The “Swiss Army Knife”

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Cable News Network recently had a new story to beat to death: the ruling by Federal Judge Roger T. Benitez in Miller v. Bonta overturning California’s ban on assault weapons. Over and over, CNN says “the ruling likened the AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife.” Often that is all they say about the ruling before denouncing it.

CNN isn’t alone. Google “AR-15” and “Swiss Army Knife” and out pops Esquire, Mother Jones, the Washington Post and the London Independent. All began their stories by saying that a federal judge “compared” or “likened” the AR-15 to a pocket knife.

And it wasn’t just the media. All wokedom was in full stir. Tweeted Gavin Newsom, governor of California: “Overturning CA’s assault weapon ban and comparing an AR-15 to a SWISS ARMY KNIFE is a disgusting slap in the face to those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.”

Curiosity got the better of me. Why would some crazy right-wing judge think an AR-15 was like a Swiss Army Knife?

 

I am no expert on guns, and I am aware that some libertarians are, and I was going to let this one pass. But curiosity got the better of me. Why would some crazy right-wing judge think an AR-15 was like a Swiss Army Knife? So I looked it up, and there it was, in the judge’s first sentence: “Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”

What was the man trying to say? That the two devices were equally lethal? No. Literally it would appear that he was calling a Swiss Army Knife a “home defense weapon,” which is worth a chuckle, and the AR-15 “homeland defense equipment,” which is really not true, either. But let’s not be pedantic here. He was trying to say that like the Swiss Army Knife, which can open a wine bottle, trim your toenails or stab a frog, the AR-15 has more than one possible use. Which is not the message CNN and its journalistic pals were shoving in my brain. They were saying that the judge was nuts, and by implication, that his point of view is nuts.

I was a journalist in the mainstream media for 37 years. I can imagine myself bellyaching to my colleagues about the biased coverage — and I know how they would answer back. They’d say, “The judge made the comparison to the Swiss Army Knife. He should have known better. He was asking for it.”

In the media world, he was. Still, that somebody “asked for it” is the classic excuse of the nasty.

I recall genuinely goofy arguments in my young-libertarian days. One was that the right to bear arms should apply to any weapon.

 

In many of the news stories that gloated over the Swiss Army Knife comparison you’d never know that the decision was 94 pages long. A journalist might at least chew into it long enough to digest the main line of argument, which is this: The Second Amendment, as interpreted in the Supreme Court’s famous District of Columbia v. Heller case, guarantees a law-abiding individual’s right to keep and bear arms in defense of his home. Not included are such Hollywood accessories as rocket launchers, rifle propelled grenades or guns with automatic fire — weapons that spray bullets. “This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection,” the judge writes. “This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes.”

The judge writes, “To those who grew up watching movie westerns with John Wayne, or Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) on television, modern rifles just do not look like rifles . . .” Parts once made of solid wood on guns of the past are gone. These modern rifles are constructed of lightweight alloys and titanium nitride barrels in angular skeletonized shapes.

The gun at issue, the Colt AR-15, is a civilian version of a military weapon, just as the GMC Hummer is a civilian version of an Army Humvee. (Did I just compare an assault rifle to a truck?) The military weapon is the M-16, which is capable of three-shot bursts and automatic fire. The AR-15 sends off one shot per squeeze of the trigger. Nationally the AR-15 is allowed, but in California it runs afoul of the Golden State’s definition of an assault rifle. California actually has three definitions, each applying to a semi-automatic rifle using center-fire cartridges (that is, larger ones): a weapon shorter than 30 inches; a weapon with a fixed magazine holding more than 10 rounds; or a weapon with a pistol grip or a thumbhole stock, a folding or telescoping stock, a grenade or flare launcher or a flash suppressor.

You can argue about some of this stuff — the large magazine or the grenade launcher (though it would seem to be harmless without grenades). Referring to the third definition, the judge argues that the value of most of these features is to make an AR-15 easier to use. Why ban a telescoping stock, which allows an average-sized woman to use a gun designed for an average-sized man? Why ban a pistol grip or a stock with a hole for your thumb — because it looks sinister? The judge goes on to argue that none of these things makes the AR-15 into a weapon that should be exclusively reserved for the military. You can agree or disagree, but he’s not making a goofy argument.

Why ban a pistol grip or a stock with a hole for your thumb, just because it looks sinister?

 

I recall genuinely goofy arguments in my young-libertarian days. One was that the right to bear arms should apply to any weapon, there being no difference in principle between a machine gun and a steak knife, or even an automobile, because you can kill with it. (We loved “in principle” arguments.) I have also talked to libertarians who think that the real reason to own guns is that in some future time we could defend against a foreign army, or maybe rise up against our own. These are Red Dawn fantasies. Ordinary citizens with small arms have no chance against trained, well-directed soldiers with modern weapons.

The reality is that Heller decision is about as expansive a definition of the Second Amendment as we’re ever going to have. Judge Benitez offers a 94-page argument for keeping the AR-15 under the Heller blanket. It is a thoughtful argument. I’m not about to pronounce it the last word. But I was a journalist. I know fair reporting when I see it, and as I listen to the jabber on CNN about the “Swiss Army Knife” ruling by a judge in California, fair reporting is not what I hear.

One Comment

  1. Scott Robinson

    Dear Bruce,

    Thank you for being a good journalist and actually giving the Miller vs Bonta ruling a full review rather than focusing on one sentence. It could be summarized as, one board does not a house make, or, one stride does not a marathon run.
    To focus on the one sentence that concerns the main stream media, I would argue that a Swiss Army Knife is an even more dangerous assault weapon than the AR-15. Even with the most common large capacity magazine, the AR-15 can fire 31 shots without being reloaded. The Swiss Army Knife can slash or stab an unlimited number of times and it never needs to be reloaded. Now after 200 slashes or stabs I would think that the assailant would be tired, and depending on what had been struck with the blade and how often, the blade would need the knife’s version of reloading called sharpening, but I still contend that the Swiss Army Knife is good for more sequential assaults than the AR-15, unless you want to invoke using the AR-15 as a club.

    Best Wishes,
    Scott

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