How NPR Used a Little Truth to Make a Big Lie About Bullets
As I scrolled through my news feed this morning, some algorithm served up an NPR video to me. It was called “The Science Behind Why Some Bullets Are More Destructive Than Others.” The video was cleverly and artfully illustrated. It contained numerous accurate statements – and several huge lies.
I won’t discuss all the minor quibbles I have with the video – I’ll just describe how we’re given accurate statements but are still, in the end, misled.
The video uses clips of ballistic gel tests from HP White Laboratories depicting 9mm FMJ, 9mm JHP (their illustration actually shows 380 ACP, so who knows), 22LR, and 223 Rem projectiles impacting gelatin. The narrator accurately describes how the rounded 9mm FMJ bullet avoids deformation and is able to go straight through the entire gel block, “taking some of its energy with it.”
Moving on to 9mm hollow points, the narrator again begins with accurate statements. “The tip is designed to open up. This larger surface area creates extra friction that slows down the bullet as it passes through tissue and eventually stops.” Okay, great. Yes, this is true. “All of the bullet’s energy gets absorbed.” Okay, sure. “A shock wave opens up a temporary cavity and the tissue in that space gets damaged and bruised.” Yes, true. We’ll leave the ballistic-gel-nerd arguments over the importance of temporary cavity size for another day.
Continuing the accurate statements, we’re told that “hollow point bullets are less likely to come out the other side of a person and injure a bystander. That’s one reason police use them.” Yes! You just made a great argument against New Jersey’s silly hollow point ban.
This is when the video starts to come off the rails, even as it continues to largely rely on facts I won’t dispute.
“But when it comes to destructiveness, what’s more important than shape is speed.” Okay, maybe. We could quibble about this, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just move on.
We’re shown a 22LR ballistic gel test. “The 22 here is a common bullet.” Yes. “People use it for target shooting and hunting.” Yes – with the massive caveat that it’s used for hunting little things like squirrels and rabbits.
If you weren’t familiar with ammunition, you would easily be left with the impression, or perhaps led to the assumption would be a better phrase, that 22LR is commonly or widely used by a lot of hunters for the sorts of hunting people talk about when they say they support the Second Amendment because they come from a family of hunters – the hunting of deer or elk.
The narrator tells us that the 22LR bullet is “moving so slowly that it tumbles and comes to a stop.” Sure, but tumbling doesn’t have much to do with its slow velocity, or at least, it’s not a factor that would have gone away if velocity was increased significantly. A 5.56mm bullet moving three times as fast could also tumble.
Yes, if you hadn’t guessed already, we’re about to move on to 5.56/223.
“But the 223 is moving more than three times faster.” Yes, very true. “This bullet is used in AR15-style guns.” Very true. “They’re some of the most popular recreational weapons in America.” I’m glad NPR acknowledged this simple truth!
“More speed means more energy, and all that energy has to disperse somewhere. The shock wave can break bones and rupture organs.” Yes, this is irrefutable, with a few assumptions I won’t challenge.
“So speed, mass, and shape. That’s what determines how destructive bullets are.” Yep – and where they hit.
Here comes the major derailment following our previous slight departure from the rails.
“More Americans than ever are getting shot with larger, faster, better-designed bullets.” WHOA.
Perhaps the reporter genuinely believes that because 223 is a larger number than 22 that the former is significantly larger than the latter, but even the biggest and heaviest 223 projectile is less than half of what can be fired from the 9mm bullets we were talking about earlier. Furthermore, there isn’t a ton of difference between what’s available in 22LR and what’s available in 223 in terms of mass. What difference there is comes in the speed they mention as well as the heavier construction of the 223 bullet.
As for “better designed,” that’s an entirely subjective assessment. I’d say that the most money has gone into better pistol bullet design, especially 9mm – not 5.56/223 rifle rounds, because pistol bullets are where the big law enforcement contracts are found.
Furthermore, better designed for what? Accuracy is most important, and many 22LR bullets are among the best in the world for accuracy. I assume they mean better designed for causing damage, so we’ll continue on that track.
If you want to talk about a bullet that meets all three criteria – bigger, faster, and better designed than 9mm or 22LR – we have to move up to serious hunting cartridges with good bullet design, like Federal 300 Win Mag Fusion. You see, one of the biggest errors in the video is one of omission.
Yes, 223 is more “devastating” than 9mm in soft tissue – but common hunting rounds like 30-06, 270 Winchester, and 300 Win Mag are far more “devastating” than 223. The average person would not know that from watching this video – they would be left with the thought that the 223 is exceptionally devastating in comparison with a “common hunting round,” the 22LR. They wouldn’t know that cartridges used for hunting larger animals look far more “devastating” in ballistics gel. After watching this NPR video, the average person wouldn’t know that common centerfire cartridges even exist.
But we need to step away from the ballistic nerd arguments entirely – the claim that “more Americans than ever” are being shot by any kind of bullet is a Pants On Fire-grade lie. Homicides, including firearm homicides, are down to about half of what they were decades ago. Absolutely zero evidence is given by NPR to show what I think they mean to say – that more people are being shot by 223 rounds.
I really don’t like using the phrase “fake news,” but this video is a masterpiece study in how to mislead people using a generous sprinkling of truth and omitting a few things, then concluding with a bald-faced lie. An overwhelming majority of what was said in the video is factually correct, yet the viewer is left far more misinformed on the topic than when they started watching. If that’s not “fake news,” I don’t know what is.
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