How Not to Look Like an Idiot When Writing About Firearms
By Ben Langlotz
(Editor Note: Ben Langlotz is the nation’s leading firearms patent and trademark attorney, and the author of “The Bulletproof Firearms Business” available on Amazon. Ben is also a pro-bono attorney for our industry organization the National Shooting Sports Federation and has been a lifetime defender and supporter of firearms freedom.)
Journalists. Bless their hearts. As a rule of thumb, any time we read a news story about a subject or incident we already know a lot about, it turns out that about 25% of what’s reported is simply wrong.
This is why knowledgeable gun owners distrust many news stories involving guns: because too many “journalists” display an ignorance of firearms that would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling. If they can’t get their facts straight about gun technology and shooting, then we don’t trust them on much else.
For over 24 years as a patent attorney, I’ve taken pride in my ability to explain stuff effectively. I’m known as “The Firearms Patent Attorney” because I represent more firearms companies than any other patent attorney or law firm in the world (by a wide margin). That means I spend lots of time explaining how guns work. And I have to keep it simple because I’m not just writing for specialized patent examiners, but for juries and judges, in case there’s ever a lawsuit.
The best compliment I ever get from inventors about a patent application is “Wow! You really understand my invention!” So maybe if I’m good at making gun tech understandable, I might be the right guy to help out the technically-illiterate journalists. Here we go:
Lesson #1: They’re “Cartridges,” Not Bullets
Bullets are little lumps of lead. Inert, harmless little pieces of soft metal. They’re a component of ammunition, but they’re not ammunition. What you journalists are almost always talking about when you mistakenly use the term “bullet” is “cartridge.” Cartridges (or “rounds”) are little units of ammunition that go “bang” when they’re hit just right. The gunpowder burns, the bullet flies away, and the case stays behind with the gun.
Here are some correct(ed) usage examples:
“… a bill to limit magazine capacity to 10 bullets rounds…”
“…a bill to limit purchasers to no more than 50 bullets cartridges per day…”
“…bullets have been recovered as far as a mile from the rifle range…”
One classic example of how this issue can confuse the ignorant is the case when a neighbor objecting to a gun range nearby “salted” her home’s roof gutters with a few “bullets” to make it appear that they were unsafely escaping the disputed range. She foolishly had tossed live cartridges onto the roof to roll into the gutters, and the responding deputy Sheriff rolled his eyes, knowing the guns don’t expel live rounds of ammunition.
Michael Bloomberg’s well-funded anti-gun “Every Town for Gun Safety” group created a laughable propaganda image showing a rifle cartridge shooting out of the muzzle of a gun barrel.
Lesson #2: They’re “Magazines,” Not Clips
When you journalists write about “clips” you’re always wrong. Always.
Magazines are containers that hold a bunch of cartridges, and are inserted into a gun to load it all at once, making reloading quick. Unless a gun looks like an old-time cowboy or a bird-hunter might use it, it probably has a magazine. A magazine itself is just a little sheet metal or plastic box with a spring inside (much like a Pez dispenser), and presents no danger of any kind. For pistols, they’re contained entirely in the grip, and for rifles, they usually stick out below the bottom, in front of the trigger.
If you’re curious, “clips” are archaic devices known only to gun enthusiasts, and are essentially never used by modern police or military, or by people who use guns for self-defense or sport. They’re used with old-style military rifles (like the WWII “Garand” they carried in Saving Private Ryan).
If you must know, clips are for loading rifles that don’t take magazines. They’re little strips of metal that hold a set of cartridges by their rear ends so they can be shoved into the rifle all at once. But they never come up in the news, so you can simply delete the word from your journalist dictionary. I can assure you that over all my years in the gun industry, I’ve never heard anyone use “clip” as slang for magazine. Maybe Hollywood gangsters and anti-gun reporters still do, but no one else does.
Incidentally, worrying about large magazines giving criminals firepower is pretty silly, because the whole point of magazines is how quick and easy it is to change them. I’ve seen live demos in which a shooter changed pistol magazines so fast it was a blur. And rifle magazines can be changed almost as fast with a little practice.
So, if you’re writing a story that involves magazines and are still confused, my advice to journalists is to drop by any gun shop and tell the guy behind the counter that you’re working on a story, and would like to see how magazines work. Trust me, you’ll learn all you need to know.
Lesson #3: Calibrating Your “Caliber”
This one confused me back when I started learning about guns. All you need to know is that caliber usually refers to the diameter of the bullet (and of the barrel of the gun that fires it).
There’s no clear rule, so don’t even bother trying to explain it. If a cop tells you the caliber of a gun used in a crime, just report it, and we’ll know what it means even if you don’t.
The cartridge designation will give you a good idea of the caliber, but can lead to confusion. 357 Magnum has a 0.357 inch diameter bullet. But so does a 38 Special. A kid’s 22 squirrel rifle has the same bullet diameter as the M16 military rifle but they’re otherwise different in almost every other respect.
