Getting Guns Right

by Michael Z. Williamson

Once again lately, firearms are in the news.

This seems odd. The news is about the unusual, and after 700 or more years in use, firearms are hardly unusual. In America, they've been a vital part of the culture since its inception. Yet we're still debating the subject, and the media almost always gets its facts wrong.

At its basic level, a firearm is a piston engine. A propellant is ignited and powers a projectile down a bore. Instead of working a crank, it is forced out in a chosen direction. The impact energy is simple to calculate, being only a matter of mass and velocity. The terminal effects of certain projectile designs on tissue are more complex, but plenty of data and tests exist, and modern computer models can predict the outcome quite well. Nor do most media stories even touch on this, instead dumbing the entire subject down to good guns, operated by agents of the government, and bad guns, identical guns operated by anyone else, described with various inaccurate epithets intended to stir emotion.

Mike holding gunIn fiction, both on TV and to a lesser extent in literature, the portrayals are often eye-rollingly cliché. In alleged "news," they are so awful as to beggar belief.

One can very easily find a TV show or movie where some citizen, at risk, decides to get a gun, or some criminal element pretends to be such. In multiple cases, bad screenwriters and directors copied each others' mistakes and have said person go into a gun store in Chicago to buy a handgun. The clerk says, "Well, there's supposed to be a five day waiting period, but you've got an honest face."

This is just ridiculous.

First, until recently, handguns were illegal in Chicago, and no stores sold any, the end. Even now, with the law in flux, I suspect there aren't any handgun dealers actually in Chicago.

Second, Illinois has a three day waiting period for handguns. This is a very easy fact to find in any number of references, or one could just call and ask. But hey, what does reality matter? This is about touching people's hearts, yadda yadda.

Then, "honest face" gets you nothing. While it's certainly possible to find a friend of a friend who's a clerk who might be persuaded to skip doing the necessary paperwork for a sufficient inducement that will eventually lead to him being fired at least, jailed more likely, it's simply ridiculous to suggest that wink-wink nudge-nudge we'll just ignore federal and state law for a sale is the standard. If liquor store owners are constantly worried about underage sales, how much more worried are Federal Firearm Licensees about getting busted, jailed and having millions of dollars in inventory seized and destroyed? The answer, of course, is "very." And since there are hundreds of eligible buyers lined up ready to follow proper legal procedure, there's no incentive to help someone with a sob story violate multiple laws. Anyone who's worked in retail can tell you the sob stories people bring for the most mundane of items. Sorry, no, I will not violate federal law for you.

There seems less attention paid to the black market trade in weapons, which generally tends to inflate the price of the available product. Supply and demand dictates that if one can't buy one legally, someone is going to get a percentage out of the deal. Nor is it likely one will get a decent gun that way. The free market vendor is likely to keep such for himself, just in case. This would be a much more interesting subject in a show, though it would require even more research. Also, it might present legal ownership in a better light.

And of course, civilians get their guns taken away from them, have them malfunction, freeze and can't shoot, stuff it under a seat where they can't reach it for anything in time, but of course a small child can, etc, all with dreary predictability. Then there are magnetic bullets. Most bullets are some combination of lead with copper alloy jacketing, but in movies and TV, they repeatedly can be picked up with magnets (and we're not talking armor piercing steel cored military rounds, we're talking lead shotgun shells and .38 Special revolver rounds).

Silencers are sexy. Silencers are always used by criminals or special ops types, and actually silence bullets. In the real world, a suppressor reduces muzzle blast by 30-40 decibels (down to 110-120, still as loud as an engine), and one that can do 40 dB is pricey indeed. Criminals almost never bother with them. Special Ops guys do, and so do civilians who just want to avoid going deaf. Go figure. Yes, suppressors actually have real world applications, and are unrestricted in many nations. Maybe someday they'll figure out a way to quiet the exhaust on cars! It would enable assassins to arrive quietly at night, and military convoys to move more discreetly, but it might even allow people to travel without hearing protection. Obviously we'd have to have restrictions on who might muffle their car exhaust, to make sure they're legitimate…

It's amazing how similar devices with similar intent can be perceived so differently.

I'm not suggesting everyone in the entertainment industry is anti-gun. However, a good many are, and quite a few others either love "controversy" or simply don't grasp the subject and follow what they believe is conventional wisdom. They seem to miss that a fascination with guns means a market for and interest in guns.

