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The Reporter’s Guide To Firearms
(NOTE: sadly, this article is what we journalists call “an evergreen” meaning it’s written once and then re-used many times.)
UPDATE: As of Sunday, October 1, 2017, I have to retract the statement about no shooter ever using a fully automatic weapon in a mass shooting. The Las Vegas shooter did NOT have a fully-automatic weapon but instead used an adaptation called a “bump fire stock” that permits the semi-automatic rifle it’s mounted on to fire very rapidly — almost as rapidly as a fully automatic weapon. So, for all practical purposes, a “bump fire” is an (almost) automatic weapon that anyone can buy for a few hundred dollars. Disregard my older comments below about fully-automatic weapons. We live in a new time now. Get used to it.
This is not an attempt to take sides in a gun debate. But it does the discussion no good to use incorrect, misleading, often inflammatory terminology in your reporting. If nothing else, it focuses readers on your ignorance when they should be focusing on your story.
So here’s a short, handy primer:
The notion of mass shooters using automatic assault rifles is a myth. Let’s get our terminology straight. More on assault rifles to come. First let’s look at the weapons themselves:
WEAPONS: Guns that are privately owned are divided into long guns and short guns. Long guns are shotguns or rifles. Short guns are handguns and are either revolvers or semi-automatics.
Automatic versus semi-automatic weapons. An automatic weapon is one that, when you pull the trigger, fires and keeps on firing until you let go of the trigger or the ammunition supply runs out. Think of a machinegun you saw in a war movie. Almost no one in civilian life has access to automatic weapons. (It’s possible but requires special licensing.
To my knowledge, there has never been an instance in recent memory of a mass shooting in the U.S. with an automatic weapon.)
A semi-automatic weapon (rifle, shotgun or handgun) is one that must be cocked first to fire the first shot but which thereafter loads in the next round from a magazine and cocks itself again. It’s not fully automatic; you still have to pull the trigger for each shot. That’s why we call it a semi-automatic.
A shotgun may fire various sorts of shot (lots of little pellets) or a big slug. At close range it’s about the worst thing to be shot with, regardless of the load in it. At longer ranges it quickly becomes useless.
A rifle is much more powerful (see below about ammunition) than a handgun because it uses much more propellant from a much larger cartridge. It’s the choice for long range and lethality.
Short guns are handguns and are either revolvers or semi-automatics.
A revolver holds, typically, five to six rounds in a revolving cylinder. They’re what Wyatt Earp used and they’re still popular for their high reliability. Reliable, yes. Lots of shots, no.
Semi-automatic handguns are often called ‘pistols’ though the term may be used for revolvers too. They have a magazine (not a ‘clip’) that holds the ammunition and feeds a fresh cartridge up into the chamber each time the previous round is fired. They shoot each time the owner pulls the trigger. They’re popular mostly for ease of reloading (you just slide in a fresh magazine when the old one runs out of cartridges) and because they typically hold more ammunition than do revolvers. Reliable? Not so much; unless carefully maintained they can jam. Lots of shots, yes.
Mixed-Ammunition Weapons: Some rifles shoot handgun ammunition (the popular .22-caliber, for example, is used in both handguns and rifles. The iconic Thompson Submachine gun shoots .45-caliber pistol ammunition.) A subset of rifle called a carbine is a shorter-barrel rifle that is sometimes designed to shoot pistol ammunition.
MAGAZINES versus CLIPS: This is one of the most-abused terms. I saw a Connecticut highway patrol spokesman, in a television interview, refer to “thirty-round clips” and he should know better. No one in the history of mankind has used a thirty-round clip.
A clip: is a metal strip that holds some rounds of ammunition ready to load into a rifle (or, sometimes, into a magazine). Once the bullets are loaded, the clip is pulled out and discarded. It’s not a magazine. Its simply a faster way to reload than pulling the cartridges out of the box, one by one.
A magazine is an enclosed box that contains both the cartridges and also a spring. It actively pushes up on the cartridges so that the next one in line goes into the gun’s firing chamber when it’s time. Most semi-automatic weapons today use magazines, not clips. A magazine may hold anything from five to a hundred cartridges, depending upon the gun design.
Any time you refer to a ”clip”, it’s a good bet that you’re wrong.
AMMUNITION: Caliber, bullets, cartridges, more:
Cartridges: A cartridge is a brass casing that holds the propellant, the primer, and the bullet. When you pull the trigger a small pin or hammer hits the rear of the cartridge where the primer is. The primer is sensitive to shock and makes a small fire. This sets off the gunpowder in the cartridge. The expanding gas forces the bullet out of the cartridge and down the gun barrel. The barrel has spiral grooves in it called “rifling” (confusing, no?) that imparts a spin to the bullet, increasing range and accuracy.
