[ 2015 Edit: It has been more than three years since this article first received more than 500,000 views. Since that time, the Manchin-Toomey background check bill has failed. New tragedies each year dredge up the same old arguments. Gun homicide is at its lowest point in decades, yet gun control advocates claim a "mass shooting epidemic". As usual, a congressional study found just the opposite. History repeats. ]
Between Two Worlds
It’s not easy being a "Leftist" who loves guns. It’s like being a Republican who listens to NPR or supports single payer health care. But being involved with the political Left, I get exposed to liberal publications and media that invariably call for gun control every time someone does something stupid with one. Being a gun enthusiast, I also get exposed to the political Right’s oversimplification of those liberals as somehow lacking moral fiber or true appreciation of freedom. Rather than agreeing with both, I tend to end up arguing with both. It’s exhausting to always feel like I’m apologizing for the other “side”.
This article takes a point of view, but aims to do so in a way that members of both sides of the political spectrum can understand. I’ll try to give some idea as to why we on the political left roll our eyes at the rhetoric of the NRA, and how we in the “gun culture” can possibly defend something called “assault weapons”.
We all know the cycle by now: Tragic incident occurs, both sides attempt to use it for their political gain, both sides act shocked that the other would attempt to use it for political gain, insults are flung, statistics are cherry-picked, rinse, repeat.
There was a time when the cycle was broken. For 10 years (1994-2004), federal law banned the production and sale of "assault weapons". In order to get around to why this was an absolute and utter failure in its attempt to deter violent crime, I have to start with mass shootings.
I’m just going to submit this uncomfortable truth to both camps up front, with the vain hope that it will not sound callous:
Mass shootings are a tiny, tiny problem. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t utterly horrifying in more than one way. People’s lives are destroyed, both literally and figuratively. What I mean to say is that if we were to prioritize our political attention to topics according to how many lives were at stake, mass shootings wouldn’t even be on the radar.
Factoring in the rate of death caused by mass shootings from Columbine to the present (about 210 people in 13 years), it will be more than 300 years until we reach the number of casualties that occur from accidental drownings every single year in this country. In a little more than 150 years from now, we’ll approach the number of people who are poisoned to death every single year in this country. Sometime in 2014 we might surpass the number of people struck by lightning every single year in this country.
Which is to say that mass shootings are incredibly rare and don’t kill a lot of people when they do happen.
It is tempting to ask why accidental drowning is not 340 times more important a social issue than gun control. Or why poisoning isn’t 150 times as pressing a political issue. (If the number of people dying is truly what’s important, almost anything would be more pressing.) The problem is not hard to understand though, and rests in a concept known as the “logical fallacy of misleading vividness”.
The fallacy of misleading vividness is when the thought, imagery or reality of something is so emotionally potent – positively or negatively – that you begin to overestimate the likelihood and frequency of its occurrence. This is why many people are afraid to fly. They can understand intellectually that crashes almost never happen, and that airplanes are statistically the safest way to travel, but the idea of being torn apart mid-air, or knowing that they’re about to die for a full two minutes in freefall, or being dragged under the ocean while stuck inside the cabin is so vivid and disturbing, that they actually experience intense fear about a process that is safer than their drive to the airport.
This is what happens to us collectively as a nation when mass shootings occur. Yes, it is terrible, for both the person who was so disturbed and all the people they harmed. It puts on graphic display the absolute worst aspects of our culture, which is painful to watch.
However, it is also an incredible statistical deviation from the norm, objectively inflicting far less suffering and death than many other ways that people are far more likely to die. This is an important point. When our policy becomes based on emotional content rather than facts, we are heading in the wrong direction.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how things are in the world of guns and how they got to be that way.
Obama & the NRA: Frenemies of the State
It is a running joke in gun-interest circles that Obama is the “gun salesman of the year”. From the moment he won the Democratic nomination, gun sales in the US surged dramatically. If the joke were more honest, he might be called “gun salesman of the decade”. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the economic impact of the firearm industry grew more than 50% (from $19 billion to $31 billion) between 2008 and 2011 In 2010, a record was set for the number of background checks filed for firearm purchases. That record was broken again in 2011.
All of this was largely the result of a campaign by gun rights advocates like the NRA to convince the country that Obama would be a gun control activist. To be sure, their concerns weren’t entirely baseless. In a 2004 NPR interview, then-senator Obama clearly stated that he not only supported the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, but that he would “continue to support a ban on concealed carry laws” altogether. The administration reaffirmed its support of the assault weapons ban in 2009.
But, lacking political capital, Obama made no such push for gun control legislation. In fact, quite the opposite. During his first term he signed laws making it legal for people to carry concealed weapons in National Parks and in their checked luggage on Amtrak trains, provided they met their state’s requirements to do so. As a result, the Brady Campaign, the leading gun control lobbying group, gave Obama an “F” rating. When the administration was asked about how it would respond to the Aurora shooting, the first words out of spokesman Jay Carney’s mouth were, “We plan to uphold the second amendment.” When the Sikh shooting happened, his press conference informed people that the President “will continue to instruct his administration to take action towards common-sense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens but make it harder and harder for those who should not have weapons under existing law to obtain them”.
Despite this conspicuously moderate viewpoint, the NRA continues to stoke the flames of fear, promising that once Obama is reelected to a second term, he’ll have no reason to hold back on the gun control legislation he’s been wanting to implement since 2004. In fact, at a recent CPAC conference in Florida, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre went so far as to suggest, without offering any evidence, that Obama’s failure to act on gun control has been a “massive Obama conspiracy” to postpone his attack on the second amendment until his second term. While I appreciate the NRA’s vigilance on an issue I feel strongly about, I can’t help but think that it is rants like this that make much of the populace totally unable to identify with the organization.
Meanwhile, the Aurora shooting, like all shootings, has revived the cries for gun control from the political Left. At a loss for somewhere to direct their grief, outrage and sense of justice after such a senseless tragedy, they are again calling for renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. If a second Obama administration will have the political capital to promote any gun control legislation at all, it will be the renewal of this ban. It will therefore benefit anyone interested in gun politics to review what the assault weapons ban was, what it was not, and how it affected (or failed to affect) the nation.
Creating the Category
How Do I Look?
The most important question, of course, is: “What exactly is an assault weapon?”
The term was specifically designed to conjure images of military machine guns, but for those totally unfamiliar with firearms, it should be made clear that automatic weapons (those that fire more than one bullet with each pull of the trigger) are already illegal for the average citizen to own. They are heavily regulated by the federal government, registered with the ATF and very difficult to obtain licenses for. Almost no crime is ever committed with them.
So in 1994, legislators were forced to ask themselves, “What exactly will this ban do away with?” The category of “assault weapon” didn’t actually exist, and this was an opportunity for gun control advocates to create it, to say exactly what they wanted off the streets.
As it turns out, they were mostly opposed to things they saw in movies. Which is to say that most of the features that now defined “assault weapons” had to do with form and not function, totally sidestepping the issue of violent crime altogether. Three quick examples:
1) Stock Manipulation
This is the Ruger 10/22. It has been in production since 1964 and is one of the most popular rifles in the country.
It is an ideal first rifle, small and manageable, which is why my parents bought one for me in my mid teens. It is well-made, inexpensive and easy to maintain. Its small caliber (.22) means that it is cheap to shoot and has almost no recoil. It can be used for very small game hunting (foxes, rabbits, etc) or varmint control, but is generally a sport (target shooting) gun.
What you see is also an assault weapon.
Not because of anything it actually does, but because of the stock. You might be able to tell that it is hinged, allowing it to fold up against the rest of the gun. This was one feature of an “assault weapon”, according to the new law. Another was the grip, which is vertical like a pistol rather than horizontal. A non-“assault” Ruger 10/22 looks like this:
There is not a single difference in the functioning of these two firearms. All the moving parts that make up the actual firing mechanisms are identical. The diminutive size of the ammunition means that it isn’t even recommended for self defense purposes. But the ban was far more concerned with the way guns looked than their ability to actually assault anything.