There are approximately 94 million gun owners in America, and on any given day, approximately 94 million of them don't commit any crimes. Add up the numbers, and the real world default usage of guns is 99.9996% legal and unremarkable. Obviously, entertainment often exaggerates for effect, or it gets boring.

But, petty thugs really don't often run around with crew-served weapons, every bullied school kid doesn't take a gun in to settle the score, only to screw up and find it used against him, and only a few dozen cases exist (out of billions of sales) where someone bought a gun at a pawn shop using his honest face as collateral and his mother's disability check.

As to technical use, I want to be fair, because I've worked on some TV shows as consultant and armorer. One of the issues is sheer ignorance—urbanites in media pursuits in LA or Manhattan may be completely unaware of what guns are, how they work or how they're used. It's sort of like virgins writing sex scenes. But guess what? I am aware of how firearms work, and my rates are reasonable, as are those of any number of other consultants. In one of my books I dramatized a sniper shooting the wire from a boobytrap at 300 yards in the dark. Extreme, but believable. You can find any number of real world shots, incidents, events that make great story material.

However, it would be nice if some token effort was put into realistic portrayals of the extreme, instead of having ceramic Glocks from Germany that go through metal detectors, MRI machines yanking bullets through people's skulls, guys retrieving shotgun shells with magnets, .22 rifles "shooting the eye out of a sparrow at three hundred yards," 9mm bullets exploding car gas tanks or blowing people 20 feet back, ad nauseum infinitum. It's not just bad, it's lazy and boring. If you're not gun-oriented but know computers, it's akin to some kid in his basement accidentally hacking into NORAD to play a computer game involving live nuclear weapons. It just does not happen, and it's embarrassing to watch.

We must discuss the press…brief pause while I get a drink, call my doctor and ask if I can have some horse tranquilizers, have a few more drinks, and twenty minutes of deep breathing.

Okay, on to the press: There's so little positive to say about how they portray firearms. I've seen them sneak a camera into a gun show on a wheelchair, attempt to make an illegal purchase, get lots of footage of the guy with a half million dollars of WWII surplus and collectibles so they can focus on three diplomatic daggers with swastikas, then find the dumbest neckbeard conspiracy nut in camouflage, then claim that the encounter was "typical," and we're all Nazi-racists who hate the government (it's okay for leftists to hate the government of course. Their motives are pure. Or something like that) and are waiting to rise up with machine guns we bought through loopholes and go slaughter people of color!

In the process, they not only lied to the public, they violated the show's no camera policy (because of the risk of theft and crooked reporters), and sometimes violate the law by attempting to make particular illegal purchases. But gun owners and dealers are the bad guys. Well, maybe not all the attendees are bad. There's the cops and federal agents buying guns, and minorities, many of them lawyers or bankers or business owners. Oh, wait, you didn't see those in the news article? Funny coincidence, eh?

Of course, machine guns are heavily restricted, licensed, expensive, expensive to feed and flat out illegal many places, so they're not really sold en masse, and certainly one doesn't go into a gun show full of cops with a few bucks cash and walk out with one. Nor is the conflation of standard self-loading rifles with machine guns accidental. There are comments on record that many outlets deliberately confuse the two for the consumer. This might be considered by some to go beyond a bias in reporting to sheer dishonesty. I'm sure there's a rational explanation, though. Maybe.

Standard rifles are tagged as being able to "rapidly and accurately spray fire from the hip," which is an unbelievable untruth that is defeated by the fact that rifles have sights on them, and the military spends a lot of time and money teaching troops to use those sights. If "spray firing from the hip" were effective, and accurate, the military would teach it.

But of course, civilians are less effective than soldiers, except of course that they're somehow more lethal than soldiers, if the narrative requires so.

Are there other examples?

Well, the .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun) round was first fielded in 1921. There had been thought given to using it as an anti-tank round, but the primitive tanks even of that era got too tough too fast. The .50 BMG can in theory travel a long way, but accuracy limits it to at most 2500 yards among the world's best snipers. Most shots are under 1000 yards, due to environmental limits (wind, gravity) and sight capabilities, and of course, shooter skill. At $3-$5 a round, it's expensive in rifles, and outrageous in machine guns, even if one had an M2 Browning Machine Gun, which can be had legally with federal paperwork for about $35,000, and can be built illegally for half that, but where are you going to take it and use it where it won't be obvious to everyone, and what are you going to use it for?

