The news that front-line Toronto police officers will soon be equipped with C8 patrol carbines ought to get us thinking. There’s room for debate on whether these weapons actually belong in every police cruiser, given that Toronto is the safest large city in North America, given a falling crime rate, and given that you can count the number of times the ordinary police officer has needed such a weapon in the past ten years, nation wide, without taking off your mittens. On the other hand, on rare occasions, officers have died only because they were outgunned. But I don’t want to talk about whether cops need rifles. As usual, I want to talk about language: about the words “patrol carbine,” what they mean, and what they really tell us.
What is this patrol carbine? The C8 is the carbine version of the C7 rifle, which is itself an adaptation of the US Army’s M16, which in turn is derived from the AR-15. The Canadian Forces adopted the C7 and C8 in the late 1980s, to replace the FN C1 rifle and the Sterling submachine gun. The C8 differed from the C7 in having a shorter barrel and a collapsible stock. It is a selective fire weapon chambered for 5.56 x 45mm NATO, an intermediate cartridge, fed by a detachable box magazine.
In other words, the C8 is the kind of gun that’s normally called an “assault rifle.”
Nowadays, disgruntled gun owners like to grouse that “assault rifle” is an expression coined by “the antis” in an Orwellian attempt to demonize semi-automatic rifles. But the truth is that the term “assault rifle” first appeared in gun magazines, to describe modern military firearms that had evolved from earlier “battle rifles.”
As usual, a brief history lesson is in order. Up to (and during) World War II, the world’s armies used bolt-action rifles: rifles that reloaded from a box magazine when the shooter manually operated the bolt. These guns fired full-bore cartridges, such as the British .303, and could kill at long range. But times were changing: armies needed rifles with a higher rate of fire. And on the bloody eastern front, the Germans and Russians made a discovery: most infantry combat occurred at short range, where full-bore rifle cartridges were unnecessary. What they needed was a hybrid: something like a submachine gun, but with enough punch to kill at 300 yards if necessary.
The German answer was the StG 44, which had three important features. First, it fired an intermediate cartridge, a compromise between a full bore rifle cartridge and the relatively weak pistol cartridges used in submachine guns. Second, it had a detachable 30-round box magazine, like a submachine gun. And third, it was a selective-fire weapon: one with both semi-automatic and fully automatic modes.
After the war, the Russians followed the German example with the AK-47. The United States, meanwhile, stuck to full-bore cartridges, replacing the Garand with the M14, until experience pushed them towards the AK-47 model. Gun writers, looking to distinguish the two approaches, called full bore semi-automatic or selective fire rifles, such as the M14, “battle rifles.” The children of the StG 44 and AK-47, they called “assault rifles,” by translating the full name of the StG 44: Sturmgewehr.
An assault rifle is a specific kind of weapon: a selective fire weapon firing an intermediate cartridge, that used detachable box magazines. Or it was a specific thing, until marketers stepped in. Advertisements for civilian versions of military rifles, such as the AR-15, touted these rifles as “assault rifles” even though they didn’t fit the strict definition. And after high-profile mass public shootings in the late 1980s, gun control advocates further muddied the water with “assault weapon,” a term intended to include not only assault rifles but other guns, such as semi-automatic, civilianized submachine guns.
The word “assault” became inconvenient. What were we to call a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable box magazine, chambered for an intermediate cartridge? The National Shooting Sports Foundation now calls them “modern sporting rifles,” suggesting that they’re no different from all those bolt action rifles that came home from the war and became deer rifles. Other people like to call them “black rifles,” for the customary colour of their stocks and forearms.
We now have numerous names for the same gun: assault rifle, assault weapon, modern sporting rifle, black rifle. And naturally, those names all serve political ends. The assault rifle and the modern sporting rifle are fundamentally the same gun, but “assault rifle” and “modern sporting rifle” are two very different things.
And if that wasn’t Orwellian enough for you, enter Canadian police, who call this thing a “patrol carbine” when a police officer carries it, and an “assault weapon” when it’s in the hands of the public.
