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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Emeryville Enters Battle Over Definition of 'Assault Rifle'

If AR-15's Are Assault Weapons, Emeryville Residents Might Not Want Them

News Analysis
Battle lines are being drawn in town over the definition of the term 'assault rifle' after the children of Yuvette Henderson filed suit against the City of Emeryville for her February 3rd wrongful death at the hands of the Emeryville Police Department using such a rifle.  Chief of Police Jennifer Tejada has entered into the fray with a campaign to assure Emeryville residents the AR-15 assault rifles carried by the Emeryville police and specifically used in the shooting of Ms Henderson, are merely regular rifles, with nothing 'assault' about them.

While firearm nomenclature may seem arcane, Emeryville's foray onto the battle ground for control of the term assault rifle is also a consequential nation-wide phenomenon breaking along familiar pro-gun right and anti-gun left positions. The issue it would seem is a matter of opinion with each side using the definition to bolster their side.  Cal Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakeoff notably says it's not really possible to settle on a definition because guns in America have evolved into an issue of personal identity.

Chief Tejada's rejection of the word assault to describe the AR-15 squarely places her in the company of the NRA, the Republican Party as well as Fox News and many other right wing pro-gun groups and radio personalities.  On the other side, those arguing that AR-15's are assault rifles is the 1994 United States Congress and the Democratic Party.  In Emeryville the issue has split the blogosphere; the pro-business opinion blog the E'Ville Eye has sided with Chief Tejada and the NRA, insisting that AR-15's are not assault rifles while the Tattler has sided with the Democrats.
'Emeryville's Police Chief
and the NRA Agree:
These are NOT Assault Rifles' 

The problem the NRA and Chief Tejada has with calling the AR-15 an assault rifle is that only fully automatic guns or guns with "selective fire" should carry the 'assault' designation they say.  The AR-15 it should be noted is semi-automatic, meaning a trigger pull must accompany each bullet fired.
Interestingly however, early on, it was the gun industry itself that started calling the AR-15 and other semi-automatic weapons like it assault weapons.  The industry started a program in the 1970's for the militarization of civilian weapons in look, feel, operation and branding.  Later after Congress attempted to reauthorize the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, the NRA and the gun industry attempted to re-brand assault weapons as "modern sporting rifles".  Now, the NRA defines an assault rifle as "a selective-fire rifle chambered for a cartridge of intermediate power".  To ward off anyone trying to define an AR-15 as an assault rifle, the NRA kicks in the following in their official definition,  "If applied to any semi-automatic firearm regardless of its cosmetic similarity to a true assault rifle, the term is incorrect".
The change at the NRA to redefine assault weapons it should be noted followed the Congressional ban on these weapons.  Early on in its effort to support the gun industry who had interest in increasing sales of these military style guns, the gun lobby was happy to call them assault weapons.  They later sharply reversed themselves after it became clear the assault designation would drive public opinion against them as Congress sought a ban.

The suit filed against the City of Emeryville (see below) will presumably harden Chief Tejada's insistence that AR-15's are not assault rifles but it should be noted she made these claims before the initiation of the October 29th suit.


  1. This story is another Tattler lie. Reasonable people everywhere know the AR-15 is not an assault weapon. It's only the liberal media like the Tattler pushing that. And Rob didn't say it's his opinion this isn't an assault rifle. He only reported the facts, something you should try sometime.

    1. Mr Arias reported on the facts as the NRA and Fox News sees them.

    2. This is an important conversation. Can you provide a link or a quote to where The E'ville Eye reported their stance on this? The only thing I found states the difference between what the military is issued and what the EPD is issued. Seems if we're going to have an honest conversation on this ... we should start by being "honest". Are we just debating the semantics of how the word "assault" applies to a rifle or if the EPD should be carrying them? By the way, you spelled "chief" wrong.

    3. Rob Arias of the E'Ville Eye reported the following in his Oct 29th story:
      "There’s been much discussion over the 'militarization' of police but by current definition, the distinction of an 'assault weapon' is whether it is automatic or semi-automatic".
      And then he cited a pro-gun website as his source.

