I can count on readers to surprise me with a wealth of knowledge and intense interest in a huge variety of topics, from energy policy to quilting. And when the news is overtaken by a hot-button issue such as gun control, I always know people will be scrutinizing The Kansas City Stars reporting carefully.
By DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
Those knowledgeable about firearms often contact me when they find something questionable in the description and identification of weapons and related gear.
A perennial concern: Some people insist the words clip and magazine mean two entirely different things. Ive spoken about this topic at length with representatives from firearms manufacturers and sellers, the National Rifle Association and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
I can say confidently that if theres a definite difference, none of these authorities agrees on it. My judgment: To the lay audience for a general-interest newspaper, theyre synonyms.
Another term in the discussion over firearms that concerns some readers is assault weapon. This debate goes back to the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban and before, of course, but its likely to persist as long as the topic remains in the news.
The Star follows The Associated Press Stylebook, whose entry on the term reads:
Not to be confused with an assault rifle. A semi-automatic firearm similar in appearance to a fully automatic firearm or military weapon. Not synonymous with assault rifle, which can be used in fully automatic mode. An assault weapon unlike an assault rifle cant be used in fully automatic mode. Wherever possible, be specific about the type of weapon: semi-automatic rifle, semi-automatic shotgun or semi-automatic pistol.
It seems to be a catch-all phrase with different meanings to different people, wrote an emailer last Friday. Im not sure even The Stars columnists would agree on a definition, but you owe it to your readers to be precise.
Thats a very good point. Assault weapon has become shorthand for politicians and pundits alike. Even National Rifle Association President David Keene used it without defining it in a Jan. 13 interview with CNNs Candy Crowley.
The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, was more explicit. It named certain semi-automatic firearm models and described several criteria such as variations on guns stock, grip or accessories that would classify them as assault weapons.
But today, even by the APs standard, I think all fair-minded observers would have to agree the term has wiggle room, and thats where subjectivity can become a problem for journalists. Similar in appearance can mean different things to different people.
Id wager the key in many minds is whether the gun has a polished wooden stock and smooth barrel, or is black and boxy with geometric attachments such as hand guards and sight posts. But appearance doesnt necessarily have anything to do with how the gun operates, and a lot of the publics perceptions are based on what theyve seen in entertainment such as movies and video games instead of real-world experience.
All these factors argue for journalists to follow the APs italicized advice: Be specific about the type of weapon.
Other terminology related to firearms can trip up people on both sides of the issue. For example, a caller last week thought hed found an error in a story that stated Missouri doesnt require a permit to purchase a gun. He had confused the states background check and concealed-carry endorsements with purchase permits, which are required in some states.
After we untangled the particulars, he told me: Theres a lot of controversy in this thing, and I can see both sides of it. The Star should keep it all straight for us.