Times Are Changing: Buy Your Villain A New Weapon


Are the villains in your tales growing weary of having to choose from a limited supply of murder weapons? Do you hear them sigh each time you type the words Glock, Oleander, chainsaw, wood chipper, candlestick, and severed gas and/or brake lines? Who can blame them for their dismay? After all, for decades now they’ve reached into their toolboxes to find the same old tired instruments of death, time and time again.

Well, thanks to a handful of computer geeks and hackers, your bad guys will soon have a new method of “whacking” the cleverly-crafted characters you’ve designated for the grave. Now, instead of having to chop, hack, shoot, and slice, killers can keep their hands spotlessly clean while tending to their evil business.

How will they do it, you ask? Okay, imagine this … your evil-doer, I. Stoppa Uhart, is on a tight schedule, needing to kill several people before the noon hour. So he whips out his handy-dandy, hand-held pocket computer, otherwise known as a cellphone. He sets a special app to the scan mode. And … presto! He’s located three people nearby who’re connected to insulin pumps. He pushes a few touchscreen buttons and … WHAM! The pumps each deliver a lethal dose of insulin to the unsuspecting victims. The murderer switches off the device and goes on to his next appointment … the hospital trauma ward where there should be plenty of morphine drips.

The best part of the whole deal (for the killer) is that there’s no physical evidence to tie him to the murder—no fingerprints, no trace evidence, no shell casings, no murder weapon … nothing.

Across town, Uhart’s first cousin and partner in crime, I. Maka Ubleed, is standing by at the freeway, ready to switch on a hacking program that would soon give him control of the on-board computers regulating the systems of nearly every passing vehicle. His button-pushing-finger, poised and ready to act, trembled slightly as it hovered above the bright red key marked “Press Here For Death And Destruction.” Yes, in just a few minutes there’d be a massive auto crash and countless deaths and injuries.

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Sound like fantasy to you? Well, it’s not. The hacking of these types of programs is relatively easy to accomplish with technology that’s readily available. And, if hackers already have the ability to control our medicine and our vehicles, what’s next? Our food and water supply, power grids, and … no, not that. Not our Kindles!

It’s true, folks. The day may soon come when a band of evil hackers decide to gain control over all e-readers, and that would surely mean certain and instant death for us all. Either that, or we might be forced to do the unthinkable … buy and read real books. What a “novel” idea …


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Assault Rifles: More Deadly Than Other Firearms?

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Assault Weapon. The US military definition of an assault weapon is a small arm which is capable of semi-automatic (one round fired for every trigger manipulation) as well as full-automatic (rounds fire as long as the trigger is “pulled” back until released or the ammunition is expended).

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US politicians batted around various terms in the 1980s and 1990s before coming up with a definition of their own.

Then, in the 1990s there was an assault weapons ban. However, this was a misnomer. What it did was name certain firearms but ultimately the ban required a combination of “function or attachments.” First, the firearm had to be semi-automatic capable of accepting a high capacity magazine AND had two of the following: a pistol grip, a folding or sliding stock, a flash hider, a bayonet lug. So essentially, this bill was about cosmetics.

The Assault Weapons ban was confusing to many, including members of law enforcement and justice system.

In addition, there was a ban on the sale of any high capacity magazines (over 10 rounds) manufactured after a certain date (I believe it was 1994). All high capacity magazines had to be stamped “Restricted Law enforcement/military.” This did not ban the ownership or sale of magazines manufactured and in circulation prior to this ban.


In turn, in the late 2000s, the assault weapon and high capacity magazine ban expired.

Then it was legal to sell (including magazines formerly stamped restricted) to the general public.

During the years of the high capacity magazine and assault weapon ban, very few people were prosecuted federally for violating this law (there were certain statutory enhancements on other crimes such as using a firearm in the commission of a federal crime of violence or drug crime).

Some have posted that the firearm used was the reason the shooter in Orlando killed so many. However, even if they had been armed with 6 shot revolvers or shotguns they would have done as much damage. Why? The time.

