‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’ Lewis Carroll: Through The Looking-Glass
Rep. Mike Thompson (D.-Calif.) is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday, he used a novel term:
“A majority of Americans also agree (according to a Pew poll released this month) that assault magazines have no place in our society. These magazines hold more than 10 rounds and allow a shooter to inflict mass damage in a short period of time without reloading. Banning them will save lives.”
Let’s take a brief stroll through the history of “assault” as an adjective for firearms.
In 1944, Adolf Hitler decreed that what up to that point had been known as a Maschinenpistole, the MP44, would henceforth be called the Sturmgewehr, StG44. The change from “:machine pistol” to “assault rifle” was thought effective propaganda. If only Hitler knew!
“Assault rifle” was a term familiar only to readers of tomes like Small Arms of the World and International Armament for years thereafter. It meant something very specific: a selective-fire military rifle of intermediate caliber. Everyone even vaguely interested in the topic knew and agreed what the phrase meant.
Then in 1987, came a young fellow named Josh Sugarmann of the anti-gun Violence Policy Center. He’d noticed the sales growth of ARs and AKs and saw an opportunity for anti-gunners, who’d pretty much worn out the phrase “Saturday Night Special,” to raise more money and score more political points by scaring people with a new bugaboo. His particular refinement was to replace the term “assault rifle” with “assault weapon.” That insight allowed him and anti-gun politicians like Dianne Feinstein to pin a menacing new label on any firearms they liked. While “assault rifle” had an established and agreed-on meaning, “assault weapon” meant whatever the speaker desired.
A few years later, the Clinton Administration coined the phrase “assault pistol” in order to ban importation of semi-auto submachine gun lookalikes like the HK SP89. There is no doctrine I have ever heard of that contemplates “assaulting” anything with a pistol, which is a weapon for close-range personal defense, but that didn’t stop the Clintonistas.
So we had the legitimate term “assault rifle” and the made-up terms “assault pistol” and “assault weapon,” which handily could be applied to pistols, rifles, shotguns, slingshots, whatever.
And so now we have the previously unheard term “assault magazine.” This joins last year’s prize coinage, “white Hispanic” as the most audacious assault on plain speaking. In fact, I think we need to call it “assault rhetoric” or maybe “assault untruth.”
So we now can expect “assault” to be pasted on anything they want to ban. It’s only a matter of time before there are assault revolvers or assault English game guns or assault derringers. Thanks, Hitler.