Why is this? I have to think it’s because the people throwing this language around believe that people are idiots, who are easily manipulated by word games. And the sad thing is, they may be right. I don’t see a lot of people discussing how or if we ought to regulate semi-automatic, intermediate rifles with detachable box magazines. I do see a distressing number of people fighting pointlessly over the definition of “assault rifle.”
I’ve been suffering from light-headedness this morning: vision swimming, dizzy spells, a feeling of general weakness. And this had me concerned, since I’ve reached the age at which rust bubbles the paint. But then I found a review at amazon.com which explained all:
Editing this review with an update. I do have questions about the author. He claims to be ex-military and a former member of “the gun culture” but does not appear to be using a real identity. If he’s using a nom de plume, it calls everything he says about himself into doubt. Reading over the scanty evidence of his real-life existence, notably his twitter account, it’s hard to imagine him as having a background that is anything like he states it is.
So that’s the problem: I’m feeling light-headed because, like Marty McFly, I don’t exist.
Phew! For a moment, I thought it might be something serious, but it’s just a run-of-the-mill existential crisis. I’m fading out of the photograph.
Presumably, all other evidence of my existence will soon vanish, also: five-year-old posts on this blog, my 2010 novel, and snippets of things written for magazines over a decade ago that still crop up here and there on the Internet. People who have seen me at various public appearances will find their memories wiped clean. And the credit card people, I think, will be very annoyed indeed.
This is why it’s never a good thing to read your Amazon reviews.
It’s Hallowe’en, the best holiday of the year, and so it’s so long October. Those peak woodcock flights I mentioned in my last post ought to be done with (but I don’t think they are), and with the wind and rain out of the way I did set book business aside and get out yesterday and put some birds in the bag. So the dog is happy, at least.
A round-up of recent goings-on:
On the 29th, I did a local event, for a change: a reading and talk at the Masonville Branch of the London Public Library.
On the 26th, I travelled up to Ottawa and did an interview for CBC’s All in a Day, followed by an appearance at the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival. You can check out the CBC interview here.
Last week, an excerpt from the book went up at rabble.ca. It’s from a chapter on the history of the gun lobby, and it deals with how pressure for gun control in Canada in the 1970s created for the first time a coherent, national gun lobby for Canada — one that quickly rattled apart under the pressure of competing interests. Flash forward almost forty years, and not much has changed: Canada’s National Firearms Association has imploded under the pressure of competing interests (and egos), and the hard core is still preaching that everyone needs to stick together to protect the hard core’s interests. Le plus ca change.
Autumn weather has arrived, the woodcock are on the move, but instead of going out to shoot woodcock this weekend I’ll be at Bookfest Windsor with Mark Kingwell for a reading and talk. It’s 2 pm at the Capitol Theatre. Also upcoming, by the way, is an appearance on 26th October at the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, with Camilla Gibb, which should coincide with the peak woodcock flights. Thanks, book.
Before I depart, a quick round-up of what’s been going on:
After the NRA’s “Cam & Company” and America’s First Freedom took potshots at me, I delighted in telling them that they’d made several factual mistakes, which might have been avoided if their guest from the Media Research Center had actually read the book. I offered to take them on, on their own turf. So Cam Edwards read it and invited me on his show, where he proceeded to praise my writing skills and condemn the book. You can listen to that here. Short version: I should not have written about the ideas used in the public discourse around guns; instead, I should have written about all the nasty criminals who cause the real problem.
So that was fun.
I also did an interview with Peter Darbyshire at the Vancouver Province, who has since called Arms “the most important and timely book of the year.” He posted an article at the Province, along with our entire interview, as a podcast.
He’s not the only one who thinks the book important. At The 49th Shelf, David Worsley of Wordsworth Books called Arms “a smart, at times uncomfortable, well-researched, and very necessary piece of work from a rare bird in contemporary political discourse: a radical moderate.”
The National Post also reviewed the book in today’s paper, where Philip Marchand does what no one else has: provides a review of the book without imposing his own external politics upon it (whatever they may be). It’s a clear and neutral assessment of what the book actually says.
