'Unspeak' and the Gun Prohibitionists


The following statement is presented inside the dust jacket of Steven Poole's recent book, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality:

A completely partisan argument can be packed into a sound bite. This is Unspeak.

Unspeak represents an attempt by politicians, interest groups, and business corporations to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to provide justification. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing or silencing – any possible opposing point of view by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem. As an Unspeak phrase becomes a widely used term of public debate, it saturates the mind with one viewpoint while simultaneously making an opposing view ever more difficult to enunciate.

Jack Shafer's Slate essay reviewing this book, "The Devil's Lexicon: Unspeak Exposes the Language Twisters," was posted on LRC on January 23. In his review, Shafer invited his readers to submit their own examples of unspeak to him, but he must have been swamped, because he called a halt to submissions in an addendum to his piece. Too bad. As a sociologist who has followed the gun-prohibition movement closely since it was resurrected around 1960, and who is very familiar with firearms, I would like to have sent him a few prime examples of unspeak that have long bugged opponents of this movement.

Saturday Night Specials

I'll start with "Saturday night special," a label applied to small-caliber, small, easily concealed, cheap handguns that are the favorites of criminals and for which honest citizens have no legitimate uses. The gun prohibitionists claim that, at least, and the mainstream media haven't questioned their claims. "Saturday night special" has been tossed around for half a century through these media as if the label is precise and the troublesomeness of these guns has been well established. Who would want such a gun other than a criminal? What reasonable person wouldn't want to ban them? These questions don't even have to be asked. In mainstream media circles, it's obvious that only criminals and the unreasonable would oppose banning them. Therefore, other questions are never asked. There seems to be general agreement that in this case, small caliber means .22, .25, .32, and even .38 S&W and .380ACP. But how small is "small" as far as the guns are concerned? How easily concealed is "easily concealed"? How cheap is "cheap"? But the main question, given the claims of the gun prohibitionists, should be, "How can the guns in question, regardless of how "small," "easily concealed," and "cheap" are specified, be lethal in the hands of criminals but completely useless in the hands of honest citizens trying to protect themselves from criminals?"

Most states issue permits to carry handguns concealed for self-protection purposes to citizens who have passed background checks. Vermont and Alaska don't even require permits for concealed handgun carry. The characteristics that presumably make certain handguns desirable to criminals, "small" and "easily concealed," also make them desirable to private citizens who want them for self-protection – and to police as backup guns. North American Arms makes some incredibly tiny five-shot, .22-caliber revolvers. The .22 short model is 3 5/8" long, 2 3/8" high, 13/16" wide, and weighs 4 oz. unloaded. That's certainly "small" and "easily concealed," though the .22 short would be considered a last ditch, at best, cartridge for self-protection. For those who want more power in a small package, there's Kel-Tec's .380 ACP, 5.14" long, 3.576" high, .748" wide, and 7.2 oz. unloaded. Both of these guns are extremely well made, yet the North American .22 can be had for under $200 and the Kel-Tec .380 can be had for under $300. Both of these guns are quite cheap compared to other quality handguns.

But what does cheapness have to do with anything? If the concern is that cheapness means shoddy and unreliable, do those who want to ban guns so described want criminals to have better guns? Though some very shoddy and unreliable handguns have been produced over the years, cheapness doesn't ensure shoddiness and unreliability. Harrington & Richardson, for example, started making inexpensive, but quite serviceable, handguns way back in 1871. In excellent condition, their Model 922, nine-shot, .22 revolver with a 2 " barrel is worth only about $100 on the used-gun market today. A number of years ago, firing a very reliable 1950s vintage H&R of this model at a rate of a shot every two seconds or less, I hit a three-foot steel gong nine out of nine times at fifty yards. That's hardly precision work, but not bad for a small, easily-concealed, cheap handgun in the hands of a devotee of the hit-it-any-which-way-you-can school of marksmanship rather than a master bulls-eye target shooter.

