January 8, 2015: The Right Words Matter

It may seem like small details and you may tell me to “get over it” after you read this but this kind of news release would not have been tolerated in my High School Journalism classes.  I will admit that was 40 years ago but it was a credible program with its roots in the first high school publication in Florida dating back to 1889.

I read an article about an accidental shooting in the Monday, January 5, 2015 edition of the Tampa Tribune in the Law & Order section with the headline: “Brandon man shot with assault rifle at home”.  The article stated a Brandon man was killed Sunday morning after another man pointed an assault rifle at him and pulled the trigger.  It then went on to identify the victim and the shooter.  It also included statements reportedly made by the shooter that he knew the gun was loaded, but didn’t think it would fire.  It also stated:  “pointed and fired the loaded .762-caliber assault rifle” and attributed the sheriff’s office.

I have several problems with this starting with the headline.  The headline doesn’t convey the magnitude of the stupidity that was involved in the tragedy.  I call it a tragedy because a man died, but it might be more of a Darwin Award for both men even though they both did not die.  The headline also uses “assault rifle” which conveys no information because this story is being reported in Florida, not New York.  Florida Statues do not define an “assault rifle”. 

Let’s go with the English Oxford Dictionary: A rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use.  So did the shooter use a M14?  Perhaps it was an H&K G3.  But wait, it can’t be any of those because it states it was a .762-caliber assault rifle.  Maybe this was something used by Arnold, Sylvester, or Terry because at more than ¾ of an inch in diameter per round, this would be a huge gun and you would need huge guns to handle it. 

OK so maybe the decimal is in the wrong place and maybe it’s not even a reference to caliber but a metric measurement.  7.62xXXmm. If the XX is 51, the rifle could be an M14, a Eugene Stoner design AR-10, or an H&K G3. If XX is a 39, then it could be a Mikhail Kalashnikov design AK-47 or one of its variants.    

OK so while I don’t expect reporters to always be interested in the subject material they are writing about, I do expect them to provide accurate information.  The digital version only lists the story as “-From staff reports” so the person who put this together isn’t identified. I was about ready to fire off a letter to the editor at the Tribune when I thought I should check the source that was mentioned in the article.  Especially after I saw the same verbiage and mistakes in the WFLA.com version of the story (WFLA.com did have a better headline). 

http://www.hcso.tampa.fl.us/About-HCSO/Press-releases/Releases/2015/January/15-005.aspx

The “Details:” as provided by the Sheriff’s Public Information Office was just regurgitated by the newspaper and online news.  No clarifications were made from the Sheriff’s press release. The .762 caliber and repeated use of assault rifle are all there.    So I sent an email to the HCSO PIO:

Dear Sir or Madam, I have a couple of questions about the Details: in Release 15-005. First, the statement that a .762 caliber rifle was used seems unlikely. That would be an extremely large round, over 3/4 of an inch in diameter, I am wondering if this is just a misplaced decimal point and it is not a reference to caliber but to a metric measurement. There are several common 7.62x??mm cartridges. Perhaps it is a 7.62x51mm and the rifle was a M14 or H&K G3. Or maybe it is a 7.62x39mm which would make it a variant of a Mikhail Kalashnikov designed rifle (AK47). It would be informative to know which round was involved as it relates to gun selection and safety practices, or in this case the complete lack of safe gun handling. The second question I have is about the use of the term “assault rifle” in this release. Does the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office have a definition for an “assault rifle”? If so could you point me to where it is documented? Since statutes for the state of Florida do not include the term “assault rifle”, I am curious if the gun used was an actual magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use. Perhaps in this release the use of “assault rifle” is a misnomer for a semi-automatic rifle designed for civilian use since “automatic” guns are regulated by BATFE.

Thank you for your consideration. Thank you for your service.

Gun manufacturers usually provide safety instructions in their owner’s manuals.  Since the specific gun was not identified in this release so I cannot verify if this is the case with the manufacturer of this gun.  I have seen various manufacturers list safety instructions from the 10 commandments to 30 guidelines. 

These are usually of the DO NOT variety of instruction with the intent of making the user aware of the dangers involved if safe gun handling practices are not followed.  The National Rifle Association has three rules for safe gun handling which if followed, would prevent injury or death in the event of an inadvertent discharge. 

ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

Safe direction refers to an object capable of stopping a round.  At a range, it is the backstop.  In your home it should be a designated spot capable of containing a fired round such as a purchased or made bullet trap, or an object that would provide cover such as the side of a full bookcase.

That safe direction in your home should be the only place your gun is pointed when you pull the trigger, excluding a self-defense shooting.   Even when using dummy ammunition while dry firing, cleaning and function checking, keep your gun pointed at that safe direction.  My reference to cleaning is that some guns require a trigger pull as a disassembly step.  After the gun is taken apart for cleaning it should not be capable of firing so the mandate to point it in a safe direction is no longer in play. You are no longer handling a gun, you are handling gun parts. 

In this tragedy the gun owner was the one who died.  The shooter violated all three NRA safety rules while the gun owner also violated the last.  If the shooter had observed any one of these rules he could have avoided killing another human being.

The article doesn’t indicate if the shooter had ever handled a gun before.  It doesn’t indicate if he had ever participated in any gun safety training program.  Based on his actions I doubt that he ever attended a safety class or read safety instructions.  The quantum of respect I give to the shooter is in admitting his actions.

This is speculation because the report of the incident is brief and I was not a witness, it also appears the victim did not make sound judgment decisions with his firearm and this guest.  This tragedy occurred in a home.  A rifle is not the best tool for home defense, but if it is the only tool available then he has the right to use it.  Society has the right to believe he has an understanding of the potential over-penetration liability associated with using a rifle in home-defense situations. 

If this was his home-defense gun of choice, then he made at least two errors that morning.  The first was taking it out of its secure storage location.  Society has the right to understand that gun owners secure their guns when they are not in immediate control of them.  His second was in not unloading and verifying the gun was clear before allowing another person, whether experienced or not, to handle it.  If this was not his home-defense gun, then it should not have been loaded in the first place and he certainly had no reason to load it while in his home. 

While this may be looked at as an “accidental” shooting, it really is inexcusable gross negligence.  I will be surprised if the result of the shooter being processed by the criminal justice system results in anything less than 20 years in prison.

I did receive an email response from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Office this afternoon.  The gentleman who responded thanked me for pointing out the error and provided information that it was a 7.62x39mm cartridge and the rifle was an AK-47 variant.  He explained that the term “Assault Rifle” is a commonly known public term and provided definitions from Merriam-Webster and BATFE. 

The Merriam-Webster definition, similar to the English Oxford makes the distinction that the rifle has the capacity to switch between semi-automatic and automatic fire modes.  The BATFE AK Assault Rifle description was not as clear stating it has Selective fire which I interpret to be semi-automatic, burst, or automatic.  But it also specifies that commercial semi-automatic variations being imported are NOT classified as machine guns meaning they are not automatic.

Unless the rifle used actually has Selective Fire control then the more proper term would be commercial semi-automatic variation of an AK-47.  I may push the point because if one of these two twenty some things actually had a Selective Fire AK-47, that is much more nefarious and disturbing than a commercial semi-automatic variant.

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