Only the bullet goes down the barrel. The brass cartridge case is then ejected (semi-automatics) to one side or the shooter has to remove it (revolvers) to load in fresh ammunition.
Shells: Though this terms is often used generically, technically a “shell” is the brass-and-plastic case that goes into a shotgun. It’s got a primer, gunpowder, and lots of little balls. Shotguns are usually smooth-bore (no rifling).
Rifle versus Revolver versus Pistol Cartridges:
Pistol cartridges tend to be short — an inch or so — since they have to fit into a magazine that slides up into the handgrip of the pistol.
Because a revolver has its cartridges in the revolving chamber in front of the trigger, revolver cartridges can be longer. More length equals more powder, more powder equals more velocity to the bullet.
Rifles typically use longer cartridges and those are usually bottle-shaped to hold even more powder. Rifles offer long range, greater penetrating power to go through obstacles, and greater lethality.
Magnum rounds are just longer cartridges with more powder, designed for certain handguns. It’s a way to get some of the rifle-cartridge advantages in a relatively small handgun cartridge.
Cartridges and Fornsics: The act of “chambering” the cartridge inside the gun to make it ready to shoot can scratch small marks on the soft brass casing. The rifling and accumulated wear and tear on the interior of the barrel can mark up a passing bullet. These two items — the cartridge casing and the bullet — can be examined, microscopically, to determine which gun they came out of. Sometimes. That’s why the mafia killers drop the gun and only take home the canoles.
Caliber: Refers to the diameter of the bullet in inches. Thus a .25-caliber would be a bullet one-quarter-inch in diameter. A .45-caliber is 45/100ths of an inch in diameter. The smallest shotgun is actually called a .410 and is a caliber measurement. Most other shotguns are the larger 12-gauge, with some other types used for specific sorts of game, and “gauge” is a complex formula.
Dum-Dum Bullets: Which I’ve sometimes seen referred to as “military” ammunition are anything but. These are bullets — technically called hollow-points — designed to expand to maybe one-and-a-half times their original diameter when they hit something. They often cause more severe wounds and they tend to stay inside the body rather than passing on through and hitting someone else in the background. Expanding bullets are banned by Geneva Convention rules so armies generally don’t use them. But many police forces do because they regard them as safer for bystanders.
ASSAULT RIFLES: Simply put, almost no one owns an assault rifle (see fully automatic, above). It’s a term first used in World War One for a fully-automatic rifle such as the Thompson sub-machinegun or the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). It’s a portable machinegun. An M-16 or an AK-47 is an assault rifle, capable of firing single-shot or full-automatic.
But almost all civilian rifles are semi-automatic. Some are designed to look like military rifles and shoot anything from the 7.62mm (.30-caliber) round used by the NATO armies to as small as the .22-calibers used for target practice. But the look doesn’t make them assault rifles. The caliber of ammunition used doesn’t make them assault rifles. Frankly, nothing about them makes them assault rifles.
Book Signing — Naples Barnes & Noble
Did a signing Saturday, 25 March in Naples. Thanks so much to Jessica Olson and staff!
Long drive from Tampa (about 180 miles the way I go) and, as I cruise along at 60 MPH, EVERY vehicle on the road passed me. I passed no one, going or coming. Was even passed by an antique car on its way to some car event. Trip complicated by the fact that my GPS thing went on the blink. Tampa to Naples is no problem, get on I-75 and follow the signs. But inside Naples I found myself wandering around. Finally I found myself driving up and down a major street looking for the intersection with U.S. 41 — the Tamiami Trail mentioned so often in my books. After a mile or so it dawned on me that I was ON the Tamiami Trail and only a few blocks from the book store.
I never got lost with maps. But with GPS …
Is Writing Long a Sign of Senility?
Was James Joyce senile when he wrote Ulysses (at 265,000 words, one of the longest novels in English literature)? Was William Faulkner habitually drunk when he wrote his famously-fragrant
prose? Probably not.
But “rambling and long-winded anecdotes could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research that suggests subtle changes in speech style occur years before the more serious mental decline takes hold.” Read the article here
“Sherman cites studies of the vocabulary in Iris Murdoch’s later works, which showed signs of Alzheimer’s years before her diagnosis, and the increasingly repetitive and vague phrasing in Agatha Christie’s final novels – although the crime writer was never diagnosed with dementia. Another study, based on White House press conference transcripts, found striking changes in Ronald Reagan’s speech over the course of his presidency, while George HW Bush, who was a similar age when president, showed no such decline.”