So the concern about cheapness may have less to do with the serviceability of such guns than it does with the fact that their low price makes them affordable by folks at the lower socio-economic levels – folks who, on the one hand, have high crime rates, and on the other, have the least police protection. In fact, there's reason to believe, though the gun prohibitionists deny it, that the "Saturday night special" label derives from "nigger town, Saturday night," because inexpensive handguns were long associated with the weekend altercations common in poor black urban areas. And the first restrictions on the sale of such handguns were passed in the South in Jim Crow days, their aim being to keep even law-abiding blacks defenseless. In other words, as good unspeak does, those three little common words, "Saturday night special," cover up a lot at the same time that they imply much that ain't so. And so does the label "semi-automatic assault weapon," generally shortened to "assault weapon."

Semi-automatic Assault Weapons

In his 1988 "report on assault weapons," gun prohibitionist Josh Sugarmann wrote: "The weapon's menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons – anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun – can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these guns." In other words, Sugarmann expected public support for a ban on "semi-automatic assault weapons," because that public was completely uninformed about the guns so labeled. And he expected the public to stay uninformed about these guns, because, as he candidly acknowledged, the media the public looks to for information were equally uninformed about them. In fact, the mainstream media often encouraged the public to believe that the semi-automatics targeted by the prohibitionists were actually machine guns, the legal civilian possession of which has been strictly regulated by the federal government since 1934 and which is not allowed at all by some states. For five years after the 1989 Stockton, California schoolyard shooting, in which such a gun was used, every NBC and many CNN commentaries on "assault weapons" that I viewed that included demonstrations, showed machine guns rather than the semi-automatic guns covered by the eventually-passed ban being fired. And these machine-gun demonstrations were invariably accompanied by snide comments by either the TV anchor or a guest ban supporter to the effect that such guns were obviously of no use to hunters, often referred to as "sportsmen." Never mind that the guns being demonstrated weren't the guns covered by the ban, or that opposition to the ban had nothing to do with the desires or needs of hunters, or that legitimate gun use isn't limited to hunting.

As "Saturday night special" (SNS) projects the claim that handguns so labeled are useful to criminals but not to honest citizens desiring to protect themselves from criminals, "assault weapon" (AW), projects the claim that guns so labeled are useful only to military and police forces, and criminals, but not to ordinary citizens who have no business assaulting anyone. Therefore, reasonable people would support banning the civilian ownership of such guns. But what makes a gun an "assault weapon"? "Assault rifles" (ARs) used by the military, as opposed to "assault weapons" sold to civilians, have certain features that, by definition, mark them off as such. They can be fired semi-automatic (one shot per trigger pull), but they can also be fired either full-automatic (firing as long as the trigger is held back) or burst fire (firing a set number of shots – usually three – before the trigger must be pulled again). AWs can be fired semi-automatic only, and as such are no different from many rifles, shotguns, and pistols used by American civilians for hunting, target shooting, and self-defense for over a century. ARs are chambered for cartridges less powerful than those used in past military rifles that themselves used cartridges still popular with hunters of middle-sized big game such as deer and black bear. But the AR cartridges are considerably more powerful than the pistol cartridges fired by submachine guns. Most AWs fire the same middle-range cartridges as ARs, but some fire the lower-powered pistol cartridges. Both ARs and AWs are equipped with detachable box magazines with capacities of 20 or 30 rounds, but other rifles not labeled AWs, such as the Ruger Mini 14 and the M1 carbine, also come equipped with detachable, high-capacity, box magazines or can utilize them.

So in the final analysis, since civilian AWs can't be fired either full-automatic or burst fire, the only characteristic they share with military ARs that they don't share with ordinary guns long used by American citizens is their high-tech looks. And prohibitionists like Sugarmann depend on those looks to fool the public into thinking the guns their ilk call "semi-automatic assault weapons" are machine guns for which there are no sporting uses, the only uses the prohibitionists would have the public believe are legitimate. And mainstream journalists question neither the "assault weapon" label, nor the sporting use criteria for determining legitimate reasons for owning a given type of gun. If the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms is acknowledged at all by the prohibitionists, that acknowledgement is quickly followed with an expression of dedication to the preservation of the rights of sportsmen, a label that apparently covers only hunters, not target shooters. And again, mainstream journalists let the prohibitionists get away with it and uncritically accept and utilize the "assault weapon" label.

