Let me start with a disclaimer that Friday's tragic events in Newtown, CT, hit very close to home and it's not my intention to reopen this blog for political debates. I decided a few years ago to separate my US politics comments from the game blog.
But I do think its instructive to point out that the norms of political debate in the US surrounding guns is fraught with language designed to obscure the issue rather than illuminate it.
It appears that the main weapon, if not the sole weapon, used by the shooter in the school massacre was something known as a Bushmaster .223. This is the sort of weapon that the media likes to call an "assault weapon," which gets all sorts of juices flying -- for all sorts of wrong reasons, really.
Strictly and technically speaking, it is not an "assault rifle." It's not capable of fully-automatic fire and I wouldn't be surprised if it falls short of military grade requirements for robustness and accuracy as well. It's not a military weapon.
But, once we understand that the requirements of media reporting require the use of various shorthand terms that are quickly grasped by a non-technical public, the use of the term "assault weapon" becomes more understandable. Nearly everybody who has ever seen a general media story about a topic they happen to know well sees all sorts of errors, over-simplifications and instances of misplaced emphasis. It really seems to be an inherent part of the beast. There are very few topics or species of human endeavor that could be adequately explained in the 500 to 1,000 words that a print reporter has. Broadcast media, naturally, has just a fraction of that.
So calling something like the Bushmaster an "assault weapon" does clue the general, non-technical reader in that this weapon has features that distinguish it from older semi-automatic weapons. The weapon bears an obvious relationship to the M-16 family of weapons.
The shooter made the distinction. Aside from the two pistols, which had obvious advantages in handiness and ease of transport, the shooter evidently had four long-arms to choose from in his mother's collection. Aside from the Bushmaster, which is a magazine rifle, there was a Henry Repeating Rifle and two blot-action weapons.
There are still conflicting reports on exactly which weapons were used. Many reports still say that he used the pistols and the Bushmaster was still in his car. Today's report indicates that the children were all killed by the rifle and that all of the kids had between 3-11 wounds! I was always dubious that a shooter would choose to NOT use the rifle and use pistols but there is, frankly, no way that you could shoot that many people that many times using a couple of pistols. Even using the rifle would seem to require changing the magazine several times during the rampage.
I think few members of the general public have a real appreciation for the effects of modern firepower. Sometimes I think that many gun owners don't. The effects are not always really apparent from the firing end of the weapon, which is all most people who are not hunters will ever see. TV and movies don't help. For every Saving Private Ryan there are a dozen Rambos. Video games also obscure as much as they reveal. Sure, there's a lot of dramatic gore, but after their heads blow off the zombies/commies/aliens etc. usually disappear.
Even paper wargames typically don't clutter up the map board with the debris of battle. The dead simply disappear, with a few notable exceptions. While I understand why designers don't want to clutter up the map -- and also probably don't want to make their games too gruesome, I think there's something to be said for keeping a little reality check in place.