[This article has been updated with new information on the origin of the term "assault weapon"]
The terminology used at the outset of a political debate informs everything that follows. If we allow deliberately inaccurate terminology to go unchecked, we start the game at a significant disadvantage.
The gun control debate has been hijacked by progressive terminology more than any other political debate, save abortion. Anti-gun activists have relied heavily on fear-based language to persuade Americans that guns are inherently bad, and that the only solution to the problems we face is further gun control.
In my personal experience, the one word that has been most frequently used by progressives in order to manipulate perception regarding guns is “assault.”
Watch media coverage of any mass-shooting and you will hear the phrase “assault weapon” repeated over and over again. But what does “assault weapon” really mean? As it turns out, it means nothing. It's a made-up term used to incite fear in people who are unfamiliar with firearms.
The modern origin of the term "assault weapon" is somewhat muddy. There are some who believe it dates back to a 1980 New York Times piece, and others who believe it was created by gun manufacturers and sellers in the 1980's as a way to drum up business. Reason has a solid piece on that debate, which you can read here. However, this article is meant to speak to the idea of progressives using this nonsense term in the modern era as a way to manipulate civilian perception on guns like the AR-15.
During a recent debate between myself and an acquaintance on the topic of guns, my acquaintance claimed the “AR” in AR-15 stood for “assault rifle.” In reality, AR stands for “ArmaLite rifle.” According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), ArmaLite was “the company that developed [the AR-15] in the 1950s.”
“Assault rifle” as opposed to “assault weapon” is an actual term. David Kopel defines the term in the Journal of Contemporary Law:
As the United States Defense Department’s Defense Intelligence Agency book Small Arms Identification and Operation Guide explains, “assault rifles” are “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges.” In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically. …
Many civilians have purchased semiautomatic-only rifles that look like military assault rifles. These civilian rifles are, unlike actual assault rifles, incapable of automatic fire.
Because a civilian-use AR-15 is semi-automatic rather than fully-automatic, it's not an assault rifle. A semi-automatic weapon fires one bullet per trigger pull, whereas a military assault rifle can fire continuously with one pull of the trigger.
Fully-automatic firearms have been heavily regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) since 1934, and the sale of automatic firearms has been effectively banned since 1986.
If an AR-15 isn't a military-grade assault rifle, why do politicians and people in the media continue to refer to them as “assault weapons"? Simply put, it sounds scarier, and fear is an outstanding motivator, especially when one is ill-informed on the topic at hand.
If we apply the same standard to handguns that Democratic politicians and the media apply to AR-15s, we would call them “assault weapons” as well. So why don't we? Why don't we call the guns used in the majority of gun crimes “assault weapons"? Because manipulation through language is not always easily achievable.
While AR-15s can undergo cosmetic changes that make them appear more militaristic and frightening, handguns are largely static in terms of their appearance. Because of this, politicians and media figures can easily get away with calling cosmetically (but not materially) altered AR-15s “assault weapons,” but they cannot do the same with handguns. Were they to attempt such a change in terminology, it likely wouldn't stick, and might even lead Americans to scrutinize the term “assault weapon” as applied to AR-15s. They would rather not take that risk.
All of this is to say that a simple word or phrase can alter the way in which we perceive an object or a situation. The Democrats have used this to their advantage in the gun control debate by using the term “assault weapon" as frequently as possible – but it means nothing.