Policy corner: Avoiding the term 'assault weapons'

Some suburbs have or are working on "assault weapon bans," and many more people are calling for them. But many object to the term "assault weapons," arguing it's politicized.

Indeed, it is a vague term that doesn't necessarily accurately describe the guns that tend to be used in mass shootings.

The Associated Press Stylebook, used widely in the news business to guide word and punctuation usage, won praise this summer from the gun lobby for discouraging the use of "assault rifle" and "assault weapon," saying they "convey little meaning about the actual functions of the weapon." It also suggests avoiding terms like "military-style rifles."

But the book doesn't provide a simple alternative, because there really isn't one.

We in the news industry, including The Associated Press itself, are doing our best to describe the guns in question. The AP called recent U.S. House legislation a ban on "certain semi-automatic guns," also labeling them "high-powered firearms." We've seen terms like "AR-15-style rifles" also used. The actual legislation is called the "Assault Weapons Ban of 2022."

The same scenario has played out for us in the suburbs. Highland Park has a ban on certain weapons, and Naperville is now working on one.

As we covered the Naperville effort, we tried various terms. We used "semi-automatic weapons," but in fact a ban wouldn't cover all semi-automatics - the city's proposal actually takes care to describe them as semi-automatic rifles with a magazine that is not fixed and has certain features like a pistol grip.

The proposal goes on to specifically list all the weapons it would ban, as Highland Park's ban does, and the list is broad. That led us further to use even broader phrases like "prohibit the sale of some guns" or "high-powered guns."

We don't have a perfect solution, and we don't know if we'll find one, but we're working to be as accurate and consistent as we can.

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