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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Francis Wilkinson: ‘Guns don’t kill people, bullets do’

By Francis Wilkinson Tribune News Service

The “manifesto” purportedly posted by the shooter accused of last weekend’s mass murder in El Paso, Texas, is in many respects typical of the genre – a dim mix of self-pity, self-aggrandizement and sub-sophomoric musings making a stab in the direction of philosophy. The first section is aptly titled “About Me.”

The me-centric Texas man-child also included a section called “Gear,” where he weighs the merits of his consumer choices. USA Today explained: “The rambling online missive references the Wassenaar Arrangement Semi-automatic Rifles, or WASR-10, a Romanian AK-variant imported by some American distributors.”

Along with his AK-47-style semi-automatic rifle, he cites an 8m3 bullet, which appears to have something of a cult following owing to its capacity to expand and fragment inside bodies, causing “catastrophic wounds,” as the Trace stated. The shooter expresses worries about the WASR-10 overheating, and about the level of penetration inside his victims’ bodies that the bullet would provide, compared with alternative bullets. But he’s hoping that the 8m3’s fragmentation inside the flesh will compensate for any loss of penetration.

It’s a sick soliloquy. But you can find others much like it. An anonymous review at states that the customer’s Russian-made 8m3 “works in all of my ak’s and is devastating in soft tissue.”

Bullet talk is as revealing a window on American gun culture as gun talk – maybe more so. Consider this 2011 ammo review at Shooting Illustrated, the “official journal” of the National Rifle Association. The reviewer, Richard Mann, sets out to test what he calls the “bold” product claims by Hornady brand bullets.

The boldest claim Hornady makes is that the terminal performance of Critical Defense ammunition is, “Unaffected by thick and heavy clothing, including denim and leather.” And, “The FTX bullet delivers superior controlled expansion and large, deep wound cavities over a wide range of velocities.”

If you’re having trouble following along, the writer is citing Hornady’s marketing brag that its bullet will penetrate a person’s heavy clothing, enter the human body and then expand inside to produce “deep wound cavities.”

Shooting Illustrated, which is in the business of rationalizing preoccupations such as how well a bullet will destroy the internal organs of a human target, doesn’t just take Hornady’s word for it. It tests the proposition. A series of “expansion tests” were devised using gelatin and other materials to determine whether the company’s products would expand to the desired degree inside a body.

Hornady received a thumbs-up. “This means you can count on Hornady Critical Defense FTX bullets to provide sufficient penetration and expand between 1.3 and 1.6 times their original diameter,” Mann wrote. “Most importantly, you can expect this result regardless of what type clothing the bullet must pass through before it lets the air out of an attacker. In my opinion, this is the ammunition’s main strength.”

I found the Hornady review when I was trying to understand what a Hornady .380 bullet, fired by a semi-automatic pistol, had done inside the brain of a 6-year-old target before it let the air out of her.

Trauma surgeons say the wounds from semi-automatic rifles, which fire bullets at much higher velocities than pistols do, are especially gruesome and lethal. A surgeon who treated victims of the Parkland shooting massacre wrote of another surgeon opening a young victim on the operating table and finding “only shreds of the organ that had been hit by a bullet from an AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle that delivers a devastatingly lethal, high-velocity bullet to the victim. Nothing was left to repair – and utterly, devastatingly, nothing could be done to fix the problem. The injury was fatal.”

Another trauma surgeon described the effects this way: “The tissue destruction is almost unimaginable. Bones are exploded, soft tissue is absolutely destroyed. The injuries to the chest or abdomen – it’s like a bomb went off.” Still another said: “You will see multiple organs shattered. The exit wounds can be a foot wide.”

Those results, of course, are entirely intentional – “devastating in soft tissue.” Americans buy guns designed and marketed as hyper-lethal. They fill their magazines with bullets specifically manufactured to rip human bodies to shreds and make human lives unsavable.

In 1993, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York proposed a huge tax increase on the most vicious brands of ammunition, pointing out that, unlike guns, ammunition doesn’t last forever. “Guns don’t kill people,” Moynihan said, “bullets do.”

He was on to something.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion.