How NRA News Downplays Assault Weapons Capabilities

NRA News aired a special on the AR-15 military-style semi-automatic assault weapon -- ubiquitous for its use in recent mass shootings -- that provided false information about the power of the weapon and downplayed its dangerous features.

The October 7 edition of NRA News' Cam & Company on the Sportsman Channel featured a trip to the National Rifle Association's gun range where host Cam Edwards and National Review Online writer Charles C.W. Cooke fired a custom AR-15 assault weapon, .308 bolt-action rifle.45 caliber semi-automatic handgun, and .357 caliber revolver. At the beginning of the segment, Edwards noted the weapons were provided by gun manufacturer and NRA corporate donor Ruger.

After firing the weapons, Edwards and Cooke advanced the notion that the AR-15 was less powerful than a handgun because the semi-automatic handgun produced larger holes in a paper target than the AR-15 assault weapon:

EDWARDS: Having shot now an AR[-15 assault weapon], what would you tell people who say, “Charles, it's too high-powered, it's too this, it's too that?”

COOKE: Well, I think I'd say what, sort of what you were pointing out. If you look at the targets and you asked people which is the scary AR, they wouldn't say -- much smaller holes, it's quieter, it's much more comfortable to hold, there's less recoil, you wouldn't presume -- in fact that gun is the easiest probably to shoot of all of them, and it's certainly the least scary really, it's just black.

But using bullet hole size as a proxy for wounding power is highly misleading, because assault weapons fire the round at a much higher velocity than a handgun.

According to a 2011 report by doctors who had performed autopsies on soldiers killed by gunfire in Iraq, “The velocity of the missile as it strikes the target is the main determinant of the wounding capacity” and "[t]he greater energy of the missile at the moment of impact the greater is the tissue destruction." Indeed, the study found that rounds with a velocity exceeding 2,500 feet per second cause a shockwave to pass through the body upon impact that caused catastrophic injuries even in areas remote to the direct wound.

Using popular ammunition brand Hornady as a comparison point, the ammunition available for the .45 caliber handgun fires at a muzzle velocity of no more than 1,055 feet per second. The .223 ammunition most often used by the AR-15 assault weapon, however, can achieve a velocity of 4,000 feet per second. Some AR-15s are designed to accept 5.56 NATO ammunition; a similar round to the .223 that has a velocity of up to 3,130 feet per second.

The NRA previously employed bullet hole size as a false indication of wounding capability. On a January 18 Fox News special at the NRA's shooting range, host Sean Hannity and world champion shooter Jessie Duff compared the bullet hole size created by the AR-15 to a handgun to downplay the dangerousness of assault weapons.   

Edwards also downplayed the speed which with rounds can be fired with a semi-automatic assault weapon compared to a bolt-action rifle that would not be prohibited by an assault weapons ban.

Assault weapons employ a semi-automatic firing mechanism where pulling the trigger not only causes a round to be fired, but also sets in motion a process that places the next round to be fired into the chamber. The result is that every time the trigger is pulled a new round is fired, until the magazine that holds the rounds is exhausted. In a bolt-action rifle, the operator must manually chamber the next round to be fired by operating the bolt with his or her hand. Many bolt-action rifles also use an internal magazine, which typically will take longer to reload compared to the detachable magazine found on an assault weapon.

Still, Edwards claimed that, “So you look at the bolt-action, and then you shoot the semi-auto. The anti-gun folks say bolt-action is fine, semi-auto is not. Someone who is good, someone who is right-handed and good with a bolt-action can shoot that rifle very fast.”

As a practical matter, a semi-automatic weapon can be fired faster than a bolt-action weapon simply because each round fired with a bolt-action weapon requires the extra step of chambering the next round. In upholding the District of Columbia's assault weapons ban in 2011, a federal appeals court found that a 30-round magazine could be fired from a semi-automatic gun in five seconds, a rate unachievable by a bolt-action firearm. Furthermore, semi-automatic assault weapons can be legally equipped with a Slide Fire stock that allows the firearm to be fired at a rate equal to an automatic weapon. ("[S]lightly less than two seconds" for 30 rounds according to the appeals court.)

Cooke also attacked bans on the high-capacity ammunition magazines often used in conjunction with assault rifles. According to Cooke, “anyone who knows how to switch out a magazine can do it in a second, second in a half, two seconds at the most. And yet there is this pretense if you limit magazine size, for example, people won't be able to reload.”

In fact, the claim that reducing magazine size -- and thus forcing a mass shooter to reload more times -- would have no effect on mass shootings is disproven by the circumstances of both the Tucson and Newtown mass shootings.

During the January 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six and gravely wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords among others, the shooter was only stopped when he was tackled as he paused to reload. Parents of some of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 were told by authorities that a number of children were able to escape the shooter when he paused to reload. At a press conference in support of a Connecticut proposal to ban high-capacity magazines in that state, Mark Barden, whose son was killed in the mass shooting, explained, “The more times you have to reload the more opportunities there are to escape and to stop the shooting. In the amount of time -- it was somewhere around four minutes -- he was able to fire 154 rounds. I think that speaks volumes about reducing the size [of magazines].”

Beyond those two high-profile shootings, it has generally been proven that assault weapons -- which use a semi-automatic firing mechanism to shoot high-velocity rounds, often out of high-capacity magazines -- produce more casualties during mass shootings compared to when other guns are used. According to a report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns on mass shootings that occurred between January 2009 and September 2013, shootings involving assault weapons or high-capacity magazines are characterized by a significantly higher death and injury rate: