On October 1, a gunman opened fire from a hotel room in Las Vegas — leaving 58 dead and 546 wounded. It was the worst mass shooting in American history, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that. After all, the distance between mass shootings seems perfectly calibrated to fit our nation’s collective short-term memory:
Day 1: “Thoughts and prayers.”
Days 2-7: “TOO SOON TO POLITICIZE!”
Days 8-14: “We have a lot to focus on as a nation; yes, this is an issue, but something something mental health and… Look over there! Is that a celebrity?!”
Days 15-34: “What shooting? Oh, that old thing? I can’t believe you even remember –”
Day 35: Rinse. Repeat.
There were 35 days between Las Vegas and Sutherland, Texas. That seems particularly short, but not enough to shock me. Since I started at Uproxx on June 1, 2015, there have been eight mass shootings in the United States — including the #1 and #2 deadliest in history — so I’ve had plenty of chances to ponder the subject:
- After San Bernadino, I looked at the “Thoughts and Prayers” backlash.
- After Orlando, I wondered if we could test a short term assault rifle moratorium.
- After Las Vegas, I tried to figure out what makes the NRA so damn effective.
Each of these pieces stimulated conversation about guns, their place in America, and the nation’s futile quest to have less violence while also refusing to enact meaningful legislative change. And in all of these conversations, I was taken to task over the terms with which I wrote about guns. Commenters chewed me to pieces over my wobbly usage of the phrases “semi-automatic weapon,” “high capacity clip,” and “assault rifle.”
For what it’s worth, they were right. The layperson’s vision of a semi-automatic is a rapid-repeating rifle — something akin to an AR-15 — but most handguns today also fulfill the definition of semi-automatic, in that the user is not chambering cartridges manually. High capacity magazines are even more murky. AR (which stands for Armalite rifle, not “Assault Rifle”) magazines come standard at 30 rounds. So a “high capacity” AR magazine would be greater than 30 rounds, far exceeding the typical legislative definition of “high capacity magazines” in states where such laws have passed (which is usually set at 10 or 15 rounds). Even the term “assault rifle” is embedded with shades of gray. Though it seems like an easy catch-all term for non-gun types, the military definition of an assault rifle would actually exclude weapons like the AR-15 — since that gun doesn’t have a “selective fire” feature, which would allow it to be shot automatically or in burst mode.
Even if you know guns, even if you’re cleared for CCW (carrying a concealed weapon) with a FFL (Federal Firearms License), you can see how the jargon of America’s most beloved toys can get disorienting. The terms are tricky and the scale for how they apply to different sized weapons is a sliding one — so it’s hard for lawmakers to create bills that don’t get quagmired in semantics. (Which explains why the NRA wisely pushes small laws that conspire together to achieve something bigger, rather than trying to enact sweeping change all at once.)
The question then is this: Do you have to “get guns” to be a part of substantive conversations about weapons in this country? Can a confusion of terms or a jumbling of specs identify someone as not deserving a seat at the table when it comes time to talk gun control?
Answer: Hell no. And yet, that’s the common retort, over and over. “Don’t know your Glock from your Desert Eagle? Go sit with the other hippies, while the adults talk.” The implication when you watch Tucker Carlson heckle a pro-gun reform writer about his experience handling an AR-15 is simple: “People who don’t know about things from experience should not speak about them with any level of authority.”
What a nice thought, especially from a man who talks about politics for a living without ever having held a public office. If only we could use Carlson’s idea as a gold standard for issues of abortion, the constitution, and religion. Alas, this is never going to happen. Because as Americans, there’s only one thing we value more than our beloved gun rights: Talking without having a complete handle on what in the world we’re talking about.
Only a quarter of Americans know all three branches of government, but god knows that doesn’t stop us from holding (and sharing) strong convictions about them; our president has literally no idea where Puerto Rico is, but he’s still managing our disaster relief effort; and Idaho State Representative Vito Barbieri fights abortion tooth and nail without the ability to fathom that a woman’s digestive and reproductive tracts aren’t connected.
Is it tragic that people with a knowledge gap still get to pop off on those issues of which they know little? That depends on how much power the uneducated parties have and how much knowledge is lacking. Discussing things is one of the ways that people learn about them. Debate, at its best, can be instructive. And inviting only experts to speak on issues that affect all of us is how those in power consolidate and horde it — remember that literacy tests were the ultimate voter suppression technique in the Jim Crow south.
Besides, how much do you have to know about magazine sizes to declare with confidence that the website StackingBodies.com shouldn’t be allowed to sell a Surefire 100-round magazine via the internet? How versed in ballistics do you need to be to recognize that the AR-556 — used by Devin Patrick Kelley in Sutherland Springs — is a weapon for people who are trying to kill living things very efficiently in a non-sporting manner? Do you have to know the mechanics of trigger tension and bump stocks before you can feel confident stating that people should only own guns after applying for a license, passing a safety test, and filing for the legal title to their weapons (like we do with cars)?
At some point, asking people to parrot statistics to engage in the gun violence discussion is the ultimate straw man gambit: “Let’s pretend this conversation is about guns, and debate your authority to speak about them; rather than concede that this conversation is actually about human lives lost to guns.”
When Tucker Carlson mocks gun-control activists because they don’t regularly handle the rifles they despise, he’s missing the point by light-years (while seeming absolutely assured of his moral high ground): You don’t have to know about something in order to not want to be killed by it. I know very little about how venom affects the body, but if someone wanted to let their pet cobra roam my yard, I feel like I could make a strong argument to the neighborhood association about why they shouldn’t be allowed to do so.
Perhaps the metric for who should get to talk about certain subjects and what level of baseline knowledge is required should be linked to how much the topic in question affects us and the power being wielded by those doing the talking. Should I have had all my terms buttoned up before jumping into the gun-discussion on a platform this size? Probably. Should lawmakers be able to cite their facts about guns and talk about them with confidence on the Senate floor or to smug TV hosts? Yep. But do lay people need to understand the difference between a clip and a magazine in order to advocate, march, and call their representatives about gun control? That’s ridiculous.
This is an issue that touches human lives, and humans have every right to respond to it. Sure, the conversation needs more active, involved, knowledgeable participants, but that knowledge might be about guns or it might be about utilitarian ethics (which often comes to bear on this topic). Besides, anyone who’s ever read up on the thousands of accidental shootings we have per year in this country knows that not even gun owners know much about their beloved weapons (like, for instance, how to make them inaccessible to toddlers).
It’s been said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. Through this prism, it’d be hard to call our response to mass shootings anything less than insane. Our actions haven’t changed significantly in years and probably won’t this time around — but the suggestion that you have to know about guns in order to be repulsed by the destruction they wreak is yet another absurd roadblock thrown up by those interested in stalling the conversation.
Will our nation change course after yet another mass shooting? Doubtful. But letting 2nd amendment loyalists twist the issue to make it about gun knowledge rather than a desire by gun safety advocates to have less people die pushes us into the theater of the bizarre and ought not be tolerated for a second. After all, it doesn’t take a working knowledge of hollow-tipped versus full metal jacket bullets to know that this Texas family didn’t deserve to have three generations decimated by them.