So of course, the Associated Press had an article about how .50 caliber rifles could shoot through tanks at a mile (check here). It could be ignorance and conflation of the cartridge's range with its anti-materiel use and a confusion between tanks and other vehicles. Except it was billed as a "business" article and was largely a hatchet piece. Refutations and commentary from Barrett and the Fifty Caliber Institute support the idea that a lot of items of business interest were left out, and a lot of hyperbole inserted. The reporter for this piece is now a second string religion reporter in Minneapolis, which suggests either her editors took her to task, or it's also possible they sent someone ignorant of the subject on purpose, manipulated the story, then sacrificed her when they found out Americans weren't as gullible as they thought.

When the anti-gun groups, who know as much about firearms as they do about heart surgery spout off crap about how a .50 BMG rifle can take down an airliner, 60 Minutes, a notable news show dutifully reports this "Fact." For some reason, they never report my fact that a Mustang GT can reach 900 mph and rip a hole in the ozone layer. So either they know a bit more about cars than they do about guns, or they don't care and like the "controversy" they generate. I would never accuse them of bias and malfeasance. That would imply they are unprofessional. Also, I might get sued. In the meantime, a bunch of gun-haters would call me a conspiracy nut or a right-winger. The fact is, however, that even a large plane is a very fast moving target, almost impossible to hit with a rifle, and at worst, you'd make a half inch hole in it, which is inconvenient but not disastrous, unless by some even greater miracle you hit an engine, and even then, it would likely still make landing. Nor is there any evidence any terrorist group anywhere to date has attempted this. Bombs are so much more effective, and boxcutters so much easier to acquire and transport.

It's especially interesting now that the Supreme Court has upheld the 2nd Amendment as an actual individual right, which "right of the people" always meant, but sometimes the parties on the left aren't real clear that "people" doesn't mean "state." Except, of course, that the Constitution does say "State" when it means "State" and "people" when it means "people." In the four years since the Heller decision, several other cases have found various gun control measures unconstitutional. This is clearly the direction society wishes to go.

Logically, once possession of firearms was established as a civil right, and as a cultural norm, one would expect a swing in the media to protect this right and its practitioners against incursions by others.

Instead, the rhetoric persists, though it is slowly growing tepid. A gun built with a 15 round magazine that can take 10 round magazines has the 15 round magazine redefined as "high capacity" rather than "standard capacity." The ten round reduced capacity mag is the new unspoken "standard." Not that it matters, because I have a right to own it most places, and there's a good chance the local restrictions in some areas will be tossed out. But what would be next? Could the ten round be "high capacity" compared to a "normal" 6 rounds? Luckily, most Americans are smart enough to grasp that 15 X 10 = 10 X 15.

I even recall articles about "high tech" weapons whose basic designs reach back a century or more, in the case of self-loading pistols. We recently celebrated the centennial of the Colt 1911. At this point, semi-automatic pistols are closing in on a century and a quarter in age. Expressing surprise at their existence and availability is like expressing surprise at a typewriter. It is a completely manufactured outrage and scare tactic, and I don't see any way to call it anything else.

A group of people, approximately half the population of the country, of whom only a few out of thousands do anything wrong, is demonized as some freakish, violent, atavistic, uncivilized bunch of ignorant, paranoid barbarians. And keep in mind that, for example, transporting a gun without a case is a crime in some locations, so the "X number of gun crimes per year" is grossly inflated over the number of actual incidents where a legal gun owner injures someone without valid cause.

The cultural divide is finally shrinking. Were one to suggest that free speech only belongs to people of particular character and demographics, such as lawyers, educators and clergy, for the purpose of limiting child porn and incitement to civil disturbance, one would be lambasted, shouted at and threatened with dire consequences. Suggest, however, that guns should be denied to most citizens on the grounds that they don't "need" them, aren't smart enough to operate a device that is actually less mechanically complex than a bicycle, or too morally corrupt to be trusted not to turn into a frothing, raging lunatic who rapes puppies at gunpoint, and until recently you'd find a cheering section. Such language would not considered inflammatory, discriminatory, hateful or unfair. In recent years, though, the comments will be filled with gun owners, most of them making clear arguments against this rhetoric. Still though, the rhetoric persists, floated out there in the hope that it will find a current.

