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The Gun Control Debate, in Plain English

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Explaining the jargon and policy proposals of gun control, in layman’s terms

By Seth Cline

December 18, 2012 RSS Feed Print

State police on the scene after the shooting Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The Newtown shooting has sparked talk of the nation’s gun laws, with politicians from President Barack Obama to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein alluding to possible gun reform legislation.

Debating firearm policy or gun control can be difficult to those not familiar with the particular jargon associated with firearms. Here’s a basic rundown of terms likely to find their way in the firearm debate or any upcoming legislation.


Semi-automatic firearms are those that fire each time the trigger is pulled, without requiring the shooter to manually reload or re-cock the weapon. Automatic weapons, which are heavily regulated, fire until the trigger is released. Revolvers, bolt, or pump-action firearms require the shooter to reload the chamber using a separate mechanism from the trigger. Most guns in use today are semiautomatic, which only describes the firing and reloading action, not the size or shape (there are semiauto handguns, rifles, and shotguns—Lanza had the first two; it’s unclear if the shotgun in his car was semiautomatic or not.

A semi-automatic handgun.

A semi-automatic M14 rifle.

“Assault weapon”

One of the most popular policy proposals floated is an “assault weapons ban.” The problem is, it’s a vague term, says Jeff Green, a defense industry lobbyist.

“Everybody has a slightly different variation on the definition,” he says. “I think in layman’s terms the question is: ‘Is this a weapon designed for sporting uses or is this a weapon that’s defined or applied more for military applications.’ “

In 1994, Congress passed an assault weapons ban in a comprehensive crime bill that lasted until 2004. That law defined assault weapon by particular military-style features. Assault weapons were firearms with at least two of a number of features, including: a bayonet lug, a flash suppressor, a pistol grip that protrudes beneath the line of the barrel, a detachable magazine, or a folding or telescoping stock (the part of the gun which supports the shoulder when fired).

This piecemeal definition is akin to defining a luxury car based solely on its features — a car is only a luxury car if it has seat warmers or two sunroofs. In the same way an $80,000 car could therefore not be considered a “luxury car” if it didn’t have those specific features, a military-grade semiautomatic rifle could escape the assault weapons ban. That allowed gun manufacturers to skirt the ban, which one study said “targets a relatively small number of weapons based on features that have little to do with the weapons’ operation.”

Another possible downside to re-instating the assault weapons ban is the effect it would have on demand.

“Sales of these weapons increase every time there’s a discussion of banning them, and many manufacturers are seeing record demand right now,” says Green. If a new ban is similar to the 1994 variety, any assault weapons bought or built before the ban would be exempt.

A semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle.

“High-capacity magazine”

A magazine is the storage device that feeds bullets into the chamber of a weapon for firing. High capacity models allow shooters to fire multiple rounds without having to manually reload a weapon. These often rectangular-shaped add-ons typically allow shooters from 10 to 30 shots (Adam Lanza had a 30-round magazine) before the need to reload.

As an aftermarket feature, the magazine capacity is pretty much up to the gun owner, Green says.

“Ten would be the baseline (capacity), but there are 30- and even 100-round magazines that are available.”

The 1994 assault weapons ban also banned high capacity magazines, which it defined as feeding device that can accept more than 10 rounds of ammo.

Green expects that regulating magazines and ammunition will be the most promising reform.

“The clips issue is one that would have a high likelihood of success,” he says. “If the understanding is you’ll never take all weapons off the street, having to deal with constitutional issues, I think then limiting the ability of an individual to have the ammunition necessary to do these drastic things is a good angle to take.”

A semi-automatic M16 assault rifle with a scope and extra magazine. (Above right) 5.56mm cartridges.

Gun Show loophole

Current federal law requires prospective gun buyers undergo a criminal background check before purchasing a firearm from a licensed firearm dealer. But if the buyer wanted to buy a gun through any private channel — a newspaper ad, a website, or most commonly an unlicensed seller at a gun show—there would be no such check in most states. An estimated 40 percent of gun sales go through these unlicensed channels, according to government statistics—and the loophole exists in 33 states. Bills proposing to close the loophole by requiring background checks for all gun purchases have been introduced in the House and Senate, though neither has made it out of their respective committees.


This refers to the diameter, in inches or millimeters, of a weapon’s barrel or the cartridges it fires. Lanza’s Bushmaster rifle used .223-caliber ammunition, meaning its rounds were .223 inches wide. Typically this spoken as a “two twenty-three rifle.”

Lanza also used two handguns: a Sig Sauer 9mm and a Glock 10mm. These round sizes are measured in millimeters as opposed to inches. Sometimes, handguns are referenced in caliber instead of the metric millimeter. The .357 (“three fifty-seven”) .38 (“thirty-eight”) for example, are popular handgun and cartridge sizes.

The caliber of a firearms does not indicate its exact appearance, which is why attempts such as this, which aim to guess Lanza’s weapon based solely on its caliber, were misguided.

Unlike with rifles and handguns, shotguns’ calibers are classed by “gauge,” which refers to the diameter of the barrel rather than the size of the round it fires.


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