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According to CNN here is the timeline of events:

2:02 am—shooting erupts at Pulse in which an off duty officer working at Pulse and two other officers nearby respond and exchange gunfire with the shooter. The shooter enters Pulse.

2:09 am – Pulse pastes a warning on Facebook.

2:22 am – Shooter calls 911.

5:00 am – Orlando SWAT made entry into the Pulse nightclub.

So from approximately 2:03-5:00 am, almost 3 full hours, the shooter had time to shoot his victims at leisure. 3 hours. 180 minutes. Did a long gun and plenty of ammunition allow this person a higher body count? Definitely. However, I would argue that in a confined space, a .22 caliber rifle and the same ammunition amount or a shotgun would have wreaked as much havoc.

Politicians are saying that we “need to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.” That is agreed. That is also the hardest thing to legally do. Why? 18 USC 922(g)(4) is the federal firearms law prohibiting mentally ill people to own firearms. However, it is a very narrow legal definition: 18USC922(g)(4) Any person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” is prohibited from shipping, transporting, receiving or possessing any firearm or ammunition.

Do you think that sounds straightforward? Well, then we have to go to the two terms “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution.” This means that a board, court or commission has to determine someone is mentally defective and officially adjudicate that way.

The “committed to a mental institution” means that a lawful entity (usually court) has to commit someone to a mental institution. The definition specifically excludes voluntary commitment and excludes a time period for “observation.” Usually these are the most common ways people go to mental institution in the criminal justice system. They get arrested and sent to a mental facility for observation (a “hold”) and after that time period the majority are released and no further action by the court or the medical field happens.

In other words someone can be crazy as a loon and never meet the definition of “mentally defective” and barred from possessing firearms.

The second reason that this is so hard to prove? Health Privacy Laws (HIPPA). Even if a court adjudicates someone as mentally defective those records are sealed and it is very very rare that those records are unsealed or released to law enforcement. There is no vehicle to marry up individuals who are mentally defective to the NICS (National Instant Checks System) when a person goes to buy a firearm.


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With that said, it’s time to point out that the U.S. currently has over 20,000 laws on the books that govern firearms, including the law that prohibits convicted felons from possessing or receiving firearms. The law also prohibits and punishes people who use guns while committing crimes.

It’s already against the law to murder someone. It’s against the law to assault. It’s against the law to speed. It’s against the law to sell drugs. It’s against the law to poison someone. It’s illegal to rape, rob, steal, and it’s even against the law to ride a horse on the highway while intoxicated (the rider, not the horse). But having laws on the books does not stop people from breaking them. And yes, people sometimes ride horses on the highway while drunk.

The trouble with gun laws—any law, actually—is that, believe it or not, bad guys ignore them, meaning that only honest, law-abiding citizens obey the rules by completing necessary paperwork, submitting to background checks, etc. We could add new laws to the books—20,000 new ones, if desired—, but not one would stop a bad guy from using a gun or any other tool to kill if that’s what he wanted to do.

Back to the assault weapons …

So, the basic difference between an “assault rifle” and your grandpa’s hunting rifle is what? Magazine capacity? Barrel length? Stopping power? Let’s take a quick one-question quiz to see how well you know your firearms.

Which of the following are “assault rifles” and which could be found in Papa’s hands during deer season? These should be easy to spot, I hope.

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How well do you think you did?

Actually, they’re all the same rifle—mini-14’s, one of the rifles that, when the look is altered, people assume they’re “assault rifles.” The only differences in the rifles pictured above, though, is the added bling—grips, stock, etc. Basically, its the appearance that’s different. There’s nothing added that could increase the power of the rifle. There’s nothing about either of those rifles that makes an “assault” by one any more deadly than Pop’s target rifle, which could be, by the way, any one of the rifle’s pictured above.

Pull the trigger and they each fire only one round. Thats one round/bullet per pull of the trigger. They are not fully automatic (not machine guns). Again, the shooter must pull the trigger each time he/she wants to fire the weapon, just as one would do when firing a revolver or other handgun. It’s illegal, by the way, to possess a fully-automatic machine gun without first obtaining a special permit, approval that’s not easy to obtain.