My fiction writing problem seems to be the opposite. More than thirty years of writing nonfiction — articles, news, even grants — has made me habitually spare. When I’m told, a few thousand times, to be as brief as possible (often more brief than possible) to meet 1800 to 2000-word magazine lengths or 250 to 500-word news reports, it’s hard to relate to writing a novel 70,000 words long.
So my stories’ rough drafts usually end up at about 50,000 to 60,000 words and must be 70,000 to meet the standard length for the type of mystery I write. It’s worse in fantasy where my final-draft 80,000-word stories fall well below the standard of 120,000.
This is not all bad, though. That 50,000-word rough draft gets better as I rewrite to add depth and color. And with each rewrite it gets longer. After ten or a dozen rewrites it’s no longer nonfiction-news telegraph style but a more rounded, colorful, pleasing story.
And I love rewriting. Someone once asked me who my favorite author was. “Me,” I said. The obvious danger is that I could rewrite and rewrite and end up ruining the story through overblown padding. I try not to do that, pad. I notice that later rewrites are less and less rearranging or adding verbiage and more and more focusing on grammar and punctuation.
This is as it should be. To continue to expand each sentence might be considered — senile.
*NOTE: WhenI wentto Wikiopedia COmmons to find a graphic to use, I typed in the search box “big books” and it asked me if I really meant “big boobs”. What have we come to?
Upcoming Author Events:
Springtime and book signings. Great!
Saturday, March 25, Naples from 2-4 p.m. Barnes & Noble, Waterside Shops, 5377 Tamiami Trail, Naples
Weird Literary Agents
So I’m once more using my database of agents to look for a partner in a new project. I try to get all the information I can about an agent before wasting my time and his or her time. I carefully examine their web sites, any other web sites listing them, and I have several printed books to refer to as well, the best being Jeff Hermann’s annual guide. I do this in order to submit to them queries carefully tailored to their wishes.
I add to my database as I go. I always prefer agents who are members of AAR, the Association of Authors Representatives. That web site has a wonderful agent search engine and it’s free, so go use it. These are the gold standard and sworn not to rip off authors. Not being a member of AAR doesn’t necessarily mean an agent is bad; merely that he or she is not a member. But membership is a handy way to screen them. If I were a literary agent I would certainly want to be a member so, as a writer, I want an agent who thinks like I do.
But I run across odd agents. Not many. Some. A few funny, a few sad. Some general categories:
– The 20th-century fans. These refuse to use email for communication, preferring stacks of paper in packages with small stamps plastered all over the outside. Stamps went out with buggy whips. Do they use telegrams too? The sheer labor and expense involved aside, the main question is this: Do I want an agent who is uncomfortable with modern communications technology out there representing me? (Answer: No. I skip them. They’re likely too busy with their letter openers anyway.)
– One (only one, and no more, I hope) with an unchangeable and sweeping indemnity clause in the submission form I must fill in at their web site. Pass. I’m not going to cover their legal fees because some weirdo chooses to claim that my manuscript was something remotely like his manuscript. I’m accustomed to indemnity clauses in my nonfiction work but was always able to modify them to be more reasonable. But this one was a required checkbox on a form. I told Laura Gross, the agent, she was cutting herself out of may of the best professional writers — and then reported her to the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) of which I am a long-standing member. They agreed that the agent was out of line.
– I’m so special. The agent who insists upon an exclusive look at your manuscript. Only rarely encounter this any more. In fact some agents make apoint of saying they assume yours is a simultaneous submission — you have sent to more than one agent — and they are fine with that. I like to compare an exclusive demand to your telling a new car salesman to park that shiny car in his back lot and not show it to anyone else while you take up to two months (optimistically) to make up your mind. Let me know what his response is.
– Bad web sites. Lots of bad web sites. Literary agents aren’t the most technically-savvy bunch and some web sites were painful to navigate. But even that was better than the ten percent or so who had no web sites at all and no other clue as to what they want or how to communicate with them. Probably more 20th-century fans; I have no way to know. Pass.
– Burying the data inside the blather. Most agent web sites’ descriptions of their agents tell me where they went to school (I don’t care) or the names of their pets (I care even less) and brag endlessly about the authors they’ve repped in the past (usually far past; they don’t often update these web sites.) I don’t care, or care very little. I want to know what genres of writing they prefer to rep. I just wish to know if this is a person who wants to see the type of manuscript I have prepared. I don’t know why they make it so hard to learn that — and then complain about getting so many emails from authors who are off-topic. That information, if available at all, is buried in the endless verbiage. I’ve gotten good at scanning but, even so, it’s a pain.
– The dead. I even ran upon a few I could cross off my database because they died or retired. Even finding out someone is dead is not that easy; their listings in the various online sites go on and on. We’re all immortal on the Web, I guess.
But, with all the flaws, most literary agents are trying to do their best in a tough business and I appreciate their work. Spend a few hours per day reading agents’ web sites, interviews, blogs and personal descriptions and you can respect their efforts. Now, if you excuse me, I have some tweaking to do to my database …
Happy Valentine’s Day
Unless you live in Pakistan: “A court in Pakistan has banned public celebrations of Valentine’s Day in the capital,
Islamabad, on the grounds that it is not part of Muslim culture. … some religious groups have denounced it as decadent. … argued that the festival promoted immorality, nudity and indecency under the cover of spreading love.
Geez. I had no idea. I thought it was just an excuse to eat expensive chocolates.
Buy our books.
Support Planned Parenthood!
I have teamed up with my publisher, Untreed Reads, to help out!
Untreed Reads will donate 5% of book sales to Planned Parenthood.
I will match that, for a total of 10% going to fund health care for women.
Friday, February 3, St. Petersburg from 6-8 p.m. Books at Park Place, 10468 Roosevelt Rd., St. Petersburg
(might be there a little earlier). Click here for the Facebook event listing. And a personal note: For some time now, these folks have had to deal with having the road torn up in front of their store. Let’s turn out and support them!
(update): Thanks to Cynthia and Book Swap for a pleasant outdoor event with some other writers.
Had to laugh at one point. A customer kept insisting the name was “mango” as in “Death Among the Mangos” and turning my Mangrove Bayou police chief into the Florida Horticulture Detective. Come to think, that seems an unexplored niche in the mystery field. hummmm . . . I’ll be planting some poinettias today. I’m thinking “The Poinsettia Poisoning” first in the Black Thumb mystery series.
“Professor Thumb, this man appears to have been done in by eating poinsettias.”
“How would you know that?”
“Well, he’s got about three pounds of poinsettia leaves stuffed into his mouth.”
Springtime and book signings. Great!
Saturday, January 14, from 12-4: Book Swap, Tampa. Free (used) book if you buy one of mine. If you cannot make the signing, you can reserve an autographed copy by calling 813-963-6979, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Six authors will be at the event:
- Jeffery Hess: Beachhead (1980’s Tampa Bay area)
- Stephen Morrill: Mangrove Bayou (Mangrove Bayou, #1), Death Among the Mangroves (Mangrove Bayou, #2) (Florida mystery)
- Allan Drake: Harriet’s Journey (general fiction)
- Chris Widdop: Velrco: The Ninja Ka, Velrco: The Green Lion, Velrco: The Masquerade (middle school fantasy)
- Liza M. Garcia: Never Drink Coffee During a Business Meeting (business book to help get promoted or for the new grads)
- Ana Aluisy: Reinvent Your Relationship: A Therapist’s Insights in Having
the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted
Saturday, February 3, from 6-8 p.m. St. Petersburg. Books at Park Place (I might be there a little earlier). Click here for the Facebook event listing. And a personal note: For some time now, these folks have had to deal with having the road torn up in front of their store. Let’s turn out and support them!
Talk about painful research! I decided that, as I write police procedural mysteries, I need to know more about police procedures. And — guess what? — there’s a procedure for that.
My ‘Citizens Academy’ class at the Tampa Police Department learned about Tasers the other day. I still have the dart-marks in my back. They lit me up, and some others too, to demonstrate just how it feels. It feels bad. Paralyzing pain for five seconds while two friends hang onto your arms so you don’t fall down. I learned some things:
1. Taser time is MUCH longer than regular time. When I thought five seconds had passed the instructor called out, “Two.”
2. We also learned about “Tased-induced Tourettes” when most people not only screamed but usually screamed out nasty curse words.
3. Anyone who agrees to hold onto you is a friend. The electrical current does not transfer from person to person (normally) and your two friends keep you from doing a face-splat on the ground.
4. Wear an old tee-shirt. Or no shirt at all. My old shirt ended up bloody and with small holes from the two darts. Some hydrogen peroxide got most of the blood out later.
5. I felt a pleasant … lassitude … hours after. Understandable, as my entire skeletal muscle system had just been tightly clenched and it was like having a workout without the workout.
Useful experience (for me; I can’t understand why anyone else would want it) because the next day I rewrote some parts of Mangrove Bayou #6 to correct or better describe several scenes with a Taser.
The sacrifices we authors make for you, the reader!