Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at

Viewpoints: Gun control language 'assaults' good sense

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 - 8:27 am

California has some of the toughest – and arguably some of the most overbearing – gun laws in the nation. But you'd never know it to hear our legislators yammer.

Lawmakers give lip service to liberty, while concocting terrifying yet meaningless new terms to justify restrictions on lawful gun ownership.

When it comes to demagoguing guns, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is one of the finer practitioners working today. Announcing the Legislature's gun control agenda a couple of weeks ago, Steinberg peddled all of the usual clichés about "safety" and "common sense." He even genuflected ever so slightly in the direction of the Bill of Rights.

"We respect the Second Amendment right of law-abiding citizens to have guns for hunting, for sport, for protecting their homes and families," the Sacramento Democrat solemnly intoned. Then he proceeded to explain how he and his colleagues intend to trammel upon that right.

The Second Amendment, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with hunting or sport, and it's only tangentially about self-defense. Steinberg merely mouthed the words. He had to. Judging by his proposed legislation, he obviously doesn't believe them.

That politicians spread falsehoods to advance a political agenda is hardly a novel observation. But the facts are inescapable. Notwithstanding the spree shootings that have horrified the nation, gun violence on the whole has fallen steadily and substantially over the past 20 years.

The federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 and Democrats ardently wish to resurrect, had practically no influence on that decline. Why not? Those weapons are used in only a tiny portion of crimes. But they sure look nasty, don't they?

Yet Steinberg went on to denounce "loopholes in California's tough gun laws" that "have been exploited long enough." What loopholes? Exploited by whom? To what end?

In reality, the senator was lamenting how well firearm manufacturers have complied with California's law, which banned certain cosmetic features on semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and handguns.

Steinberg and his Democratic colleagues gave the game away with their proposal to ban all semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines. In other words, they want to ban just about every semiautomatic rifle on the market today. Are those guns popular? Oh, yes. Are they used in crimes? Again, almost never. No matter. Ban 'em anyway – with all due "respect" to the Second Amendment, naturally. We'll see if that holds up in court.

California already bans the manufacture, sale and import of those much-discussed "high-capacity" magazines – another misleading term that apparently isn't terrifying enough. So lately we've heard the phrase "assault magazine" enter the discourse. Somebody must have poll-tested it, because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a host of Congress members, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and the left-liberal think tank Think Progress all picked up the term recently. I'm sorry to report the phrase even crept into the editorial column of this exemplary newspaper.

Do you want to know what a real "assault magazine" is? A rolled up copy of Vanity Fair used to bonk an obtuse lawmaker on the top of his thick head. Otherwise, a magazine is a magazine. Some hold seven bullets, some hold 10, and some hold 20 or 30. By itself, however, a metal box with a spring can "assault" no one.

Closely related to the "assault magazine" is the "assault bullet." You're probably thinking: Aren't all bullets "assault bullets"? Given the right circumstances, an "assault bullet" could also be a "defense bullet." But in general, a bullet is a bullet – and not to be confused with a shotgun shell, which usually sprays pellets.

Bullets come in different shapes and sizes. In this case, an "assault bullet" refers to one that expands on impact. A more accurate, less inflammatory, generally accepted term for this type of ammunition is "hollow point." Police use hollow point ammo for good reason: Expanding bullets don't penetrate walls, which means they're less likely to injure innocent bystanders or neighbors. They also have more stopping power.

In other words, "assault bullets" are safer and more effective than most bullets. Just ask your friendly neighborhood cop.

All of these preposterous neologisms matter, of course, because he who controls the language controls the debate.

Two decades ago, a clear majority of Americans supported some form of gun control. Today, it's barely a plurality. The question remains: What kind of gun control?

Bans are easy – and useless. Universal background checks may have potential. But the California proposals, which also include mandatory liability insurance and a ban on gun loans, would turn many otherwise law-abiding gun owners into criminals simply by virtue of their likely noncompliance.

Steinberg and his colleagues have made a fetish of what they consider evil objects. They shun the far more difficult task of identifying and separating truly dangerous people from dangerous weapons. Far easier to slap the "assault" label on everything they hold wicked, and tell themselves they've done the world some good. They're deluding themselves – and the public. Don't believe the hype.

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