Covering the Vegas shooting: What journalists need to know about guns

Without a doubt, the mass shooting in Las Vegas will start a new round in the American debate about guns. I teach journalists how to cover guns and gun issues, and as I listen to the video of the shooting I am stunned by the rapid fire and the number of rounds before each reload.  By Tuesday afternoon, authorities revealed that the shooter had fitted at least 12 of his weapons with a "bump stock" which is a legal attachment that gun owners can add to an AR-15 rifle to simulate the rapid fire of a fully automatic weapon. 

The bump stock absorbs the recoil of the firing rifle while the shooter keeps a finger on the trigger.  The semi-automatic weapon rapidly fires over and over until the shooter lets off the trigger or the weapon runs out of ammo. 

Some experts also pointed to the possibility that the Vegas shooter might have used a "gat crank" which is actually a crank that can be attached to the trigger of a semi-automatic rifle and the shooter can crank off rounds very rapidly.  But as photos emerged of some of the weapons in the hotel room, none was fitted with a gat crank.

Full-auto and semi-auto
The bump stock, in the hands of an experienced shooter, can turn a legal semi-automatic rifle into a weapon that is capable of firing at a rate of hundreds of rounds per minute, comparable to the rapid rate you would normally associate with a machine gun.

A machine gun is fully automatic. That means with one pull of the trigger, the weapon keeps firing until it runs out of ammo or the shooter releases the trigger.  

A semi-automatic weapon requires a shooter to pull the trigger for each round.
 

Related Training: Telling Smarter Stories About Gun Issues,
How to Cover Big News As It Breaks

These are images of fully automatic machine guns:

 

Guns

While the smaller models like the MAC-10 or Uzi fire lots of rounds, they are not accurate at long distances. A military style M16 certainly is accurate, however. And 50-caliber machine guns could be accurate to more than 1,000 yards, maybe more if the shooter is skilled.  

It is possible to own a legally licensed and registered machine gun.   Although federal law prohibits the possession of newly manufactured machine guns, the law does allow the "transfer of machine guns lawfully owned prior to May 19, 1986, if the transfer is approved by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF)."  There are nearly a half million registered machine guns in the United States according to the ATF's registry.  Here is the ATF's list of weapons that are covered in The National Firearms Act which prohibits and regulates some weapons.

Semi-automatic weapons could include a rifle, a shotgun or a pistol. When one round is fired, the weapon ejects the spent round and injects another round into the chamber. Police often carry semi-automatic pistols. Hunters commonly use semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. 

Journalists often mistake the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, sometimes referred to as an assault weapon, for an automatic weapon. It is a civilian and semi-automatic version of the fully auto M16. The AR-15 is also highly accurate at a long distance. 

Clips and magazines

One mistake I have repeatedly heard in the Vegas coverage is the interchangeable use of the worlds "clips" and "magazines."  Both can be used in rapid-fire weapons, but clips are generally associated with much older weapons. Magazines are far more likely to be used to load multiple rounds in a weapon.

 

Clips

Gun opponents have lobbied for decades to make "high capacity" magazines illegal. Generally, they are talking about magazines that load more than 10 rounds. An experienced shooter can easily reload with a fresh magazine in a few seconds. (When I first posted this article I said high-capacity magazines were more than 8 rounds.  Expert readers rightly pointed out that the new California law speaks to more than 10 rounds. )

The law

Nevada is among the most gun-friendly states.  Big gun shows often gather there as a result. Nevada does not require a gun license or permit. There is no limit to how many weapons a person may own, and the state does issue concealed carry permits. Gun owners may carry unloaded weapons in public without any permits. 

I heard one “expert” tell a cable news anchor that the police will begin tracking the history of the weapons that authorities found in that hotel room.

He made it sound like it would be as easy as tracking a car license. It isn’t. There is no national gun database. That is by design. What there is is a huge warehouse complex full of paper records. As Business Insider explained, it is easier to track a bag of infected lettuce than it is to track a gun in America.

Congress set up the toothless lion known as the Federal Firearms License System that applies to retail gun sellers but not to private sellers.  And the retailers hold on to the sales records, not send them to a central database.  

After every mass shooting in America, there is a tide of interest in new gun laws. But President Trump has repeatedly said he has no interest in stronger gun laws, and he got the backing of the National Rifle Association.

In April, he said America's "eight-year assault on gun rights is over." Trump said he would "save" the Second Amendment.  

The Second Amendment is part of  the United States Constitution adopted in 1791 that protects the rights of the people to keep and bear arms. Over the centuries, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is a fundamental right but like all rights there can be reasonable restrictions, just as there are restrictions on First Amendment rights.  

The debate and the fight to come will be, as it usually is, what is "reasonable."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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