Can you tell the difference between these two guns?
The gun on the right has a slightly longer barrel, which is threaded to allow a suppressor or other accessory to screw on. This too was now illegal. Suppressors are usually called “silencers” by the general public, though they do no such thing. (That little *ptew* sound you hear in the movies whenever a gun with a “silencer” is fired? It was dreamed up entirely by the film industry.)
As an acquaintance of mine wrote:
In the early 20th century, before guns lost social acceptability and marksmanship was publicly encouraged, people with enough space were known to practice in their back yards. No one wants to annoy their neighbor with fusillades of afternoon gunfire, so the Maxim Silencer found success being marketed as a relatively inoffensive and civilized way to increase shooting proficiency.
In addition to being polite, home defense uses also prevent the temporary or permanent loss of hearing that can occur when firing a pistol indoors, while also reducing recoil and eliminating muzzle flash, which can be temporarily blinding or disorienting.
Modern criminals have never really used suppressors (because they're bulky, expensive, and don't actually make the gun silent), and its hard to understand where the gun control crowd were getting their ideas about the world if not from bad movies. Did they really think that assassins were creeping around executing people with silent pistols? Surely not. Nonetheless, one of the pistols you see above is an “assault weapon”, while the other is not.
As it turns out, even the most vociferous and high-ranking gun control advocates didn’t actually know what was being legislated. After the Virginia Tech massacre, Democratic House representative Carolyn McCarthy went on MSNBC to explain why she had introduced legislation even more extensive than the elapsed Federal Assault Weapons Ban. After some discussion, Tucker Carlson picked a banned feature from the list – a barrel shroud – and asked her to explain what it was and why it should be regulated.
After some hemming and hawing she admitted that she had no idea what her own legislation was referring to, but made a wild guess anyway: "the shoulder thing that goes up". And thus another gun-culture joke was born:
For those interested, a barrel shroud is simply a metal cover that prevents the operator of a firearm from burning their hands on a hot barrel.
It would have been interesting to me if Carlson had explained the barrel shroud, and then asked again how cooler barrels contributed to violent crime. It is hard to imagine what her response could possibly have been. But it looks mean, and this was apparently what mattered to whoever actually wrote the legislation.
These are some examples of what the ban in question covered. Perhaps most tellingly, semi-automatic (legal) versions of automatic firearms were banned just because they looked like illegal guns. This says it all.
When the category of “assault weapon” had finally been conjured into being, all of its included firearms together accounted for less than 2% involvement in violent crime. None of them had any more functionality than a hunting rifle. It couldn’t have been clearer that this was a war founded on image rather than reality.
The foreshadowing of just how much it wouldn’t accomplish was clear. Years later, a study of the ban’s effectiveness by the National Institute of Justice seemed to scratch its head out loud that “[a]lthough the weapons banned by this legislation were used only rarely in gun crimes before the ban, supporters felt that these weapons posed a threat to public safety…”
There was only one banned feature that had anything to do with practical function.
“High Capacity” Magazines
The ban on “large capacity ammunition feeding devices” was the most far reaching aspect of the legislation, as it applied to magazines for all guns, not just guns that were illegal due to other cosmetic features. Again, the question became: “What exactly is a high capacity magazine?” No such thing had been defined, and an arbitrary number of rounds would have to be selected.
Legislators settled on the number 10 for rifles and pistols, while 5 shells would be the maximum for a shotgun.
The strongest focus by gun control advocates in the wake of various shootings has been a return to these limits on magazine size. (During Carol McCarthy’s question-avoidance in the above video, notice that her stump speech is an assertion of the importance of banning high capacity magazines. This has been duplicated on countless news and talk programs, blogs and websites, especially those that lean politically to the Left.) The idea is that if mass shooters have larger magazines, they will be able to kill more people before police or an armed citizen can intervene.
Keeping in mind the statistical rarity and relatively tiny death toll of mass shootings to begin with, is this true? Will high capacity bans lower the number of people killed in mass shootings? All we have to do is look at one of the deadliest shootings in the world: the Virginia Tech massacre.