Finally, a couple of pieces I wrote for newspapers over the past week. In the New York Daily News, I argued that the rhetoric of gun control is often unhelpful to its own cause, serving to drive moderate gun owners — folks who own guns but support some level of regulation — to the other side. And for the Globe & Mail, I wrote a summary of why the entire discussion goes nowhere, in spite of the fact that a clear majority of gun owners supports universal background checks.
Another more-than-a-week has passed, which means it is probably time for an update. Things have been busy and updating the old blog hasn’t been number one on my list. In any case:
The Wall Street Journal answered the Washington Post’s review of Arms with another view. (I make no guarantee that this will not be paywalled.) Barton Swaim did not like it. Not one little bit. But Swaim is entirely honest about his own politics here, so I can hardly object. In any case, the Wall Street Journal felt the book was important enough to merit attention.
I’m definitely not getting any Christmas cards this year from the “Media Research Center,” where fearless media researchers researched Arms by pulling quotations from various reviews, and proceeded to make a number of completely false statements about the book based on intensive media research that did not actually include, you know, reading the book. This theme has been picked up by a couple of organs of NRA News, the radio show “Cam & Company,” and the website of America’s First Freedom magazine — folks who apparently believe it’s the Second Amendment because it came first.
Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms.
The Washington Post review, mentioned in my last post, spawned letters to the editor, one from Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign, and another from one Nellie Clem of Lovettsville, who points out that habitat loss is a far greater threat to the future of hunting than is gun control. Good point — and it’s one that has bothered me for years.
The Winston-Salem Journal picked up Michael Rosenwald’s review of my book, which spawned the usual entertaining stream of comments. Let me qualify that: it will depend on what you find entertaining.
Elsewhere, the Chicago Tribune took note of the book, however briefly, and the Washington Post mentioned it again in an article on the invisible moderate gun owner. This is suddenly becoming a strong theme of the American gun debate: the question of why moderate gun owners don’t speak up. Well, I have some thoughts on that, in the book, and upcoming elsewhere.
Yet another busy week has passed.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the high point of my week was a review in the Washington Post, which flattered me by declaring that Arms is “entertaining, often funny and ultimately an important addition to the limited canon on guns.”
Maclean’s magazine called the book “a pleasingly acerbic popular history—an equal-opportunity lambasting of everyone from American gun weenies to Canadian cultural nationalists.”
I also wrote a piece for Maclean’s (online only), on why the now-defunct long gun registry, a hot political topic less than a year ago, is suddenly a non-issue on the campaign trail.
I touched on the same theme a couple of days later, talking to Ryan Jesperson on Edmonton’s CHED 630 radio.
And to round things out, I made an appearance on TVO’s The Agenda, to discuss the documentary “Up In Arms,” along with its director, Nadine Pequeneza. You can see that film here, and I recommend it: it’s a balanced and thorough look at a gun lobby most Canadians don’t know exists.
It’s been a busy week, and I haven’t been keeping things up. But since my last post, I’ve been on CBC Windsor’s Afternoon Drive with Bob Steele (no podcast available, sorry), and on CFAX 1070 in Victoria, BC (podcast here, with my part starting at around 36:30).
Also this past week was the Windsor launch for Biblioasis’s fall fiction list, where I filled in for Samuel Archibald (author of the Giller-longlisted Arvida), who was unable to make it. A good time was had by all, etc., with readings from Larry Tremblay (The Orange Grove), Kevin Hardcastle (Debris), and Anakana Schofield (Martin John). At some point in the festivities I seem to have been struck by a large, invisible truck loaded with whiskey, but I’m fully recovered now. No records survive; if you missed it, you missed it.
While in Windsor, I saw for the first time the October issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, which listed my book, Arms, among ten books you should pick up this fall.
On Friday, inverse.com put up a short Q&A with me, where I touch on the nineteenth century revolution in firepower, the masculine imperative of the gun culture, and what’s wrong with stand-your-ground laws. You can read that interview here. I also had a chance to talk to a Grade 12 class at Toronto’s Chaminade College about that masculine imperative. And to round out Friday, Publishers’ Weekly listed Arms among its hot Canadian titles.
What’s to come? This week I have a couple of things in the works, which you won’t be able to see until later in the fall (he said, mysteriously). Stay tuned.