But over the past quarter century the paper trail left by the Founders' has been thoroughly examined by reputable and prominent historians and Constitutional scholars, and we know what they intended the Second Amendment to accomplish. It was intended to be the teeth of the Bill of Rights, as made clear by such as the following succinct comment by Tench Coxe: "As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed in the next article in the right to keep and bear their private arms" (emphasis added).

The taken-for-granted assumption on the part of the AW banners that Americans have no right to possess militarily-effective firearms flies in the face of both the Founders intentions and American experience. The Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The militia referred to is based on an armed citizenry, not a National Guard-type organization which the Founders considered to be a "select militia," or reserve professional military, and which they feared as much as they feared a standing army – of the sort we now have. As Glenn Reynolds has noted recently, "the ownership of firearms was widely mandated during Colonial times, and the second Congress passed a statute in 1792 requiring adult male citizens to own guns." Even today, according to Title 10, U.S. CODE, Section 311, all males between 17 and 45 who are citizens, or who have declared their intentions to become citizens, are members of the militia – the National Guard now being only the organized part of that militia.

Until the gun-prohibitionist movement was resurrected in the 1960s, the right of Americans to own military rifles and pistols wasn't seriously questioned. In fact, the federal government itself regularly sold off at bargain prices surplus military rifles and pistols, including semi-automatics with high-capacity magazines such as the M1 carbine, to the public through the Army's Office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM). Also, foreign military surplus, including semi-automatic, 20mm German anti-tank guns, could be purchased through the mail sans background check until 1968. And until GIs were equipped with ARs capable of full-automatic fire in the 1960s, guns created for the civilian trade often had the firepower advantage over guns issued to most American infantrymen. While the Army was still equipped with single-shot rifles in the 1870s, civilians had access to Winchester lever-action repeaters and even to the Evans rifle which, in its various models, could hold from 28 to 38 rounds. Civilians started acquiring semi-automatic pistols in the 1890s, while our military didn't adopt one until 1911. And semi-automatic rifles were available to hunters 30 years before the Army adopted the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936. As far as power goes, the most powerful civilian rifles and pistols are considerably more powerful than those used by the military, and the cartridges, such as the 9mm, .45ACP, .223, and .308, used in military guns are also used by civilians for hunting, target shooting, and/or personal-protection. The case could be made that "semi-automatic assault weapon" covers up more and implies more that ain't so than does "Saturday night special."

Cop-Killer Bullets

Back in 1982, NBC breathlessly reported on Teflon-coated handgun bullets that could penetrate police body armor, and the gun-prohibitionists promptly made another contribution to unspeak – "cop-killer bullet." Now, how could any responsible citizen oppose keeping out of civilian circulation bullets that can penetrate police body armor to kill cops? Why would any honest, responsible citizen want to have access to such bullets? So what are the lies built into this piece of unspeak, and what issues does it duck? Best I can determine, these Teflon-coated bullets have been around since the late 1960s, were developed for the police, were not available to the public, and have yet to penetrate police body armor to kill a cop. But the mainstream media again uncritically bought the label, it stuck, and it's still resurrected now and again.

I claim no expertise on Teflon-coated bullets, but as best I can determine, their Teflon coating has little to do with the ability of these bullets to penetrate police armor. A bullet's penetration of anything, including armor, depends on right combinations of shape, velocity, and hardness. But bullets made of extremely hard metal can't be fired through rifled barrels, because the rifling can't cut into them to give them their stabilizing spin – plus, they'd wreck the barrels. What the Teflon of these bullets apparently does is give their very hard cores (tungsten or bronze) a softer coating to take the rifling. But the issue has been blurred further by the prohibitionists who, after achieving their ban on the civilian possession of Teflon-coated bullets, want to ban all bullets capable of defeating police armor. And there are lots of them. In fact, just about every kind of bullet fired from center-fire rifles of the sort commonly used for hunting, will make a sieve of the light-weight armor worn by the police – velocity and their copper jackets do the job.