Appearance – Think of a circus clown. They’re just like anyone else until they apply makeup. The cosmetics do not change the person, of course, but they certainly change his or her appearance. The same is true for the rifles in question.

So, did you get it right?

*Above image – geofferyandmika.me

Speaking of appearances, let’s now take a look at the first three weapons pictured above, from the top image down to the 3rd.

Assault rifles?

Nope, they’re just a few of the many rifles sold at Walmart or other such outlets, except these are either pellet guns or BB guns. The rifles often enjoyed by kids who like to shoot tin cans and paper targets out on the family farm.

Who remembers these?


Well, the rifles at the top of the post are the modern day cousin to them.

The top image is of a Benjamin Armada Air Rifle.

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Number two = a Crossman M4 Pump Air Rifle.

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Number three = Umarex BB Air Rifle.

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They are not firearms, but they look menacing, right? It’s all about cosmetics, though, and the same is true about the rifles many refer to as assault rifles. They may look scary to some people, but they’re nothing more than a regular rifle dressed up with fancy attachments. As you can clearly see, it’s possible to dress up a BB gun to make it appear as something it’s not.

By the way, the revolver pictured above, it’s also a a BB gun. You can purchase one at Walmart for less than $50.


This piece is strictly factual, not opinion-based, nor is it an attempt to sway your opinions one way or another. It was written to help those who visit this site to better understand the firearms often written about in novels.

The tragedy that took place in Orlando was a despicable act committed by a despicable person … a terrorist. But that’s not the focus of this particular article.

As always, I welcome comments and questions, however, this blog is not the place for a debate on gun control, race, immigration, cops, politics, etc. Nor is this the place for profanity of any type. I thank you for maintaining a professional and courteous discussion.

*This article was a joint effort, with most of it written by a top expert who must remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak about the Orlando shooting.


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Firearm Malfunctions: Squibs, Stovepipes, and Limp-Wristing

Officer Dewey Shootornot found himself in a real pickle when he heard that all too familiar muffled “pop” at the precise moment when a pair of armed robbers chose to send a volley of bullets his way. No matter which way he turned the gun, poked it, pulled on it, shook it, or banged it on a nearby lamp post, he could not dislodge the faulty round. Unfortunately, thanks to the malfunction—a squib round—, Officer Shootornot found himself on the receiving end of a baker’s dozen gunshot wounds to the place where the sun rarely ever shines (he’d been in full retreat mode when the rounds hit).

A squib round, like the one that nearly cost Officer Shootornot his life, is a real danger, especially for police officers and military troops who are sometimes forced to engage in a gun battle with bad guys.

Squibs are caused when a bullet does not have enough force to exit the barrel. This malfunction is typically caused by a round having a primer but a lack of the proper amount of, if any, gunpowder

Primers are located on the flat end of casings opposite the bullet, either in the center (centerfire) , or on the side (rimfire). A trigger-pull causes the firing pin to strike the primer, an action that generates enough heat to ignite the gunpowder. When the gunpowder explodes it sends the bullet on its way to the intended target. Squib rounds, however, remain lodged inside the gun barrel and, if the trigger is pulled a second time, the new bullet strikes the one lodged inside the barrel and…BOOM! The weapon could explode or fall apart. It’s a very dangerous situation. So, if the shooter hears that faint “pop” they should not pull the trigger a second time.

A stovepipe occurs when a bullet casing does not fully eject from the weapon and becomes stuck in the slide/ejection port. When stovepipes occur the weapon will not fire. This type of malfunction typically occurs due to dirty extractors, malfunctioning extractors, or the improper handling/holding of the firearm when shooting (limp-wristing). Limp-wristing is especially common with certain Glock semi-automatics.

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Gunpowder and Lead: Stuff You Probably Don’t Know About Firearms


Guns. Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, you’ve got to deal with them. They’re here and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. As writers, though, you probably handle them, if only in your minds, more often than the average person. Therefore, it’s a good idea to know what it is you’re trusting your characters to carry and use as part of their crime-fighting tool box. So, to help your heroes sound as if they really know their stuff, here are a dozen not-so-well-known firearm facts.