      Notice how Mr Arias says, " current definition..." as if it's settled. He takes the right wing, NRA Fox News definition and posits that's how it is period. That's how the right wing operates and that's why I wrote this story. We're not going to allow the NRA to decide about this in Emeryville. We're going to have an informed debate. That's why the Tattler is here. We're going to decide if the Emeryville Police Department should issue AR-15's and we're not going to let the right wing bully us and unilaterally frame the debate. The opinion of the United States Congress is at least as definitive as the NRA/Fox News.

    4. Oh, I forgot to add: Thank you for the spell check! I'll have to have a word with my copy editor! Sometimes the spell check feature breaks down and the copy editor is supposed to catch these typos (as well as grammatical errors of which I commonly am guilty of).

  2. I'm not sure this is an issue. The police have no weapons that aren't assault weapons.

  3. You are using the phrase "assault weapon" and "assault rifle" as though they refer to the same thing. They can't be used interchangeably without creating a lot of confusion. The article you link to under "firearm nomenclature" does a good job sorting it out. Here's what I learned from some googling:

    If you are going to "assault" a beach filled with machine guns during a war, you need an "assault rifle". You pull the trigger once and lots of bullets come out allowing you to fire 10-15 times more bullets in the same amount of time. The AR-15 doesn't do that. If you attempted to assault a machine gun nest with the AR-15 that Emeryville Police have, you'd be in a lot of trouble.

    An "assault weapon" is commonly used to refer to the guns affected by the Assault Weapons Ban. This became a very political term as you point out because "assault weapon" had to be defined. The Assault Weapons Ban did not include "assault rifles" because they were already banned.

    There generally is no significant disagreement over what is an "assault rifle". The police chief is right that an AR-15 is NOT an "assault rifle". It can't shoot more than one bullet at a time. However, under the definition of "assault weapon" from the expired Assault Weapons Ban, the AR-15 IS an "assault weapon".

    Unfortunately, this distinction doesn't tell us much, because the "assault weapon" definition in the ban involved a lot of criteria about how the gun looked physically rather than what it could do. This was the source of a lot of controversy over what exactly constituted an "assault weapon".

    Ultimately, the term doesn't matter. You have to decide if a weapon is an appropriate weapon for police to have based on what it can do.

    The AR-15 is a more accurate version of the pistol police carry in their holster. It doesn't shoot bullets more quickly, it does have a larger magazine allowing more shots without reloading, and, like most rifles, it is more accurate at a distance than a pistol. The AR-15 is one of the most common rifles in the US and has been available to citizens since the 1960s.

    So, if the police have a rifle, is the AR-15 the right rifle for the police to have? I don't know the answer to that one. Personally, I'd question the value of a larger magazine but can't fault the police for wanting the most accurate rifle they can get.

    Getting caught up on what to call a gun and whether the term used is liberal or conservative seems like a bad way to start an important discussion.

    1. Should Emeryville's police have guns?
    2. If so, should they have access to rifles?
    3. If so, which rifle is appropriate?

    1. Your last three points are good and to that I'd add:

      4. The Emeryville Police Department belongs to the people of Emeryville, should they have a say in points one through three?

      It would be bad to get caught up in anything in this debate but to note the players in the (national) debate are helpful. One can learn a lot from the company one keeps. It's one of the first rules of being a skeptic: consider the source.

      The point of the story is it's appropriate to ask after hidden agendas in the debate. Different groups have different agendas and they will try to steer the public their way. The NRA (and the Chief of Police) for instance needs the public to think of these guns as normal and like any other gun to take away from the legitimacy of the argument from the side that disagrees. But nothing should be taken away from the people of Emeryville in this debate. This debate is legitimate.

  4. I wouldn't have considered you a skeptic. Skeptics assume both sides have an agenda (which they do) and both sides are willing to mislead (which they are). Saying that the source was Rush Limbaugh or Fox News doesn't make it any less true than saying the source was Robert Reich or MSNBC. These are all parties that have a very one-sided agenda, and all are misleading the public to try to arrive at the conclusions that help that agenda. The left and the right are both guilty, and that's part of the reason that discourse has become so unproductive.

    On this particular topic, the two extremes are well known: the far right is pushing for keeping as many guns legal as possible and the far left is pushing for making as many guns illegal as possible.

    Who's right? Probably neither.

    The AR-15 is one of the most common rifles in the US. The program of giving police departments old military equipment is probably a bad idea, but the AR-15 is not a military gun. Should police be more accountable for civilian shootings? Yes. Is an AR-15 more deadly than a service revolver? Only at a distance. If we are going to give police rifles, should we give them accurate ones? Yes. Is every shooting of a civilian by a police officer a crime? No. Are some? Yes. Was the shooting in Emeryville justified? It hinges on whether the person who was shot had a gun and, if so, what she was doing with it which remains to be seen. Was the right weapon used if the situation was justified? Probably yes.

    Your answers may vary, but the questions take us toward understanding both sides. This seems a better approach than making the discussion about which emotionally loaded terms we use to discuss it or deciding who's right simply by whether someone we like said a thing or by whether someone we hate said the opposite.

    1. Skeptic? Sure, that's me. You're positing an argument that 'both sides do it', as in the left and the right are co-equals in our country as far as pushing lies goes. I'm skeptical of your assessment. I don't buy the idea portrayed by the MSM that both sides are equally guilty of distortion and lying. I've looked into it and it's clear the right wing in our country engages in distorting and lying to a greater degree than the left. It so happens in our country in this day and age, this is the case. That could all change someday and it could conceivably flip. But it's true the Republican Party engages in more lying in the public arena than the Democratic Party does (in the aggregate). Looked at dispassionately, it's not hard to imagine that one side would be more guilty as you say than the other...after all, what are the chances that both sides would be exactly equal on lying and distorting?

      Here in Emeryville, the right wing is the pro-business side and the left wing is the pro-resident side. Here too, it's the pro-business side that engages in more subterfuge and distorting of the facts. They're trying to protect their profits and we're trying to increase livability. It's believable that the right would lie more because Emeryville, being in the Bay Area is quite left. For the right wing to survive, they've got to go clandestine, at least a little.
      So no, sorry, both sides are not equally guilty.

      Regarding what weapons the Emeryville Police Department should issue, that's something we the people of Emeryville should decide. In order to make an informed decision, we need accurate information and we're not going to allow one side (the pro-gun side) tell us these guns are not assault weapons without push back. We're going to decide whether the Emeryville police should carry AR-15's with both sides weighing in. The Chief of Police's word is hereby not going to be definitive on this matter.

      The term 'assault weapon" or 'assault rifle' is not a "loaded term" as you say. It's the term used by the United States Congress. Emeryville City Hall is the government. They should use the definition the federal government uses, not some private company lobbying group. They work for us, not the gun lobby.

    2. Who lies more? Easy. "The other guy." Both sides can agree on that.

      I think you've got a major problem in your argument though. You state "it's believable that the right would lie more because Emeryville, being in the Bay Area is quite left".

      I think history tells us that it's very hard to abuse political power that you don't have. To say that minorities are more likely to lie because they are in the minority is a position that is hard to stomach. I don't think many who have witnessed the history of mankind would agree either.

      I would also question your belief that in Emeryville the right is pro-business and the left is pro-resident. That division was created for political purposes, and its retirement is long overdue. Residents rather like having places to shop and eat and work. And businesses rather enjoy having people to buy their goods and services. The community is the successful balance of pro-resident and pro-business interests. In Emeryville, there's no "right" to speak of, only far left, left, and moderate left. When was the last time you saw a pro-gun, pro-life, or "family values" rally in Emeryville?

      Back to the topic at hand, Rob gets it wrong when he says that the distinction of an "assault weapon" is whether it's automatic or semi-automatic. Replace "assault weapon" with "assault rifle" in his sentence, and then it's correct. You both made the same common error.

