The Pulitzer for Propaganda Goes to …

In 2023, the Washington Post published a series of articles about AR-15-style rifles. The series was scientifically illiterate, error-ridden, propagandistic, and willfully misleading.

Naturally, it has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Here are the facts, not that these matter even a little bit to the Pulitzer committee, members of which declined to answer questions for this column.

The AR-15 and rifles based on its design are two things at once: They are perfectly ordinary firearms that have been sold to civilians in the United States for the better part of a century, and they are cultural totems. They are cultural totems for the gun nuts who love them and for those who wish to prohibit their sale. The AR-pattern rifle has a lot in common with the most common rifles and handguns sold in the United States: It has a semiautomatic rate of fire (meaning that it fires once each time the trigger is pulled but doesn’t require any additional steps between trigger pulls, as opposed to, e.g., a bolt-action rifle, which requires that the shooter manually operate a handle that ejects the spent shell after a shot and then chambers another round for the next shot), and it is fed from a detachable box magazine. These features—semiautomatic firing and detachable box magazines—are what make the AR-style rifle useful for many purposes—including mass shootings. But they are features that the AR-style rifle has in common with most rifles sold in the United States and with nearly all handguns sold in the United States. As the engineering of semiautomatic rifles grows ever finer, even pursuits traditionally dominated by bolt-action rifles—long-range precision target shooting and hunting—have seen semiautomatic rifles make incursions, in much the same way that sports cars today mainly have a feature that would have been anathema to a sporting driver a generation ago: automatic transmissions.

The Washington Post series is very focused on the round the AR-style rifle fires, which it describes as “uniquely destructive”—a demonstrably false, quantifiable claim (as I noted at the time). AR-type rifles come in dozens of different chamberings, but the vast majority are chambered for the round that was long the standard-issue cartridge for the U.S. military: the 5.56mm NATO cartridge, which is nearly identical to and effectively interchangeable with the .223 Remington round. (AR-type rifles chambered for the 5.56mm round can typically fire the .223 without issue, though some older .223 rifles cannot safely fire the 5.56mm.) The Post writers claim that it is the speed of the 5.56mm round that makes AR-style rifles “uniquely destructive,” but this is false as a matter of elementary physics. Velocity is not what determines how much damage a projectile does to a human body—kinetic energy is. Chances are excellent that at some point this year you will be struck by something moving about 1 million times faster than the fastest bullet, and you will never even notice it, because the mass of the object in question is so small. Cosmic rays are an example of this. But the principle holds true at a larger scale: There are many cartridges that produce faster bullet velocities than the 5.56mm does. The 5.56mm generally comes out of the muzzle at about 3,250 feet per second (fps), which is a good deal less than hunting calibers such as the .220 Swift (more than 4,000 fps) or the .30/378 Weatherby (5,000 fps). Hunters and long-distance target shooters often prefer faster-moving cartridges because they are easier to shoot accurately: Bullets are not powered like little rockets but are more like rocks fired out of a slingshot, meaning that they begin to drop as soon as they leave the muzzle and gravity begins acting on them; faster bullets reach the target more quickly and thus have less time to fall and so require less adjustment for distance.

The important variable for damaging a body is, as noted, kinetic energy, which is, if you’ll forgive just a little math, one half of mass multiplied by velocity squared. Both mass and velocity matter: A really good Nerf cannon can fire a projectile at nearly 70 mph, which doesn’t even hurt, whereas a baseball—or a Buick—going 70 mph would be a different story. The 5.56mm is by no definition a “high-power” round. It is, in fact, on the modest side of the spectrum, something that the Washington Post could have learned by asking any competent party or consulting the professional literature–you know: journalism. A full-power 5.56mm or .223 round generally has about 1,360 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, which is less than half of the 3,000 foot-pounds or so you’d get at the muzzle of your granddad’s .30-06 deer rifle and just a little more than half the energy of popular European cartridges such as the 7mm Mauser. The kind of rifle you’d use for, e.g., hunting elk would be about three to five times as powerful as the “uniquely destructive” 5.56mm, a round of such modest power that many U.S. jurisdictions have over the years prohibited its use for deer hunting because it is insufficiently powerful to ensure an ethical kill. The U.S military did not adopt the 5.56mm round because it is powerful—it is, in fact, a good deal less powerful than the 7.62x51mm round it replaced. It was judged only adequately powerful, its main benefits being that it allowed soldiers to carry less weight and has very mild recoil. This is all in the professional and historical literature—had the Washington Post bothered to consult that literature rather than make up easily disproved claims about matters of quantitatively verifiable fact.

It is true that very few mass shooters use .30-06 deer rifles to commit their crimes. But this has nothing at all to do with any “uniquely destructive” feature of the AR-style rifle or the rounds it fires. It is a ghoulish thing to contemplate, but there probably would be far fewer survivors among those injured in mass shootings if these shooters typically chose more powerful weapons. Your chances of surviving a wound from a 5.56mm round are much better than your chances of surviving a wound from a cartridge designed for buffalo hunting.

It is probably worth noting here that AR-style rifles are used in a very, very small share of shootings in the United States: All rifles together typically account for something less than 3 percent of the firearms homicides in the United States in a given year. Rifles are more commonly used in mass shootings, but, even in those high-profile crimes, they are used in a minority of cases, about 28 percent. The most common firearm used in a violent crime in the United States is the 9mm semiautomatic handgun—which is the most common handgun found in the United States.

