Everyone in America was touched by Friday’s tragedy in Connecticut. Sorrow abounds but so do strong emotions about the role of guns in our society. I have strong feelings on that topic but I think it best to delay writing about them for a while. The debate over guns will be a nasty, divisive one with little possibility of finding common ground. I’m willing to engage in that argument with anyone; just not right now. The bodies in Connecticut have not yet been buried and then Christmas will be upon us. The gun debate can wait until 2013. I’ll go so far as to say that should John Kerry become Secretary of State and a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat he now holds be held in the spring, the position of the candidates on guns will be a big part of that campaign much like health care policy dominated the last special US Senate election in the Commonwealth.
Another reason to put off the gun debate is that accurate information about what exactly happened remains elusive. During the day on Friday, everyone was riveted to whatever source of news was available. As the story spooled out we were told that the shooter’s mother was a teacher at the school (not true); that the shooter had been “buzzed in” to the school (not true); that a second person was in police custody (true, but he had nothing to do with it); the body of the shooter’s father had been found in his New Jersey home (not true); the girlfriend of the shooter’s brother was missing in New Jersey (perhaps, but it was irrelevant); and although the shooter had a rifle, he only fired shots from two handguns (not true). Forty-eight hours later, the available facts seem more solid, but there has to be more relevant information to come.
One final point concerns some of the terms being used. I’m no expert on guns but neither are most of the journalists and commentators covering the story. So here’s a layman’s explanation of some relevant terms for folks who don’t know anything about guns. Perhaps the term that is most often misunderstood is “semi-automatic.” That refers to any gun that allows you to fire a second bullet simply by pulling the trigger. The gun used by Chuck Connors in The Rifleman was not semi-automatic: he had to work the lever located behind the trigger to eject the “spent” cartridge and place a new one in the chamber ready to fire. Neither was the Springfield Model 1903 rifle, used in World War One and as a sniper rifle through the Vietnam War: each time it is fired the shooter must work the bolt on the top of the weapon to eject the used cartridge and load a new one. Almost every handgun (i.e. pistol) in use today is semi-automatic: keep pulling the trigger and it will keep shooting, as long as the bullets last. Same with military-style rifles sold to civilians, such as the AR-15 used in this case. Keep pulling the trigger, keep shooting. A gun that is “automatic” is a gun that will continue firing when the trigger is pulled and held for as long as the bullets last. A machine gun is automatic. The military-version M-16 had a selector switch that allowed the shooter to toggle between semi-automatic (one shot each time the trigger is pulled) and automatic (pull and hold the trigger and the gun keeps firing until all the bullets are gone). Automatic weapons have long been illegal for civilians in America and are not an issue in this debate.
Most guns, including all involved in this case, use a “magazine” to hold some number of rounds (i.e., bullets). A magazine for the old .45 pistol held 7 rounds; contemporary 9mm pistol magazines typically hold between 8 and 15 rounds. (Contrast this with a revolver in which bullets are loaded into individual chambers in a rotating cylinder – a revolver does not use a magazine). When it first came out, the M-16 rifle magazine held 20 rounds but then 30 round magazines came into use. For both pistols and rifles, specialized hi-capacity magazines, some holding up to 100 rounds, are readily available. The significance of the capacity of the magazine is that the more bullets it holds, the less frequently a shooter has to reload. Since reloading consists of pressing a button to release the empty magazine and then inserting a new, loaded magazine into the weapon, the act of reloading can be accomplished very quickly but it does cause some pause in shooting.
Finally, guns are often identified by the width of the bullet fired. Sometimes that is done in fractions of an inch (a “22″ fires a bullet that is .22 inches wide) or in millimeters (a “9mm” fires a bullet that is 9 millimeters wide). Most pistols/handguns today fire a 9mm bullet. The M-16 and its civilian version fire a bullet that is .223 inches wide (which translates to 5.56 mm).
So there’s a brief primer on gun terminology for the coming policy debate.