” or similar designators. Basically, an MSR is almost any semiautomatic rifle with a detachable box magazine—by far the most popular kind of long gun sold in the United States.
Muzzle energy: Scary-looking guns don’t kill people more effectively than bland-looking ones. There are lots of factors that go into the lethality of a particular weapon, from bullet design to the skill of the shooter, but the general standard of a firearm’s power is muzzle energy, which is calculated the same way as kinetic energy is calculated in any other context: K.E. = 1/2 m v2. You don’t have to do the math yourself: There’s a decent list on Wikipedia, and the most powerful firearms cartridges in the world are not the ones that come out of AR-type rifles—mostly, they come out of hunting rifles of the sort you use if your morning agenda includes a meeting with a Cape buffalo.
NICS: The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is what we use to screen would-be gun buyers when they attempt to make a purchase from a licensed dealer, or FFL. A couple of things about NICS: For one thing, it isn’t a very good system, because the agencies are supposed to report disqualifying factors to NICS often fail to do so. The killer in the 2017 Sutherland Springs church massacre in Texas should have been rejected when he tried to buy the gun he used in that crime, but he wasn’t, because the Air Force failed to report his criminal conviction in a military court. To prevent NICS from being used as a back-door ban on gun sales, the FBI has only three business days to complete a background check (“instant” is a flexible term when it comes to government work!), and, if it fails to come to a decision during that time, the dealer may proceed with the sale. Repeat: may—some dealers do, and some don’t. Every year, some considerable number of buyers are wrongly approved (estimates vary and the FBI does not seem to be very forthcoming on this issue) when a NICS delay allows a sale to proceed; when the wrongful sale is discovered—a bureaucratic snafu on the FBI’s part and a felony on the buyer’s part—the ATF is supposed to go and at least retrieve the guns, but, for the most part, they do not prioritize that work. Most of the guns don’t get recovered because agents decide that it isn’t worth the time, and the underlying crime almost never gets charged, and by “almost never” I mean something on the order of 1 in 1,000. According to the GAO, some agents just send the prohibited buyers a scolding text message and call it a day—a heck of an outcome for what should be a federal weapons charge.
Semiautomatic: I don’t know how many times I have seen a report about semiautomatic rifles accompanied by footage of somebody blasting away with a machine gun. A semiautomatic rifle fires one round each time you pull the trigger, like a revolver. One pull, one round. In some more old-fashioned types of rifles, you have to do something between shots: The Rifleman had to work his tricked-out lever, and bolt-action rifles require you to manually work the mechanism to put the next round into the chamber. Less deadly? I don’t know: Chris Kyle—the American Sniper—killed 160 people with a variety of mostly bolt-action rifles, while Squeaky Fromme failed to even nick Gerald Ford with a semiautomatic pistol from about 15 feet. It is probably worth keeping in mind that both the worst school massacre in U.S. history and our nation’s deadliest act of homegrown terrorism involved no firearms at all—those criminals employed explosives.
Silencers: Why would anybody who is not a professional assassin or some other kind of criminal need a silencer? Spend an afternoon down at the range and you’ll get it. Silencers—the pedants will insist on “suppressors,” and the Brits call them “moderators”—in the real world are not much like they are in the movies. In most cases, a gun outfitted with a silencer sounds exactly like a gun going off when you fire it. Many firearms outfitted with silencers are loud enough that you need hearing protection when you shoot them—they are very loud, but less loud than they would be otherwise. The most common criterion discussed isn’t “silence,” but “hearing-safe.” Some hunters put silencers on their rifles because they don’t want to wear protective earmuffs out in the woods, and some people who shoot a lot worry about their hearing, even if they are sissies like me who use both earplugs and earmuffs at the same time. You can get some firearms pretty close to what silencer aficionados call “Hollywood quiet,” particularly if you are using small-caliber firearms loaded with special subsonic ammunition. (Part of the “crack” of a gunshot is a miniature sonic boom.) This can have some undesirable effect: Slower bullets are more difficult to aim accurately, they don’t hit the target as hard (fine for paper, potentially a problem for moose), and they may not produce energy sufficient to cause a semiautomatic firearm to cycle properly.
The worry about silencers is definitely one of those culturally specific things. In some European countries, such as France, you can buy a silencer over the counter, like a wrench—and some shooting ranges even require them. In the United States, you have to submit absurd federal paperwork and have the dealer lock the implement in a vault until Washington gives you the nod, which can take more than a year. (Recent turnaround times have been faster.) I like suppressors, because I like being able to hear–though I am tempted to wear my shooting earmuffs when flying American.
Straw buyers: These are a big factor in how criminals get guns—people with clean records buy the guns for them, sometimes for financial gain, sometimes out of loyalty, sometimes because they are blackmailed or bullied into it. Some of them are victims–girlfriends and family members of violent criminals who terrorize them into breaking the law–but some of them are the real bad guys in the story, criminals who make a little extra money as low-level (or, in some cases, not-so-low-level) gun traffickers. We almost never prosecute them unless it is part of a bigger, sexier organized-crime case of the sort that appeals to career-minded prosecutors.
Suicides: The majority of gun deaths in the United States are suicides—about 54 percent, according to Pew. This is one piece of evidence among many that the gun issue is, like the homelessness issue, at root a mental-health issue, at least to some considerable extent.
Switzerland: If you want an indication of how much of the American gun problem is an American problem rather than a gun problem, consider the case of Switzerland, which arms its prime criminal demographic (men between the ages of 18 and 34) with splendid military weapons, which many of them keep at home, and which has a robust national shooting culture and millions of firearms in private hands. It also has a murder rate of approximately squat. Why? My answer is that Switzerland is full of Swiss people, and the United States of America is full of Americans—you know: maniacs.
Uzi: Here is a favorite gun-nut meme:
Before everything was an AR-15, everything was an Uzi. But the Uzi has been downgraded in the popular consciousness. Poor Uzi.
Watch this space for updates!
Correction, December 28, 2022: The article initially misidentified the rounds for which Ruger Mini Thirty and Kalshnikovs are chambered.