1. Not all firearms require official registration under the National Firearms Act (NFA). Those that do include machine guns, short-barrel rifles (barrel less than 16″ in length) and shotguns (barrel less than 18″ in length), silencers, gadget-type firearms (pen and cellphone guns, etc.), destructive devices, and what ATF calls “any other weapons.”

*Destructive devices include Molotov cocktails, bazookas, anti tank guns (over .50 cal.), and mortars. Interestingly  grenade and rocket launchers that attach to military rifles are not considered to be destructive devices. However, grenades and rockets are listed as destructive devices.

*Any other weapons include Ithaca Auto-Burglar guns, H&R Handy-gun, and cane guns.

Violators caught with a non-registered NFA firearm may be fined not more than $250,000, and imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.

2. Dealers who sell gas masks must be registered with ATF. It takes 4-6 weeks for the agency to process the registration paperwork.

3. Parts or devices that are designed to convert a firearm into a NFA firearm must be registered with ATF.

4. The semi-automatic assault weapon (SAW) ban went into effect on September 13, 1994. The law made it illegal to manufacture or possess SAW’s. The law expired 10 years later on September 13, 2004.

5. The ban on large capacity ammunition feeding devices (magazines, belts, drums, etc.) went into effect on September 13, 1994. It, too, expired 10 years later, on September 13, 2004.

6. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, is in place to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms or explosives (not a convicted felon or otherwise ineligible). The system is utilized each time someone purchases a firearm from a licensed dealer. NICS is maintained by the FBI. More than 100 million checks have been conducted since the system was initiated. 700,000 of those checks resulted in denials.

7. Muzzleloading cannons are NOT classified as destructive devices.

8. Machine guns may be legally transferred (sold) from one registered owner to another.

9. It is illegal to manufacture, import, and/or sell armor-piercing ammunition. However, this law does not apply to those who manufacture and sell armor-piercing ammunition to the government of the United States or any its departments or agencies, or to any state government or any department and/or agency thereof. It is also legal to manufacture and sell armor-piercing ammunition for the purpose of exporting to other countries.

ATF defines armor-piercing ammunition as:

(a) projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium; or

(b) a full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.

10. Brandish – to display all or part a firearm, or make it known a firearm is present, for the purpose of intimidating another. “Cops charged my cousin with brandishing a firearm. He’ll do six months in county for this one. It’s the second time he’s done it.”

11. It is illegal for persons convicted of crimes of violence to purchase or possess body armor.

12. Gun sales to foreign embassies on U.S. soil are considered exports; therefore, typical gun sale paperwork is not required. Instead, dealers need to obtain only one of the following – an official purchase order from the foreign mission, payment from foreign government funds, a written document from the agency head stating the weapons are being purchased by the embassy, not an individual. Standard laws apply to individual parties/diplomats.

Bonus – It is illegal to knowingly sell a gun to anyone who is an unlawful user of or addicted to controlled substances. It is also illegal to knowingly sell a firearm to someone has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution.

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I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun
Wait by the door and light a cigarette
If he wants a fight well now he’s got one

I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead

Miranda Lambert ~ Gunpowder and Lead

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But, He Only Had a Knife, Why’d They Shoot Him?

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Let’s ask this guy how much damage could be caused by one guy and his little knife.

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It’s doubtful that an officer could draw his weapon and squeeze off a round, without aiming, if a knife-wielding suspect began a charge from a distance of twenty-one feet or less. Suppose the officer did properly assess the threat, managing to draw his weapon and fire. How long would it take to think about and perform those two basic tasks?

In a controlled test, the officer with the quickest response was able to draw his weapon from a security holster in a little under 1.5 seconds. The slowest was a about 2.25 seconds. Sounds pretty fast, huh? Maybe not.

The average suspect can cover the distance (21 feet as seen above) to the officer in as little as 1.5 seconds, nearly a full second quicker than the slowest officer is able to defend himself.

