Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How gun maker propagandizing has shot up Wikipedia

I looked up "assault weapon" on Wikipedia and, as a Wikipedia editor, I made the following entry in the "talk about" page concerning this article. These "talk about" pages are where Wikipedia editors can hash out their differences.

: I concur with those who say that this edit reads as though it was written by the NRA on behalf of the gun manufacturers. I'm not surprised, because in my experience debating with NRA types online, I've found that they police discussions of firearms online vigilantly, and frequently use their knowledge of firearms to deceive people who are not as knowledgeable about small arms as they are. In this case, throughout the entry I see a consistent effort to delegitimize the term as being vague and misleading. However, what they're really doing is de-emphasizing important similarities between civilian assault weapons and their military cousins while at the same time over-emphasizing differences between civilian assault weapons like the AR-15 and military-issue assault weapons like the M-16 and AK-47. Their purpose is to head off the possibility of an assault weapons ban, as President Obama proposed today, in fact.

This starts with omitting the historical context, which explains why assault weapons exist, and what their various design elements mean as a gestalt. That would be included in a legitimate encyclopedia entry. Basically the iconic firearm of WWII was the M-1 Garand rifle, a gas-operated semiautomatic that takes an 8-round internal clip, not an external magazine, and fires a .30 cal. round. The rifle is accurate at long range and the round has considerable penetrating power--as through the metal door of a vehicle, for example. However, military science found that in combat soldiers tend not to use their weapon in the way that the M1 is optimized for. Soldiers needed what became the assault rifle, a much lighter weapon carrying a much lighter round, so they could carry a lot more ammo into combat, and so the rifle could be maneuvered more quickly than the older, more ponderous rifles like the M-1, and fired automatically or semi-automatically. However, they soon discovered that assault weapons ran out of ammo too quickly in full-auto mode and these lightweight guns also tended to jam and cook off rounds if used in full auto mode. Now small arts tactics dictate using them either in single shot mode or in 2-3 round bursts. The goal is to lay down suppressive fire on a charging enemy force at close enough distances so that the greater maneuverability of the weapon is vital.

Consequently the difference in being able to be fired automatically or just in single-shot mode is an inconsequential difference between the M-16 and the AR-15, especially since civilian assault weapons like the AR-15 can be fired with amazing rapidity (and poor aim) in "bump fire" mode, using the effect of the gas-operating mechanism on the trigger to fire nearly as rapidly as you could in full auto mode. In the Aurora shooting incident the shooter was timed at getting off 30 rounds in 27 seconds (heard via a 911 call made by one of the theater goers). The NRA is highly incentivized to claim that full-auto capability is the be-all and the end-all of the term "assault weapon" so they can avoid another assault weapons ban. It is highly likely that most profits of arms manufacturers come from sales of assault weapons. They've sold literally millions of these weapons at premium prices.

This has been paralleled in arms manufacturer marketing, which sold these weapons as assault weapons--emphasizing the "commando" context with ads showing the guns being used in what appear to be combat patrols--until very recently, when the marketing suddenly changed on the part of the manufacturers so they could pretend these guns were never sold as assault weapons.

What does make a significant difference from older-generation combat arms like the M-1 is the assault weapon's ability to accept extended magazines. In a number of spree killing incidents, people nearby were able to take down the shooter when he had to reload. Even if reloading only takes a few seconds, that was enough to stop the Arizona shooter in the Gabby Giffords incident, for example. Because weapons like the M-1 use an internal clip instead of an external magazine, it can only fire 8 rounds before needing to be reloaded, and can't be reloaded as quickly as an external magazine can be swapped out, and can't accept clips with more than 8 rounds. The Arizona shooter was able to do as much damage as he did because his Glock assault weapon--a pistol in this case--had a 30-round extended magazine, and he was able to prevent anyone from getting to him before he emptied that magazine.

Likewise the .223 round used by the AR-15 and the M-16 differs greatly from the .30 cal. round of the M-1 and the .22LR "plinker" round of standard lightweight hunting rifles. At the shorter ranges found in most spree killing incidents, and absent body armor on the intended victims, it's the ideal round for mass murder, with a "wobbly" bullet that achieves far more damage upon entry in a body than a standard .22LR round does--especially since it has three times the muzzle velocity of civilian rounds like the .22LR. Coupled with the light weight of the .223 round, it means that a spree killer can carry many more rounds and fire them much more quickly and have them inflict much more damage.

So a lightweight assault weapon shooting .223 rounds via extended magazines in semi-automatic mode with occasional bump firing is a very different weapon than a standard hunting rifle trying to do the same thing, even those that are semi-automatic. It's the mobility of the weapon, the ability to prevent people from grabbing the shooter due to the large capacity magazines, and the lethality of its munition coupled with the easy of carrying a large amount of ammo that makes assault weapons assault weapons.

NRA types poo-pooh the "atmospherics" of the assault weapon in the article--the way it looks. However, as I indicated earlier, the gun makers considered these atmospherics important marketing tools until the prospect of another assault weapons ban arose. And spree killers commonly see themselves as commandos on a mission, as the rants by the Virginia Tech shooter demonstrated. For example, a folding stock is the functional equivalent of a wooden stock in most applications, but for a spree killer folding up the stock would help in maneuvering the weapon in close quarters to kill as many people as possible in a short time, and of course it contributes to the overall light weight of the weapon.

Also, famous military experts such as General Colin Powell and General Stanley McChrystal (both infantry officers) both used the term "assault weapon" in interviews in the last few days, without feeling the need to launch into more definition than mentioning the Bushmaster as an example. And both generals said that they believed there was no justification for assault weapons--naming the Bushmaster as example--being in civilian hands in most circumstances (one notable exception would be for hunting wild pigs from helicopters, which is less hunting than pest management). When authorities like these men use the term and voice a strong opinion about assault weapons, that should be included in this entry. Their mention and evaluation of assault weapons should be included in the article.

I believe that NRA members generally know all of this, but choose to be deceptive, here as elsewhere.

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