To Understand Iowa’s New Firearms Laws, First Get Familiar With Gun Terms

Aug 14, 2017

Several new gun-related measures enacted during the 2017 Iowa legislative session are taking effect and Iowa Public Radio is exploring their implications for the state. But it’s hard to follow gun news if you don’t speak the language. Come along on visits to Camp Dodge, Brownells retail gun shop, and the Story County Sheriff’s office to learn about different types of firearms.

On a clear summer day, visiting civilians shoot AR-15 rifles on range at Camp Dodge. At the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, also on the Des Moines army base, historian Michael Vogt can rattle off details about weapons from hundreds of years of history. And he says civilian guns have grown up right alongside the ones used by the armed forces.

“Civilian firearms development and military firearms development tend to walk hand in hand,” Vogt says, because innovation often begins with civilian engineers and is then tested by military groups. 

Historian and curator Michael Vogt, shown with a display at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge, says innovations in gun technology tend to develop almost simultaneously in civilian and military settings.
Credit Amy Mayer/IPR

The AR-15s being shot nearby are the civilian model of a common military gun, the M16, currently the first firearm assigned to new Army recruits. The main difference between the AR-15 and its military cousin is that the military gun can be fully automatic. That’s what you might see in the movies—where the shooter holds down the trigger and shots fire one right after another with scarcely a pause until the ammo runs out. Civilians are not allowed automatic weapons.

Vogt says there’s often confusion because a semi-automatic can fire many shots without re-loading the gun. The shooter can press the trigger again and again as long as there’s ammo. To an untrained eye, that might seem like an automatic weapon. What’s more, Vogt says the term “military style” should not be construed to mean “automatic.”

“When you hear people say it’s a military-style firearm,” Vogt says, “being a historian, I always ask the question, well what period?”

A World War I, single-shot rifle is very different from a Vietnam-era machine gun, like the fully-automatic AK-47. Still, the range of guns readily available is vast.

Just off Interstate 80 at the Grinnell exit is a huge, modern building that’s home to Brownells retail store and distribution center. The store offers new and used guns, ammunition, and accessories such as scopes, magazines, suppressors and safety equipment.

Lead product manager Paul Levy stands amid guns for sale at Brownells store in Grinnell.
Credit Amy Mayer/IPR

Displays and racks brim with shiny handguns in various colors, dark hunting rifles, and all-purpose shotguns. Paul Levy, the lead product manager at Brownells, says the top sellers are handguns. They have a single barrel and can be held and shot with one hand, a pistol for example. Levy says customers usually know what they want when they walk in. Maybe a certain look, or make.

“Just like a Chevy or Ford, there's brand-loyalties,” Levy says, “whether it's Smith and Wesson, Glock or Colt.”

Scanning all the offerings in the store, the difference between long guns and handguns is pretty clear. But within each there is great diversity. Levy says shotguns are the most versatile. They’re usually long, like a rifle, but they have more options for ammunition. They can shoot solid bullets, called slugs, or shot, which is small metal balls. Semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and handguns are all here. But, Levy says, for beginners the safest choice is a single-shot rifle. That’s a manual gun that you load, pull the trigger once to shoot, then reload when you want shoot again.

“They have a variety of purposes. They're fun in their own right,” Levy says, “they're unique, they offer a lot of capabilities and it causes you to focus on the mechanics of shooting, versus worrying about anything else.”

For shooting enthusiasts, it’s a hobby and a sport. But for law enforcement, guns are related to crime and the potential for lethal violence.

At the Story County Sheriff’s office in Nevada, the staff saw an uptick in gun permits when Iowa’s legislature changed the laws for getting one. This year’s set of gun-law changes includes legalizing short-barreled guns. As the name implies, they’re between handguns and long guns in length.

Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald says at a crime-scene a firearm is first identified as either a long gun, a short gun or a handgun. But he says victims and witnesses won’t always remember what they saw.

“If you’re a victim of a crime, like a convenient store clerk, and a guy comes in with a small caliber gun,” Fitzgerald says, “when you’re looking down the barrel—my god it must have been a cannon he came in here with!”

Fitzgerald says all kinds of guns are out there in the criminal world.

Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald keeps a variety of firearms for his department's use because different situations call for different types of guns.
Credit Amy Mayer/IPR

“We’ve taken sawed-off shotguns off of people, we’ve taken AK-47s, we’ve taken AR-15 assault rifles,” Fitzgerald says.

Let’s round-out the vocabulary lesson with that last descriptor, “assault.” Some argue the term only applies to fully-automatic machine guns. But it often gets used for semi-automatic rifles as well, particularly in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

Perhaps more important than understanding the nuances of different gun terms, though, is basic safety. In the military, from law enforcement, and among gun enthusiasts the mantra is essentially the same: always assume a gun is loaded, never point one at something you don’t intend to shoot, and store your firearms securely.

Ammunition comes in a wide range of sizes. The caliber is the diameter of the projectile.
Credit Amy Mayer/IPR