Today, officers must rethink the twenty-one foot rule a bit. Sure, a knife-wielding thug (thug: a violent criminal. A brutal ruffian or assassin) is potentially a deadly threat, but not an actual deadly threat until he makes some sort of hostile movement toward the officer. Of course, the officer should have his firearm in a ready position as soon as he perceives the threat. And this is a situation where the officer should always choose his firearm over a non-lethal weapon, such as a Taser or pepper spray. Remember the the old saying, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight?” Now there’s a new addition to that rule. It’s, “Never bring a Taser to a knife fight.”

The key to knowing when it’s time to shoot is simple. If the officer feels that his life, or the life of an innocent person is at risk, then the shoot is justified. However, the officer must be prepared to articulate his reasons for pulling the trigger. Was the suspect making stabbing motions while advancing?  Was he charging at, or lunging toward the officer?

There are reasons, too, that may not justify the shoot, such as the suspect being so intoxicated that he couldn’t possibly have followed through with the threat. In short, the threat must be real, or at least perceived as being real in the eyes and mind of the officer. However, if the threat is real and incoming, then there’s no doubt…deadly force is justified.

In addition, the officer must be able to recognize when a threat is over. If the suspect drops his weapon the justification for deadly force ends immediately.

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Benjamin Sobieck: Switchblades and Assisted Opening Knives


One of my favorite things about The Graveyard Shift is the way Lee Lofland pulls lessons out of current events. While I don’t have the law enforcement experience he can offer, I’d like to contribute to that tradition in my own way. Let’s talk about switchblades (aka automatic) and assisted opening knives.

As I’m sure many of you are aware, a man named Freddie Gray died after his arrest by Baltimore police this past April. There’s plenty to discuss about the context of his arrest and death, but I want to focus on the reason police cited for making the arrest. Gray apparently had a switchblade clipped into his pocket. Concealed carry of switchblades is illegal under Maryland law, and prohibited by Baltimore city code. However, it appears Gray may have actually carried an assisted opening knife, which is legal. The jury (figuratively) is still out on that.

What’s the difference? Why would these two knife types – one illegal, one legal – be confused?

If you’re familiar with switchblades from pop culture, you already know that they open with an iconic “pop.” What you might not know is what makes a knife a switchblade. By federal law, and most state laws, there are two distinct features:

– The folding blade is biased to open from its closed position inside the handle.
– A button or switch on the handle of the knife must be pressed for the blade to open. That’s different from the distinctions of an assisted opening knife:
– The folding blade is biased to stay shut from its closed position inside the handle.
– The blade is deployed by manipulating a part of the blade itself (a tab, a thumb stud, etc.), not a button or switch on the handle. The blade gets about halfway open before an assisting mechanism, such as a spring or torsion bar inside the knife, takes the blade the rest of the way.

This doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but the legal impact is significant. Switchblades are restricted across much of the U.S., although there are exceptions. Assisted opening knives are legal and popular almost everywhere.

To the eye, however, both types of knives look identical. They both open in flash with that iconic “pop.” As with much of firearms and knives, looks are deceiving. Function, not form, is what matters.

Adding to the confusion is the recency of assisted openers. They’ve been around only since the mid-1990s, but it took until 2009 for an amendment to the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act to specifically exempt assisted openers. Many states followed suit. That doesn’t change the fact most people can’t tell the difference, including law enforcement officers needing to make a quick decision.

For writing fiction, I think inserting “assisted opening knife” instead of a switchblade in a story makes you look pretty sharp. The switchblade is a tired trope. It isn’t 1958 anymore. With an assisted opening knife, a character gets all of the benefits of a classic switchblade with few of the legal restrictions.

If you’re new to knives and want to learn more about them in the real world, start with basic folders and reference the laws in your area. You might even check out the commemorative folding knife celebrating my new Writer’s Digest book that I’m giving away on my website, CrimeFictionBook.com, but that’s up to you.



Benjamin Sobieck is the author of The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, summer 2015) and several crime fiction works. His website is CrimeFictionBook.com.

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Click the book!

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