Then there's the "expert" commenters in psychology with their statements that "guns are symbolic penises." Well, that's a cute little summary. Except, of course, that quite a few women own guns, and quite a few men, including myself, have used them professionally and socially to protect ourselves and others. I would certainly not consider pointing my penis at someone to be a useful tactic in a fight. And I note, often the person saying this drives a Mercedes or BMW, of which entire books of compensation jokes could be written.

To compare, let's take people in pickup trucks. One is a contractor with a scratched bed full of tools, parts, grit, muck and oil, and a cab with a laptop, GPS, phone, assorted measuring equipment, more tools, a coffee pot, thermal coverall, hardhat, reflective vest, muddy boots. He has a light rack, a brush guard and a winch, all of which he uses for his job. Another has a similar setup, only with heavy off-road tires for his hobby of exploring wilderness and camping up mountains. The third has lots of chrome, polished tires, loud mufflers and racing stripes. This truck never goes over grass, and slows down to 2 mph at railroad crossings and even cracks in the pavement to avoid the possibility of straining the suspension. Only one of these three people is "compensating."

So it is with gun owners. Certainly there are a few who are fearful or Walter Mitty types. They are not the majority. And even if they are, aren't they entitled to self defense as well? Remember, some small percentage of internet users are kiddie porn criminals. That doesn't mean most are, and doesn't mean someone seeking out ephebophile fiction (Romeo and Juliet, for example) is a criminal waiting to happen. And in both cases, speech and firearms, the fact, comfortable or not, is that it's been ruled a Constitutionally protected right.

One of the worst school killings in history was in 1927 and involved explosives, not guns. The planes on Sept 11, 2001 were brought down with boxcutters. Right after one famous shooting, another killer drove his car into a school playground and killed several children. There are any number of ways to kill large numbers of people without using guns. Yet what was the response to Sept 11? Calls for more gun control. After Columbine, what did some news outlets demand? More controls over "assault weapons," even though nothing defined as an "assault weapon" was used in that attack. We were told that common pistols were "incredibly" available to civilians without restriction. Except, of course, for filling out a federal form, showing ID, having the transaction recorded. Other than that, though, no restrictions. Perhaps the guns were bought at a gun show, where a "loophole" allows people to do exactly what they do outside a gun show—buy and sell private property. I'm sure they're not referring to the dealers, because FFL dealers must comply with all local, state and federal laws wherever they are. Claiming a loophole in regards to them is a mistake that has been repeated for a couple of decades now. So assuming the press aren't biased and dishonest, that only leads to the conclusion that they're utterly lazy and incompetent and don't check their facts.

Maybe that's what we need: a 5 day wait on publication while the government checks cited facts for posterity. I mean, you have a right to free speech and press, BUT…!

Fortunately, the media can be reassured on one point. Gun owners really aren't the way we're portrayed in most fiction or "news." Therefore, they statistically have nothing to fear from us.

If only the reverse were true.

In closing, I'd like to address aspiring writers and journalists. If you're writing for the firearm owner demographic and market, do please remember that we're as educated, or more so, as anyone else. Snide assumptions, cliches and condescension won't improve your readership. If, of course, you're writing for the opposing market, then feel free to be as slack and careless as you wish. Sleep well, and convince yourself you're not really selling your integrity for money, that you're presenting "controversy" or "human interest."

For myself, I will continue to present the facts to the best of my ability to research, and neither misrepresent objects, nor falsely stereotype people. It takes more work, but it makes for a more interesting and believable story.

Copyright © 2012 by Michael Z. Williamson

Photo copyright © 2012 Oleg Volk

Michael Z. Williamson is retired from the U.S. military, having served twenty-five years in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. He was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Desert Fox. Williamson is a state-ranked competitive shooter in combat rifle and combat pistol. He has consulted on military matters, weapons and disaster preparedness for Discovery Channel and Outdoor Channel productions and is Editor-at-Large for Survivalblog, with 300,000 weekly readers. In addition, Williamson tests and reviews firearms and gear for manufacturers. Williamson’s books set in his Freehold Universe include Freehold, Better to Beg Forgiveness, and Do Unto Others, and latest entry When Diplomacy Fails.