Incidentally, there’s no such thing as a “high caliber” anything. Those are meaningless words used by anti-gun writers to make some gun sound fearsome. Same for “high power.” That M16 and the AR-15 fire the same round, but they’re anything but high powered. The cartridge they fire is considered borderline weak and inhumane for a thin skinned little deer, and is actually less powerful than just about every other cartridge used by ordinary hunters. Those 22 caliber bullets are much smaller caliber than 30 caliber (0.300 inch diameter) hunting bullets. They’re way smaller than the 50 caliber (half inch) bullets used in hotdog-sized cartridges that cost $5 a pop, and are used on those big belt fed machine guns on aircraft and by wealthy target shooters (who Dianne Feinstein worries are practicing to shoot through her armored limousine).
Lessons #4-11: Random Thoughts You Need to Know About Guns
#4. Guns aren’t required to be “registered” in most jurisdictions. Please don’t write that a gun was “unregistered” if there is no law requiring it to be. To those of us who know (there are lots of us) an “unregistered gun” sounds as absurd as an “unregistered baseball bat.”
#5. No self-respecting gun owner uses the phrase “packing heat.” It’s called “carrying”, whether concealed or open. “Packing heat” is old-time gangster slang with biased connotations. Avoid it unless you’re writing an anti-gun op-ed or a bad detective novel.
#6. Machine guns are legal (under federal law, and in most states). To buy one, a person must pay a $200 tax, undergo a background check, and wait maybe a year or more for the paperwork to process. But only a limited number of specially registered ones may be bought and sold by people. These are all older than 1986 and there are so few that what should cost $1000 new in a free market costs $10,000 or more. (There’s something like 1 legal machine gun per 1000 adult American males). That means that they’re only for wealthy collectors like Steven Spielberg, which explains why they aren’t used in crimes. Ever.
#7. Silencers are legal in most states. They’re properly called “suppressors” and we also use the slang term “can.” “Silencer” is OK to write, but it bothers a few gun geeks because they don’t make a gun literally silent (maybe as annoyingly loud as an air nailer – not the “phffft” or “ptew” of Hollywood movies). In Hollywood, only bad guys use them. In reality, it’s only good guys who passed a background check and paid a $200 tax just to make their guns a little easier on everyone’s ears.
#8. Sinister gun collections. When you’re reporting on some backwoods kook who was raided by a SWAT team, remember that all those guns and ammo you’re breathlessly reporting on are probably perfectly legal. The cops know that, but they know you’ll ignorantly imply that there’s something illegal about all the guns and ammo they’ve laid out on the table for you to photograph for the evening news. It’s actually quite normal for upstanding gun enthusiasts and hunters to own dozens of firearms (or to wish they did). It deceives your readers and amuses gun enthusiasts when we read that “the arsenal included over 1000 rounds of ammunition.” That’s because when we spend a weekend taking a shooting course, or just out having fun shooting at targets, we can easily shoot 1000 rounds (no it’s not a cheap hobby). 5000 rounds might sounds like a lot, but that much 22 ammo can easily be hand carried in a shoe box by a strong boy.
Also, a personal gun and ammo collection isn’t an “arsenal” unless you’re trying to demonize the owner, and strike fear in the hearts of your readers. It’s an “ample collection,” and for most gun owners, never ample enough.
#9. Ammunition in a burning building is no danger to firefighters. When the powder burns, the case just pops off the bullet. Firefighters with heavy suits and eye protection are in no danger. An excellent online video by SAAMI (one of my clients, and the organization that sets technical standards for ammunition) titled “Sporting Ammunition and the Fire Fighter” shows how surprisingly safe ammunition is in a fire and subject to other extreme stresses (and it’s cool to watch truckloads of ammo get shot up and burn up!)
#10. An “assault rifle” is a military rifle that can shoot full auto. “Semi-automatic” means that a single shot is fired for each trigger pull, and the gun automatically loads the next round. Most pistols carried by police officers are semi-automatic.
An “assault weapon” is a term made up by people trying to ban semiautomatic rifles, by falsely implying that they’re full-auto assault rifles.
“Modern Sporting Rifle” is the industry standard term for the popular AR-15 and similar rifles with a military appearance. I prefer “Sport Utility Rifle.”
#11. The NRA isn’t the “gun industry lobby.” They may have millions of individual members whose interests they represent when lobbying lawmakers and pursuing civil rights lawsuits. But the real “gun lobby” is the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) that represents all the gun companies (I’m their trademark attorney, too). The NSSF has the mission: “To promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” They also publish an excellent booklet that not only educates journalists, but is a goldmine for gun enthusiasts looking to sharpen their firearms knowledge.
So, that’s about all a journalist who’s seeking to report the facts clearly and accurately needs to know about guns. However, if they’re looking to “change the world” like a bunch of “community organizers” then this might not do much good.
Ben Langlotz is a patent and trademark attorney with 24 years’ experience, and his clients include numerous firearms industry companies. He is the author of The Bulletproof Firearms Business – The Legal Secrets to Success under Fire, which is the leading book to help firearms business owners to navigate the minefields of patent and trademark law. Mr. Langlotz also publishes the Bulletproof Firearms Business Newsletter, which reaches over 1000 firearms industry owners and executives each month.
This article is subject to the author’s copyrights, but permission is granted for the article to be distributed and republished in its entirety including the author bio and this paragraph, with all hyperlinks intact.