That is consistent with the historic pattern: Throughout most of U.S. history, the most commonly used firearm in a crime has been whatever the most commonly owned handgun was at the time: single-action revolvers in the late 19th century, snub-nosed .38s in the 1940s, etc. Mass shooters often choose AR-style rifles for obvious reasons—because they are common, relatively easy to operate, and the rifle that most Americans are most familiar with—and for reasons that are best described as totemic. The AR-15 is a powerful symbol for a certain kind of violent, rightist American ideology, in much the same way the Kalashnikov (“AK-47”) was such an evocative symbol for 20th century left-wing revolutionaries that the socialists who have run Mozambique since the 1970s put it on the national flag. Of course not everyone who uses an AR-style rifle for horrific purposes is a rightist ideologue any more than it is the case that everyone who uses a Kalashnikov for criminal purposes is a socialist in a hurry. But the cultural valences are there, and they are a real factor, one that explains the popularity of AR-style rifles in mass shootings much more meaningfully than the velocity of the 5.56mm round does.

The majority of rifles sold in the United States are semiautomatic rifles with detachable box magazines, meaning that they have the same features that make AR-style rifles so useful for both legitimate and criminal purposes. In terms of their operation, rate of fire, etc., these weapons are indistinguishable from AR-style rifles; some are chambered for less powerful rounds, many are chambered for much more powerful rounds to make them suitable for hunting medium or large game. Gun-control advocates who want to prohibit only AR-style rifles are seeking a merely symbolic victory—those other semiautomatic rifles would remain on the market and presumably would be used for the common legitimate and rare criminal purposes AR-style rifles are used for. And, of course, the vast majority of shootings (both ordinary criminal shootings and theatrical mass shootings) are done with handguns, so those situations would remain unchanged. Conversely, attempting to prohibit all semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines would mean prohibiting most rifles and practically all handguns—something very few gun-control advocates are willing to admit publicly as a political goal. Happily for them, they have the Washington Post to help them develop that political strategy. That isn’t journalism, of course: It is public relations, and dishonest public relations at that, on behalf of a political interest group.

Some of the Post’s errors are almost comically incompetent, for example, conflating the velocity of a bullet with the rate of fire of the weapon, as though the speed of the bullet leaving a muzzle had anything to do with how long it takes to fire the next one: “The AR-15 fires bullets at such a high velocity—often in a barrage of 30 or even 100 in rapid succession—that it can eviscerate multiple people in seconds.” Slate has published similarly nonsensical claims about rate of fire, and, so far, neither writer Mark Joseph Stern nor editor Hillary Frey has taken me up on my wager ($100,000 plus all my guns and some other good stuff) that they cannot produce a shooter who can prove out their preposterous claims (that an AR-style rifle with a bump stock can fire 800 rounds in 60 seconds) in the real world as opposed to in the imaginations of Slate writers. All of this is silly and stupid propaganda.

It is the opposite of journalism.

The Washington Post’s series is best understood as propaganda because it invents a phony pretext for prohibiting AR-style rifles as “uniquely destructive” rather than deal with the thorny political realities of real-world anti-crime and gun-control efforts. And those issues are thorny: We could—and probably should—be more aggressive in prosecuting the crime of simple illegal firearm possession absent some additional violent offense, and we probably should hand down stiffer sentences more consistently for that crime rather than doing what we do now—which is dismissing the great majority of those cases or pleading them down to some trivial misdemeanor.

But rigorously enforcing the laws regarding firearm possession with prison sentences is going to mean a lot more young men becoming incarcerated felons earlier in life, and it is nearly certain that those young men will be disproportionately black and poor. Rigorously enforcing ordinary gun laws would also mean forcing prosecutors—from the federal level to the local one—to change their behavior and start prioritizing relatively humble, unglamorous, and politically unpopular gun prosecutions rather than saving their efforts for major gun-trafficking and organized-crime cases. We should probably arrest and prosecute a lot more straw-buyers than we do, but we should be clear-eyed about who those straw-buyers are going to be—people with otherwise clean criminal records, often girlfriends or family members of convicted felons—before we start locking them up.

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded for some pretty bad journalism over the years, most famously for Walter Duranty’s fictitious coverage of the Soviet Union, reports the New York Times itself today describes as “largely discredited.” Duranty’s work was pretty obviously shoddy as journalism, part of a marketing campaign for the Soviet Union and for socialism—and the Pulitzer people bought it because they wanted it to be true. It fit with their politics. The same is the case with the Washington Post’s firearms coverage. That this kind of sloppy and propagandistic work deserves to be treated with contempt by journalists and by all honest-minded people is something that ought to be plain enough even to people who would prefer more aggressive regulation of firearms. The Post itself is endlessly lecturing the world about how facts matter. The Post should try living up to its rhetoric.

These errors are substantial and incontrovertible, and I have made a point out of demonstrating them to the Post’s editors, who have, so far, demonstrated exactly zero interest in correcting the record. The Pulitzer committee is mum, too. But actions speak loudly, too, and the Pulitzer committee has demonstrated that all that stuff about the relentless pursuit of the truth, wherever it leads, very often is baloney. In reality, the Post and the Pulitzer committee are just two more examples of the powerful using the institutions they control to serve their own interests—at the expense of the fundamental mission they all supposedly cherish, and even as they sanctimoniously insist that they are acting in the public interest.

And they wonder why demagogues get so much mileage out of claims about “fake news.” It’s shameful stuff.

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