      "Assault weapon" is definitely a "loaded term". If you look it up on Wikipedia, almost the entire article is about the politics associated with the term, its various meanings, and how confusion over the term impacts different political agendas. There is no meaningful US Congressional definition of "assault weapon" any more with the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban.

      Ultimately, it comes back to the same thing, the term used doesn't matter. There is no gun lobby involved in this "issue" in Emeryville. The police have the basic weapons you'd expect of a police force.

      Are you making the argument that we should disarm the Emeryville Police? If you take away their rifles, the most commonly used rifle in the country, what do you give them instead?

    3. Oh but you're wrong. The right wing in Emeryville, those being the pro-business set, run for political office as left wingers. Take a look at all the election campaign fliers flooding our mail boxes every two's all "I like bikes" and "I like parks" and "I like public schools". Nobody ever says they're going to eschew planning in our town, that they're going to put developers in the driver's seat. Nowhere will you hear the business of Emeryville is business, yet when they get elected, that's what they do (at least the right wingers among them).

      The business/resident division wasn't created for any purposes, it's the natural state of affairs: businesses work for their shareholders or the bottom line...that's why they're in business. They don't care for the things residents care for. Why would they? Residents want to make our town livable for residents...businesses don't care about that, they're here to make a profit.
      The right wing in Emeryville is the same as the right wing anywhere else; they care about the interests of corporations.

      The Congress of the United States did define assault weapons/rifles and the AR-15 is mentioned specifically. That's all that's needed for the government at City Hall here. City Hall needs to use the definition the federal government uses over a private company barring some compelling reason in the people's interest to not.

      I'm not making an argument we should disarm the Emeryville police. I'm making the argument the people of Emeryville should decide about that.

  5. The Congress defined "assault weapons" and then allowed the law which defined it to expire, in large part, because Congress had come to believe the definition was an ineffective one. Based on that, I believe if you are deferring to Congress's judgment on how to define "assault weapon", you have to acknowledge that they ultimately decided their definition was a bad one.

    When you say we should allow "the people of Emeryville to decide about [whether or not to disarm the police]", are you suggesting some sort of ballot initiative or a vote by city council?

    1. Congress defined the AR-15 as an assault rifle in 1994 under President Clinton and the gun was banned (along with others) until 2004 when the Bush administration allowed the law to sunset. Since then, Senator Dianne Feinstein has been attempting to once again regulate AR-15's under the new Assault Weapons Ban. In 2010, due to an arcane rule of Congress dating back to the Eighteenth Century, the Republican Party was able to gerrymander the House of Representatives, giving themselves a lock on the majority. As a result, the Assault Weapons Ban has been languishing. None of this political history takes away from the fact that the Congress considers the AR-15 an assault weapon, Republican power gambits notwithstanding. If you would insist that due to the Republican Party's power grabbing acumen, Emeryville residents should not be allowed to inquire about and possibly ban these consequential weapons that were quietly issued to our police, go ahead and make your argument. It's not going to get any traction here.

      The people of Emeryville should decide this as a result of a public debate with the City Council presiding.

    2. That's quite a stretch. You're trying to give a definition of "assault weapon" weight by saying it's good enough for Congress so it's good enough for Emeryville. But then you are also saying that Congress's later decision should be given no weight because you disagree with how it was decided.

      It's fine to disagree with Congress (I do it a lot), but you can't cherry-pick when you'd like "Congress said so" to be the rationale for why we should do something a certain way.

      Your position, as I understand it, is that you would like the public to debate this, and then have City Council vote on whether or not to disarm the Emeryville police. Would you like the city to vote on just the use of the AR-15 (and its replacement with another rifle), the elimination of rifles entirely, or the elimination of guns entirely from the EPD?

    3. No stretching here. In 1994, when Democrats were the majority party in Congress, the Assault Weapons Ban was enacted. Later, the Republicans used some creative legerdemain and took control. Even though they're now the majority party, because of the gerrymandering trickery they used to seize control, they only represent 47% of the American people. Democrats (the minority party) represent 53% of the American people. Neat trick, isn't it? But what this means vis a vis guns is that the AWB was allowed to sunset even though a clear majority of Americans still support it. Republicans work for the NRA and they're determined to have their way however. So there's no "cherry picking" here as much as you'd like to claim there is. The majority of the American people through their elected representatives believe the AR-15 to be an assault weapon.

      All this seems at a remove from this question of these weapons in Emeryville though, doesn't it? But it's not. The Chief of Police (presumably) wants to disallow the people from weighing in on this because she wants these guns available to her officers (she has stated as much). Can't say as I blame her. Nobody wants stuff taken away from them. Nobody wants to be constrained. By taking the NRA line, she takes away from the argument that these guns are worthy of special consideration.
      But our interests are what matters here, not hers. The fact that Congress thinks these weapons are so special, so deadly that they need to be banned informs us that it's worth special consideration as to our police using them. These guns are different from other guns and the Congress tells us how.

      I think it's warranted for the people of Emeryville to have their say on these lethal weapons specifically.

    4. So even though the Assault Weapons Ban expired, your position is that you believe it and its definition are still in effect? Wow.

      You continue to say that "Congress thinks these weapons are so special, so deadly that they need to be banned", even when Congress thinks no such thing and has no existing legislation to that effect. In fact, Congress had the opportunity to express this sentiment and chose to do exactly the opposite.

      There is no ban on these weapons. It's gone, kaput. We are no longer at war with Germany. Women can vote. Slavery is no longer legal.

      It's fine that you disagree with Congress and believe the Assault Weapons Ban should be reinstated and that the AR-15 should be classified as an "assault weapon". It's also fine for you to believe the people of Emeryville should have their say on whether the Emeryville police should have guns and which ones they should have.

      But, if you want people to believe what you write, you shouldn't cling to a position that is so clearly and demonstrably false. Congress does not "think these weapons are so special, so deadly that they need to be banned". If they did, they might be banned. But, they're not. They're the most popular rifle in the United States.

    5. Yes, that's correct: the Assault Weapons Ban sunset but the Congress still believes the AR-15 is an assault rifle. It's a fact and any kvetching on your part to the contrary can't take away from that simple fact. It's the most popular rifle in the US with the gun kook minority and the majority of the people of the US want to see it banned (a clear, absolute and demonstrable truth). We can all thank the NRA and their sycophants known as the Republican Party for the fact that it currently isn't banned (sorry if this hits too close to home for you).

      Oh and I don't care if right wingers 'believe what I write'. I don't write for them, I write for reasonable people.

    6. "It's a fact." No, Brian it is not. In 2013, the Assault Weapons Ban was introduced to the US Senate and was defeated sixty votes to forty. You might disagree with the vote but don't misrepresent what Congress thinks on the matter.

      Just concede the point and move on. You misstated Congress's position on this point. No big deal. Congress's position is not particularly relevant and by no means definitive as to whether it's a good idea to disarm Emeryville's Police Department.

      Calling names ("gun kook", "sycophants", "right wingers") doesn't add anything to your argument, and doesn't make you look like the 'reasonable' person you say you write for. Reasonable people like "reason".

      On the assumption that the people you are writing for are intelligent adults, I would be surprised if they are as positively influenced by name calling as you might be assuming. Nice chatting with you.

    7. I'm sorry Bub, if your political persuasion places you among those fellow Americans who's rapt attention will be in Milwaukee next Tuesday. I'm sorry that, for whatever reason, like the rest of them, you're not able to see straight.

  6. It sure would be nice if you and Rob would give your pissing contest a rest. It's really un-becoming.

    1. No pissing here. Mr Arias is using his blog to forward a meme that would take away from Emeryville resident's interest in doing something about these weapons the Congress says are very consequential. Insofar as that blog draws readers from Emeryville, his disempowering of the residents and empowering of the police is newsworthy.

  7. Mr. Donahue, THANK YOU for being a voice of reason in the community. The Anti Police-Terror Project will be hosting a forum on police demilitarization in Emeryville on December 13 from 2:30 to 5. Public announcement and details to follow as available.