Expert Commentary

7 things journalists should know about guns

We teamed up with two reporters who know a lot about firearms to create a tip sheet that briefs journalists on basic terminology and warns them about some of the pitfalls of covering gun issues.

Gun cartridges and firearms registration form
(media.defense.gov)

This journalism tip sheet on covering guns in the U.S., originally published in October 2018, has been updated with new data and other information.

Guns are one of the most divisive topics in the U.S., so it’s crucial for journalists to get the details right — down to the type and style of weapon discussed.

Nationwide, 32% of U.S. adults say they own a gun and 44% live in a gun-owning household, according to a Gallup survey conducted in October 2020. When reporters make mistakes, audiences might see their work as sloppy or, worse, perceive errors as an effort to mislead. Regardless, when the news media get facts wrong, audiences — especially gun owners — might not trust the information they provide.

To warn reporters about pitfalls they can encounter in covering guns and brief them on some basic terminology, The Journalist’s Resource teamed up with two reporters with lots of experience writing about firearms. We thank Henry Pierson Curtis, who covered gun and drug trafficking and other crime at the Orlando Sentinel for 25 years before retiring in 2016, and Alex Yablon, who covered the business of guns and gun policy for about five years at The Trace, for helping us create this tip sheet.

Here are seven things journalists should keep in mind when reporting on guns:

1. People who die in mass shootings represent a small fraction of the number who die from gunshots in the United States.

In 2019, 39,707 people in the U.S. died from injuries caused by firearms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most gun deaths — 23,941, or 60% — were suicides. Meanwhile, 37% of the people killed by guns in 2019 — 14,861 people — were homicide victims.

2. Most guns made in the U.S. are handguns.

While AR-15 military-style rifles get a lot of media attention, most firearms made in this country are handguns. In 2019, gun companies manufactured more than 3 million semi-automatic handguns, which the federal government categorizes as “pistols,” and 580,601 revolvers, data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) show. That year, nearly 2 million rifles and 480,735 shotguns also were manufactured.

“There are just so many handguns out there,” Yablon says. “That has really been the story of America’s love of guns. There have been many, many AR-15s and AK-47s sold in the past 10 or 15 years, but there have been far more handguns sold.”

An October 2017 study led by researchers at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center finds that firearms acquired over the prior 20 years were disproportionately handguns. Still, long guns, which include rifles and shotguns, make up 53% of the firearms owned by civilians.

3. Expect pushback from gun enthusiasts if you call an AR-15 an “assault rifle.”

An assault rifle, by some definitions, is a military firearm capable of fully automatic fire, meaning it can fire without pause until empty. AR-15-style guns are semi-automatic, meaning they fire a bullet for each pull of the trigger.

Organizations such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearms industry trade association, refer to AR-15-style guns as sporting rifles and warn against confusing them with military rifles such as the M-16. “These rifles are used for many different types of hunting, from varmint to big game,” the organization explains on its website.

The Associated Press updated its Stylebook in 2020 with new guidance on weapon terms. It suggests newsrooms use the term “semi-automatic rifle” when referring to a rifle that fires once for each trigger pull and reloads automatically for the next shot. Newsrooms should avoid the terms “assault rifle,” “assault weapon,” “military-style rifle” and “modern sporting rifle” as they “are highly politicized terms that generally refer to AR- or AK-style rifles designed for the civilian market, but convey little meaning about the actual functions of the weapon,” the Stylebook recommends.

It’s worth pointing out that the “AR” in AR-15 doesn’t stand for assault rifle or automatic rifle. It comes from ArmaLite, the name of the company that developed that rifle style.

4. When writing about guns, it’s helpful to refer to the make and model to avoid confusion and errors.

“I would suggest that if you’re writing about a particular crime … ask whatever law enforcement agency is involved for the make and model for the gun used in the crime,” Yablon says. “That’s going to be the easiest way to avoid tripping up on any of these things.”

Curtis suggests that reporters covering crime and court beats take a gun safety course to learn some of the basic terminology. “I took the concealed carry [class] twice at the Sentinel,” he says. “That starts exposing reporters … to people who are very familiar with firearms. They [instructors] can be very arrogant, but they’re people who can help you out.”

5. All automatic weapons are not banned in the U.S.

Under the National Firearms Act, civilians cannot own fully automatic weapons made after 1986. But members of the public who pass a federal background check and pay a $200 tax can legally purchase older automatic weapons, provided they also register them.

There are a limited number of those guns available, though, and they’re expensive, Curtis explains. “For a fully automatic M-16, you might pay $15,000,” he says. “Typically, it’s going to be stuff from World War II — German Schmeissers, stuff like that. Old Thompson submachine guns. That’s a good down payment on a nice house.”

6. There’s a difference between a bullet and a cartridge.

A bullet is the metal projectile that leaves the barrel of a gun when fired. The bullet, along with the case, primer and propellant, make up the cartridge that goes into the gun.  It is incorrect to say “box of bullets” when you actually mean a “box of cartridges” or “box of ammunition.”

Keep in mind that shotguns use a different kind of ammunition. Shotgun shells contain either shot, which are metal pellets, or a slug, a projectile that can be made of various materials such as rubber or metal.

7. Silencers don’t make guns silent.

A suppressor — also known as a silencer — can be attached to the end of a gun barrel to reduce the dangerously loud sound of gunfire. But a suppressor doesn’t make gunfire silent.

You can find videos of people using silencers on YouTube.

For journalists wanting to learn more:

If you’re writing about guns, here are agencies you should know about: