Expert Commentary

7 things journalists need to know about guns

We've updated this popular tip sheet, which briefs journalists on basic gun facts and terminology. We created it to help newsrooms avoid some of the most common errors in news stories about firearms, especially AR-15-style rifles.

Gun cartridges and firearms registration form

This journalism tip sheet on covering guns in the U.S., originally published in October 2018, was updated on May 3, 2024 with new data and links to more recent research and reports.

It’s crucial that journalists reporting on guns get the details right, down to the type and style of firearm involved. When news outlets make mistakes, audiences can view their work as sloppy or, worse, as an effort to mislead. Regardless, when the news media get facts wrong, audiences — especially gun owners — might not trust the information they provide.

Although gun ownership is common in the U.S., it remains one of the country’s most divisive issues. About 40% of U.S. adults say they live in a gun-owning household, according to a national survey the Pew Research Center conducted in June 2023. About 12% of women and 33% of men personally own firearms, researchers estimate in a paper published in the journal Injury Prevention in 2020.

To help reporters avoid errors when reporting on guns, The Journalist’s Resource teamed up with two journalists with lots of experience covering them. 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 reported on the business side of guns and gun policy for about five years at The Trace, for helping 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 gun injuries in the U.S.

In 2022, 48,204 people died from injuries caused by firearms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most gun deaths — 56% in 2022 — are suicides. Almost 41% of people killed by guns in 2022 were homicide victims.

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

While AR-15-style rifles get a lot of media attention, most firearms made in this country are handguns. In 2022, gun companies manufactured 6.2 million pistols and 830,786 revolvers, data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show. In comparison, nearly 3.6 million rifles and 662,350 shotguns were manufactured that year.

“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.”

Of the nearly 2 million guns that U.S. law enforcement agencies recovered during crime investigations and performed traces on between 2017 and 2021, 79% were pistols or revolvers, according to the federal government’s most recent “National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment” report, released in February 2023.

A paper published in 2021 in the journal Injury Epidemiology identifies the specific brands and models of guns U.S. adults own.

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.

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.

Organizations such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade association, refer to AR-15-style guns as modern sporting rifles and warn against confusing them with military rifles such as the M-16. “These rifles are used by hunters, competitors, millions of Americans seeking home-defense guns and many others who simply enjoy going to the range,” the organization explains on its website.

The Associated Press updated its Stylebook in July 2022 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. “Avoid assault rifle and assault weapon, which 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,” AP recommends.

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 May 19, 1986. But adults  who pass a federal background check and pay a $200 tax can legally purchase older automatic weapons, provided they also register them with the Secretary of the Treasury.

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.”

As of May 2021, a total of 741,146 machine guns were registered with the federal government. The five states with the largest number of registered machine guns were Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia.

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 on YouTube of people using silencers and see for yourself.

For journalists wanting to learn more:

If you’re writing about guns, you should know about these groups and government agencies:


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