Reader Philip M. Greeley writes:
So guns are scary. They’re evil. They’re dangerous. At least, that’s what you think, what your friends think, and it’s what those you read, watch, and listen to think. But fear is a human reaction, and you have control over your fear. And evil is a potential of humans only, not of objects; this isn’t Dungeons and Dragons. As for their danger, guns are dangerous only under certain circumstances. And in about all cases, a gun is only dangerous when it’s pointed at someone and the trigger is pulled.
What is scary is ignorance, especially when ignorant people make decisions on the basis of their ignorance. It’s even scarier, when their decisions affect others besides themselves. And its especially scary, when they are proud of their ignorance and are willing to foist their decisions on others, ignorant and educated alike.
How do you get control over your fear? It begins by dispelling ignorance. That starts with acknowledging that guns are objects, capable of no independent thought, feeling, motivation, agency, or action. They require human hands, and human intentions, to wield.
Those human hands and intentions are of utmost importance when you handle a gun, as is the attention you pay when you do. You pay attention to the possibility that the gun is loaded; so you treat it like it is. You pay attention to the fact that the gun only fires when the trigger is pulled; so you keep your fingers off it until you are ready. You recognize that a bullet fired from a gun has destructive power; so you only point it at things you are willing to damage, and you’re aware of what’s beyond it, in case you miss.
And what happens when you pull that trigger? It fires one bullet. When a single bullet is fired for each pull of the trigger, this is known as a semi-automatic action. Most guns fire only a single bullet for each trigger pull; some of them reset to fire again on the action of the fired bullet — semi-automatic — and some require manual activation on the part of the shooter to reset.
When more than one bullet is fired with one pull of the trigger, this is known as automatic fire. Guns that do this are known as automatic weapons, select-fire weapons, or machine guns. They’re typically owned only by police and the military.
No matter what you may have read, machine guns were used in none of the recent shootings in the U.S. The AR-15 is not an automatic weapon; it is semi-automatic only. In the U.S., it’s difficult and very expensive to obtain an automatic weapon; the government has made it so. Most people are content to use semi-automatic and other types of weapons, which are more than sufficient for most cases of hunting, target-shooting, sport, and self-defense.
The AR-15 is the most commonly owned rifle in the U.S., but it’s not a military weapon. The military uses the M-4 carbine, which is a select-fire (automatic) rifle. Although they look similar, the two guns are distinctly different in how they fire and in their availability to the general populace.
When a politician, journalist, or someone else conflates or confuses the two kinds of guns, don’t be deceived. They are either ignorant or they are willfully misrepresenting the truth in order to deceive and scare you for their own ends.
A gun is loaded with cartridges or rounds, of which the bullet is only a part. Bullets are no more deadly than a small stone when they are all by themselves. The bullet is seated in a cartridge case or shell, which is filled with a powder (gunpowder) that burns very rapidly. When the trigger is pulled, the powder doesn’t explode…the rapid burning is known as deflagration, and it’s set off by the final piece of a cartridge, the primer.
A round must be seated in the chamber at the end of the barrel for the gun to be fired. When you pull the trigger, you engage a mechanism that uses mechanical energy to strike the primer with a firing pin (see animation at top). The primer’s chemical compounds then ignites, in turn setting off the rapid burning of the powder charge. The hot, rapidly expanding gases are what drives the bullet out of the casing, down the barrel, and out of the gun.
Rounds in a semi-automatic weapon are fed into the chamber from a magazine. This is the box-like affair that you see at the bottom of an AR-15, in front of the trigger. In semi-automatic handguns, it’s typically seated in the pistol grip (below).
A magazine is not a “clip”; very few firearms are loaded using clip any more. The World War II-era rifle known as the M1 Garand was loaded with what is known as an “en bloc” clip. “Stripper” clips are often used to load magazines, which are then loaded into a gun. It is a safe bet that news articles and politicians that talk about “clips”, especially in regards to the AR-15, are doing so out of…you guessed it…ignorance.
There are many different types of cartridges, and even more varieties of bullets. Though they’re frequently called “high power” weapons, the AR-15 typically fires a small round known as the 5.56mm or .223 Remington. These bullets are so small, it isn’t legal to hunt deer with them in some states.
There is much more that can be said about guns, whether we’re talking about rifles, pistols, or shotguns. Indeed, whole libraries worth of books have been written about all aspects of them. Likely, a similar amount has been written out of fear and ignorance of them. You should now be a little more comfortable with learning more about them, and better able to assess the knowledge, experience, and perhaps motivation, of those who write and talk about guns. Good luck, and enjoy.