News

Back to News

September 4, 2009

Two Major Newspapers, Which One Got It Right?


When it comes to knowing the difference between fully automatic and semi-automatic firearms, the mainstream media can't seem to get it right. As one reporter, who in a recent story wrote "machine gun" to describe a semi-automatic rifle, said, "I was using the term loosely." Maybe we are using the term "reporter" loosely to describe that individual.

Read these differing accounts of patients slain at a drug rehab center in Mexico that appeared in today's issues of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal:

The Times: "Several masked men armed with automatic weapons stormed into a drug rehabilitation center . . . ."

WSJ: "Gunmen armed with semi-automatic rifles burst into a drug rehabilitation center . . . ."

Well, which one is it, automatic or semi-automatic?

Reporters who want to know the difference (and there is a big difference) can refer to NSSF's "Writer's Guide to Firearms and Ammunition," available online or as a printed booklet, both free of charge.

Reporters confuse these two terms most often when attempting to describe a modern sporting rifle based on the AR-15 platform, which has a semi-automatic action capable of firing only one round with each pull of the trigger. These civilian rifles look like military rifles capable of fully automatic fire–a machine gun–but their similarities are cosmetic only. The modern sporting rifle one of today's most popular rifles and used for hunting and target shooting.

We believe that professional reporters want to get their facts correct and that mistakes of this sort happen because America’s urban-based media has little contact with firearms and, consequently, does not fully understand their uses or operation. NSSF offers itself as a resource to all media who want to report accurately about firearms and firearms-related issues and makes a number of resources available in the Media Resources Section of its Web site.

Here are the definitions:

ACTION, AUTOMATIC
A firearm that loads, fires and ejects cartridges continually as long as the trigger is depressed and there are cartridges available in the feeding system (i.e., magazine or other such mechanism). Automatic action firearms are machine guns. Note: Since 1934 it has been unlawful to sell or possess an automatic firearm without special permission and licensing from the federal government, in addition to other requirements.

ACTION, SEMI-AUTOMATIC
A firearm in which each pull of the trigger results in a complete firing cycle, from discharge through reloading of the chamber. It is necessary that the trigger be released and pulled for each cycle. These firearms are also called “auto-loaders” or “self-loaders.” The discharge and chambering of a round is either blowback operated, recoil operated or gas operated. Note: An automatic-action firearm loads, discharges and reloads as long as ammunition is available and the trigger is depressed. A semi-automatic firearm only discharges one cartridge with each squeeze of the trigger.