The prohibitionists have blurred things even more by making an issue of expanding hollow-point bullets that can't penetrate armor. These bullets inflict too much damage on the people hit with them. Incredible! Reaching out and touching someone with a bullet is intended to do damage, and can be legally carried off only by an individual trying to protect him- or herself or innocent others from criminal attack. The idea is to stop the attack, and no handgun of a caliber practical for self-protection carry, even a .45ACP or a .357 Magnum, can be completely relied open to stop an attacker in his tracks. In the real world, people shot with handguns, or with high-powered rifles or shotguns, for that matter, aren't knocked head over heels like they are in movies or on TV. The purpose of hollow-point bullets is to increase damage enough to increase the likelihood of stopping an attacker before he can harm you or others.

Oh! Isn't it interesting that while the Founders trusted the citizenry more than they trusted government, ongoing attempts to ban military-style "assault weapons" and bullets that can penetrate the body armor of the armed agents of government indicate that nowadays a significant part of the ruling class we're not supposed to have would have us trust government more than the citizenry?

Selective Concern for Unspeak?

Last fall, my wife and I drove the 90-plus miles or so from our home in Evansville, Indiana to my hometown, Herrin, Illinois, to attend Homecoming festivities. At one of the Homecoming events, we found ourselves sitting at a table with one of my high school classmates and his wife. Having heard that I write on the gun issue, my classmate volunteered that he liked guns and was all for the right to keep and bear arms, but not for the right to own those assault weapons. Without even looking at her, I knew that my lovely wife had tensed up and what she was thinking – "My God! His chain's been pulled!" But she doesn't always give me the credit for civility that I deserve. I knew that that wasn't the time or place to go for the jugular, so after I saw that my mild efforts to inform him weren't going anywhere, I suggested that he look up some of my stuff on the Internet and guided the conversation to less controversial gun matters. Like some 70% of the public, according to the polls, my classmate had been taken in by "assault weapon" sound bites. He was completely uninformed, or misinformed, about these guns, and the degree of effort on my part it would have taken to inform him would have been considered completely inappropriate in that setting. The gun prohibitionists don't have to make an argument against "assault weapons," "Saturday night specials," or "cop-killer bullets." The mainstream media circulate their sound bites and most of the public, including many people who possess guns that operate exactly the same way as do "assault weapons," or handguns to which the elastic label "Saturday night special" could easily be applied, or hunting ammunition that can penetrate police body armor, is convinced that no responsible person has any business possessing guns or ammunition carrying these labels.

"Saturday night special," "assault weapon," and "cop-killer bullet" "say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to provide justification." And these labels attempt to silence "any possible opposing point of view by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem." Prime examples of unspeak, I should think? But do either Poole in his book or Shafer in his review essay mention any of these choice unspeak sound bites? Nope! The only example in Poole's book remotely related to the gun issue can be found on page 221: "In 2005, even people peacefully signing petitions to ban the shooting of doves in the US were labeled u2018anti-hunting extremists' by the National Rifle Association. An alternate view might consider the desire to fire bullets at birds to be the extreme position." Good point. But isn't it interesting that though Poole, who is English and writes for The Guardian, cites many American examples of unspeak, he mentions this little publicized example of NRA unspeak, while completely overlooking the "Saturday night special," "assault weapon," and "cop-killer bullet" examples emanating from the gun prohibitionists that have made American mainstream media headlines for decades? I wonder if American reviewer Shafer noticed their absence, or if his readers pointed them out to him.

Of course, it's true that the gun control issue hasn't received as much media attention during the Bush II administration as it did during the Clinton reign, one of the very few bright spots of the W years. But now that the Democrats control both the House and the Senate again, such rabid gun prohibitionists as Hillary Clinton, Chucky Schumer, Diane Feinstein, John Kerry, and John Conyers are back in business and the prohibitionist unspeak will be flowing again as they try to close the nonexistent "gun show loophole," revisit "assault weapons," and try to come up with something catchier to stigmatize .50-caliber rifles than they've been able to come up with so far. Maybe Poole will start to take notice – but I doubt it.

February 10, 2007