Six Things Every Reporter Should Know About Guns

Jun 25, 2017

When he asked a room full of public radio journalists how many had never owned a gun, Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins was met with a room full of raised hands. He was not particularly surprised.

“Of all the things I ever thought I would be talking to PRNDI about, guns were not on my guess list,” Tompkins told the room at the start of his information session on covering guns.

Of course, gun ownership is not a prerequisite to gun knowledge. But if you have never had a gun, it stands to reason you may not know as much about them. This poses a problem for some journalists.

Mass shootings often dominate news cycles and their numbers have been steadily increasing. According to Gun Violence Archive, 2014 saw 274 mass shooting incidents, the first year the group began keeping records. In 2016, that number rose to 384, a 40 percent increase. 2017 has already seen 156 mass shootings, including the congressional baseball shooting that left Rep. Steve Scalise in critical condition this month.

Then there are the tens of thousands of other gun related incidents which may need to be covered, as well as the debate surrounding the Second Amendment and gun control.

Guns are, and continue to be, a hot, widely covered topic. This is why Tompkins started the website He describes it as a “non-partisan resource for journalists.” He came to PRDNI’s annual conference in Miami to go over some of the main points every reporter should know about guns.

“The whole goal here is not to make you gun enthusiasts or gun haters,” Tompkins said. “It’s to give a language and understanding.”

The session covered a variety of information and prompted a number of questions, but here are the main takeaways.

Most guns are semi-automatic.

Tompkins said semi-automatic weapons are the most popular type of gun sold in America today. Semi-automatic means every time someone pulls the trigger, one bullet comes out, the casing is ejected, and a new round enters the chamber. This applies to rifles and handguns alike.

Tompkins said crimes involving a fully automatic weapon, or a gun that shoots continuous rounds when the trigger is pulled, are exceedingly rare. Those types of guns are highly regulated and need a specific and very expensive permit in order to own.

So chances are if someone covers a gun story the weapon is semi-automatic.

Assault Weapon Is Not Always A Fair Term

The term “assault weapon” gets thrown around a lot in the wake of mass shootings and when it comes to gun legislation, but it’s hard to give an exact or satisfying definition. Widely, it refers to AR-15 type rifles, a popular, lightweight gun used for sporting. They were created to replicate M-16 rifles, which are military weapons.

AR-15 Bushmaster, a popular model.
Credit madrigar / Flickr

AR-15’s can have bayonet mounts, pistol grips, folding stocks, flash suppressors, and can accept high capacity magazines. These features often come up when pro-regulation politicians call for assault weapon bans, but Tompkins said they are largely cosmetic and have little to no impact on the lethality of the weapon, with the exception of high capacity magazines.

There Are No Waiting Periods Or Need To Register For Most Guns

The three-day waiting period to purchase a gun only applies to handguns. Rifles, long guns, and shot guns can be carried out of the store after purchase and don’t need to be registered. Tompkins said even after waiting the three days for a handgun most states don’t require, and often forbid, those guns to be registered. New York is one exception where handguns must be registered, but even there, rifles are not. This arose from a fear that gun owners may be discriminated against should a registry exist, and the fact courts have ruled gun ownership is an undeniable right of American citizens.

Know The Specific Language

A gun fires rounds, not bullets. The round includes the copper casing, called the cartridge, and the projectile, the actual bullet. Once the gun fires the round, the empty cartridge falls to the ground and the bullet travels to hit the target.

Far left is an example of a clip. The rest are magazines.
Credit M62 / Wikimedia Commons

For semi-automatic weapons, rounds are stored in magazines. These get inserted into the weapon to load the gun. Magazines are different than clips, which literally clip together loose rounds.

Tompkins said most modern weapons don’t use clips, so unless a criminal uses an antique gun or a literal machine gun, the term magazine is correct.

Calibers vs. Gauges

The caliber of rifles and handguns, and the gauges of shotguns, indicate the size and power of the round and weapon. Caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet, with larger calibers equating to deadlier weapons. For example, a .22 caliber handgun shoots rounds with a diameter of .22 inches.

Larger rounds produce larger holes and cause more damage.

Shotguns are measured by gauge not caliber.

Unlike with handguns and rifles, the larger gauges are smaller and less deadly.

Shotgun shells are commonly filled with shot. These are small pellets that can vary in size, which spread out and create multiple impact points.

Pay Attention To The Ammo

A gun’s caliber is not the only determining factor when it comes to potential damage. Different types of rounds have different effects on the targets they hit.

Tompkins gave the example of bullets with blunted tips that are designed to mushroom out and cause damage inside the target. 

From left to right: 9mm, .40 caliber, .45 caliber, 5.7x28mm, 5.56x45mm, .300 caliber magnum, 12 gauge shotgun shells
Credit Wikipedia

Bullets with sharp tips often go through the target, but can also pierce through shields and vests in ways the blunted tips cannot.

Ammo is also less regulated than guns, with no permit or waiting period required to buy even for high-capacity magazines or large volumes of rounds.