E. Gregory Wallace is a Professor of Law at Campbell University School of Law, where his constitutional law courses include a course on the Second Amendment. He has written and spoken extensively about “assault weapons.” He is co-author of the third edition of the textbook Firearms Law and the Second Amendment. 

Malcolm Gladwell recently released a six-part series on “Guns” on his Revisionist History podcast. Gladwell touts his podcast as a “journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood.” The third episode in the “Guns” series is entitled “A Shooting Lesson.” It focuses on so-called “assault weapons” and common misperceptions that drive bans on such firearms.

After reading my law review article on “Assault Weapon” Lethality, Gladwell contacted me last December and asked whether I could help him better understand “assault weapons.” He professed to be an “East Coast liberal” (Gladwell is Canadian, but has lived in New York since the 1980s) and confessed that many people like him don’t know what they are talking about when they argue about “assault weapons.” He wanted a tutorial.

Gladwell traveled to Raleigh, where we met in my office at Campbell Law School and talked guns for almost two hours. I walked him through the various parts of the AR-15 and how they function, discussed how the AR-15 is different from the full-auto military M16 and M4, and identified various accessories and modifications to the rifle. I explained why the AR-15 is not more powerful than most other commonly-possessed long guns and compared the size of its ammunition to larger rounds from those guns. We talked about why the military uses the 5.56 round, despite many complaints about it being underpowered on the battlefield.

Gladwell wanted a hands-on demonstration, so we headed to the shooting range. He had never touched a firearm, so it was a completely novel experience for him. After explaining the rules of gun safety, I demonstrated how to aim and fire the AR-15, how to change magazines, and how fast I could fire 30 rounds. I then handed the rifle to Gladwell and showed him how to stand, hold, and fire it. He initially was surprised, but caught on fairly quickly and ended up making a few accurate shots. After firing a handgun for comparison, he found the AR-15 much easier to shoot.

The “Shooting Lesson” episode features excerpts from our conversation and shooting range visit. There are a few minor errors—for example, my 10- and 30-round shot sequences are edited so that they sound like fewer rounds were fired—but overall, the podcast is fair and accurate.

The episode covers more than just my discussion and demonstration of the AR-15. When addressing misconceptions about “assault weapons,” I mentioned that Josh Sugarmann with the Violence Policy Center suggested in 1988 that gun-ban advocates should shift from handguns to “assault weapons” because they could emphasize their scary-looking features and take advantage of the public’s widespread ignorance in confusing such weapons with machine guns. Gladwell interviews Sugarmann on the podcast episode. The interview (starting at 22:25 in the podcast) is a must-listen.

Gladwell concludes the episode with an interview with Dr. Babak Sarani, a trauma surgeon and head of the trauma unit at George Washington University Hospital. Dr. Sarani and colleagues published a study in 2019 undermining claims of “assault weapon” ban proponents that mass shootings with “assault weapons” are more lethal than those with handguns. Dr. Sarani and his fellow researchers studied firearm types and autopsy reports for 232 victims from 23 mass shootings, including high-casualty shootings with “assault weapons” at Orlando and Las Vegas. They found that that public shootings with handguns are more lethal than those with rifles because they result in more wounds per victim and more injuries to vital organs. Gladwell’s interview with Dr. Sarani clears up this misconception about “assault weapons.”

The first two episodes in Gladwell’s “Guns” series are disappointing. The first is about Sir John Knight’s Case, a 1686 decision interpreting the Statute of Northampton. Gun-control advocates claim the Statute of Northampton shows that sweeping limits on carrying arms in public were permissible under the English right to arms. Sir John Knight’s Case demonstrates the opposite—that the statute did not apply when arms were carried peaceably outside the home.

Gladwell surely exaggerates when he describes John Knight as “the savior of the gun rights movement” and the centerpiece of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n v. Bruen. He interviews Joyce Malcolm and Dave Kopel about Knight’s case, but ultimately sides with questionable conclusions from other historians that the case is ambiguous and irrelevant, and that Knight himself was a “jackass.” He injudiciously accuses the Supreme Court of “cherry-picking” history by relying on the case in Bruen.

The second episode depicts Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito at the Bruen oral argument as believing that modern New York City is like the mythical Dodge City in the old TV-series Gunsmoke, where everyone should be armed to defend themselves against one another. The Gunsmoke allegory, while creative, is unconvincing at several levels.  

I found Malcolm Gladwell to be an inquisitive, engaging person. Like all of us, he brings certain preconceptions and experiences to the subject of guns. While he’s not a friend to the Second Amendment, his effort to counter various misconceptions about “assault weapons” in this podcast is as welcome as it is effective.