That (very) little bit of punnery aside, when it comes to guns, definition and meaning are often trashed in favor of fabricated "technomotional" terminology that appeals viscerally but is vague enough in meaning so as to allow the application of any denotation of convenience. Of all the linguistic propaganda that has attached itself to firearms in the last twenty-five years, my favorite phrase has to be "semi-automatic assault weapon." It's completely devoid of meaning, but wielded like a mace by the ignorant, those feigning knowledge and those with an agenda.
Here's a typical usage, courtesy of the New York Daily News:
The latest NYPD gun buyback event turned up firearms for nearly every type of gunslinger - even those who want to blast their victims into swiss cheese.You can view the original article from June 26, 2011 HERE.
The buyback, held Saturday in Brooklyn, netted 71 guns, including a Tec-9 semi-automatic assault weapon - the kind of heavy-duty piece that would make Tony Montana smile.
Not only was the gun fully loaded when it was turned in for cash, it was also packed with hollow-point bullets - the ammo of choice for hitmen because they are designed to make the emergency room doctor unnecessary.
Now, let's put aside the big, flashing, neon sign that says "I don't know what I'm talking about with respect to hollow points, but boy, does it make good copy!" and focus on the "semi-automatic assault weapon" issue. Let's start with the fact that the design and manufacture of firearms is very much a technical discipline that involves engineering, physics, chemistry and a host of other sciences. As with any other engineering discipline, there are technical terms of art that allow all the stakeholders (engineers, managers, marketers, consumers, users, sponsors, ec.) to communicate effectively. For example, in the aerospace engineering world, the word chord refers to "The dimension of a wing parallel to the direction of motion." If, for one reason or another, a group was to start using the phrase "flight-perpendicular chordal construction," not only would the phrase be self-contradictory and meaningless, the word chord would cease to be useful in terms of consistently conveying an idea or concept.
This is exactly what's happened with the phrase "semi-automatic assault weapon." It's a self contradictory collection of words that appeal emotionally, and, to the uneducated, sound good, but that lacks any useful semantic content. In other words, it's techno-babble, and means precisely...nothing.
Parsing the phrase is a useful exercise in understanding its paralyzing degree of imprecision. "Semi-automatic" refers to any firearm that harnesses the energy of the fired cartridge to extract the empty case from the chamber, eject the case from the gun, cycle the firing mechanism and load a fresh cartridge into the chamber one time for each pull of the trigger. Firearms that do this have been around for about 120 years, and they come in all shapes, sizes and types, from pistols to rifles to shotguns.
The use of the word "assault" is meant to conjure images of angular lethality in steel, wood and plastic as embodied by the current standard arm of the world's infantry, the assault rifle. However, the use of the word "assault" in firearms nomenclature has very precise technical and operational meaning.
|The MP44 - the world's first assault rifle|
The new assault rifle had three key characteristics, all of which it shares with modern weapons of the type. Specifically:
- It uses a cartridge that is in between pistol cartridges and traditional, full size rifle cartridges in power. This type of cartridge is called an "intermediate cartridge";
- It is capable of either semi-automatic fire (one round per pull of the trigger) or fully automatic fire (e.g., like a machine gun); and
- It can be fired either from the shoulder or the hip.
|The original semi-automatic assault weapon|
I supposed that if we were to liberally construe the phrase "semi-automatic" and add it to the mix, it would mean something that could be used repeatedly to inflict a discrete element of a violent physical attack. This sounds like nothing so much as a....baseball bat.
Actually, just about anything that can be used repeatedly to batter, beat, stab, thrash, maul, beat, puncture or shoot could be considered a semi-automatic assault weapon.
(Remember the wooden spoon mom used to maintain discipline in the house? Uh oh! Semi-automatic assault weapon!)
The broad applicability of the term is an indicator of its gross imprecision and thus, utter uselessness to those who rely on the precise meaning of words to accurately convey ideas, images, stories and concepts.
In sum, we have weapons. We have assault rifles. We have semi-automatic rifles. We even have semi-automatic pistols. What we do NOT have are "semi-automatic assault weapons."
Words are powerful. Words mean things. Use them properly and wisely.