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This Navy Veteran Says The Way Americans Talk About Guns Is Broken11:00

Weapons are seen on display at the K&W Gunworks store on Jan. 5, 2016 in Delray Beach, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
Weapons are seen on display at the K&W Gunworks store on Jan. 5, 2016 in Delray Beach, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

After the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, Navy veteran and journalist Adam Weinstein wrote an article in Mother Jones. He wanted to explain the nuance behind terms like "assault weapons" and "magazine" to people who don't own firearms.

Inaccurate language when discussing guns has contributed to the national gun conversation's breakdown following last month's school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Weinstein (@AdamWeinstein) says.

"Every time somebody makes a misstep on this terminology, every time somebody betrays a little bit of ignorance, that's an opportunity to have a deeper conversation and a longer conversation," Weinstein tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd. "The problem is, there are so many incentives on both sides right now for it to be the end of the conversation."

Weinstein knew Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School wrestling coach Chris Hixon, who was killed in the shooting.

Interview Highlights

On his family's history with firearms

"It was sort of handed down from generation to generation in my family. My grandfather was just a stereotypical Brooklyn Jew, who at one point after some time in the Army, moved to upstate New York to apprentice to the makers of the Thompson submachine guns, the famous Tommy guns, and decided to become a gunsmith. And my father apprenticed to him in the shop, and so I grew up around firearms collectors, around people in the culture — for better and for worse — and we grew up as sport shooters, and also learning a lot of responsibility that comes with your right to own these firearms."

"I do think that we are as a society much more prone to enjoying our rights than we are exercising our responsibilities."

Adam Weinstein

On whether the national gun discussion has broken down

"I think it's absolutely broken down, and I think that language plays a big part in that. You've seen both sides ... for as long as you can remember, we talked about and argued about assault weapons, and what that even meant, in the early 1990s and the late '80s. So as long as I can remember, coming to some kind of a consensus on the parlance, or not coming to that consensus and just using language disconnects as a way of building up your own group identity, has just been part and parcel of the gun discussion."

On ways in which the term "assault weapon" is misunderstood

"It's a term that doesn't mean nothing, but it never really had a solid definition until 1994, when there was actually a law passed, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. And so essentially, an assault weapon is whatever the government decides that it is, at this point, and we've never really come to a consensus as a society. Basically what it is is it's a semi-automatic rifle that can take one of these magazines — perhaps a high-capacity magazine — and it also has two or more of a couple of features that you could call cosmetic: a folding stock, a pistol grip, a lug that you would put a bayonet in, a flash suppressor that you put on the muzzle to cover up the the fire that comes out when you actually fire the weapon.

"[National Rifle Association] advocates and pro-gun advocates have always said that that definition of an assault weapon is really just cosmetics. It has nothing to do with the mechanical operation of a gun, and it doesn't cover a bunch of guns that have the same caliber, that operate the same way and are just as lethal. That's an absolutely valid point. But on the other hand, these modifications aren't nothing — a folding stock or a collapsing stock makes what's otherwise a long gun very concealable. A pistol grip gives you much greater maneuvering ability, and a flash suppressor could be useful if you don't want to be seen wherever you're shooting from. So, it's a little disingenuous to say these are merely cosmetic. But it is also a little disingenuous to say, 'If we just take care of the weapons that have these features outside of them, we've taken care of our problem.' Because you really haven't."

On people in favor of gun control making the case that gun advocates don't always hold factual views about firearms

"I'll give you one recent example. So, down here after the Parkland school shooting, CNN hosted that town hall forum for a lot of the survivors and their families to speak with political representatives and representatives of the industry. Dana Loesch was there representing the NRA's point of view, and at one point, a mother of a victim in the shooting asks her, 'How can these weapons that we are talking about be justified under the 1791 Second Amendment?' And Loesch cited this British political novelty, the Puckle gun, from the 18th century, and a Belton rifle, which is in the Smithsonian, as proof that the Founding Fathers 'had fully automatic firearms.' I'm writing a book on the Belton, so I can say that that argument's problematic on a bunch of fronts. But she used this term 'fully automatic firearms' to describe something that was developed in 1758 that had a piece of flint to fire, and a guy manually used it to maybe get eight shots out in a minute. If anybody who was a gun control advocate used that term that incorrectly and carelessly, the NRA would jump all over them."

On what references like Loesch's signify

"I mean it signifies that, I think a lot of the language debate is not necessarily a good-faith debate among gun owners who are on the Second Amendment/NRA side, saying, 'Come understand us, get to know these machines before you wanna develop public policy around them.' Instead of that, you're getting a lot of, 'They will never understand us, and we have to maintain our identity as people who know better than everybody else, and we have to fight public policy from the ignorant.' "

"My argument has always been, you have a pastime that has value when it's used responsibly and when you invite people in to understand it."

Adam Weinstein, on gun ownership

On how much responsibility gun owners have to bring people who don't own guns into the conversation

"This is one of those things I've never quite understood about the turn that you see in gun culture. ... I mean, those elements of kind of the personal identity and inability to compromise have always been there, but as a child, I grew up in a community of responsibility, and kind of an evangelist community. When you enjoyed shooting sports, you wanted to share them with other people. And my argument has always been, you have a pastime that has value when it's used responsibly and when you invite people in to understand it. So I think a lot of the onus right now has to be on the owners and the possessors of this knowledge and this technology to say, 'Here's how it forms a part of our lives, and we may have to disagree on some things, but, I need to help you understand what we're actually talking about.' And I don't think they're doing that."

On understanding why a person impacted by gun violence may not want to discuss the nuances of gun ownership

"You have to. I mean, I lost a wrestling coach in the Parkland shooting. I have known other victims of gun violence. And, you know, I can't imagine looking a person who's suffered like that in the eye and trying to explain, 'You gotta get the distinction between an assault weapon and an assault rifle.' Because that does seem trivial in the long run to somebody who is literally on the other end of these weapons. And that's a viewpoint that I think isn't taken seriously enough by gun owners."

On whether he wants tighter gun restrictions

"I do. I do think that a large number of the weapons that have passed through my hands over the years are not weapons that need to be as readily available as they are. I do think that we are as a society much more prone to enjoying our rights than we are exercising our responsibilities. And I think we need a coherent gun-violence policy that acknowledges that, and that's gonna require a little bit of effort and a little bit of talk on both sides."

This segment aired on March 5, 2018.


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