With one pistol of 10-round capacity and one pistol of 15-round capacity, Cho killed more people than anyone has ever killed in a single U.S. shooting incident. He didn’t need any massive magazines or custom weapons. The embarrassingly simple reason that magazine size restrictions can’t lessen the lethality of mass shooters is that it doesn’t matter how many rounds fit in a magazine if a shooter has multiple magazines. When one runs out, they can simply drop it and pop another in, a process which takes five seconds at most. (Less than half a second, if you happen to be this guy.) Cho was able to carry out this massacre because he carried a backpack containing 19 magazines, a fact not well-publicized.
Of course, most pistols hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. In preparation for this article I asked a gun dealer to guess what percentage of new pistols came standard with magazines of more than 10 round capacity. His estimate was 70-75%, and he took model after model out of the display case to illustrate. The most popular (best selling) handgun in the world, the Glock 17, holds 17 rounds of 9mm ammunition. In fact, after looking at all available Glock models, I found that less than half them even had magazines smaller than 10 rounds available at all.
This is the model I own, a Ruger P95. It’s a standard sized pistol, small enough for me to regularly carry concealed. It was made to hold 16 rounds, more than either of the standard-sized magazines used by Cho.
My point here is that “high capacity” magazines are not some specialty aftermarket part that criminals obtain shadily over the internet. They were defined arbitrarily into existence, and before the ban were considered standard production to give consumers a decent product. (If you’ve made the decision to be an armed citizen to defend your self, home or family to begin with, why would you want less capacity than you could practically fit into one mag?)
Bottom line: Whether you have two magazines that hold 15 rounds, three mags that hold 10 rounds, or 5 mags that hold 6 rounds, you’ll be able to shoot all 30 bullets accurately in about 20 seconds. Can I prove it? Sure. Here’s an experienced shooter and a novice each trying all three of these combinations with time comparisons.
I have already discussed why I do not believe that mass shootings should guide our policy to begin with, but this clearly eliminates the claims of gun control advocates on magazine capacity aiding mass shooters.
And yet, I can almost hear the voices I have heard before, asking whether it is realistic to think that people actually defend their homes with “assault rifles” that have “high capacity” magazines. This is strange, because as I have shown, all of these guns do exactly the same thing, but I'll post a few examples anyway.
The gun used to defend both of these places was an AR-15, the same gun Holmes used in Auarora, banned for production because there existed models of it elsewhere that were automatic.
This ban presented gun control legislators with another huge problem, which can’t be overstated.
There were millions of these “assault weapons” already owned by Americans (the AR-15 alone is the most popular rifle in the country), and far more high-capacity magazines. In order to actually ban them, the government had to do one of two things:
1) Turn many thousands of law-abiding citizens into felons overnight, even though the guns were legal at the time of purchase or receipt.
2) Demand that the whole country surrender 1.5 million guns and millions of magazines.
Both options were practically and politically impossible, especially the latter. Images of the federal government confiscating and destroying the firearms of veterans, families and law-abiding Americans would not sell to most of the nation, and in some areas, might result in open revolt or civil unrest. It would also ignore a fundamental flaw with gun control legislation in general – that people willing to abide by laws aren’t the ones we should be concerned about.
The predicament resulted in what is generally referred to as the “grandfather clause”. It essentially meant that all “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazines manufactured before the ban remained legal to own, sell and use.
To reiterate, millions of these banned firearms and high capacity magazines were legal to own and sell during the ban.
This meant that prices for these firearms and magazines shot up along with demand. Manufacturers had churned out as many soon-to-be-banned items as they could before it went into effect, then sold them at nearly twice what they had originally cost. Individual dealers who had already stocked up made small fortunes. You might even say that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was the gun salesman of that particular decade.
10 Years Later
When the ban expired in 2004, everyone was anxious to study the results. Had it reduced crime? How could it have?
The National Institute of Justice found that the ban hadn’t reduced gun crime or crime involving “high capacity” magazines, and that the effects of renewing the ban were “likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” It then added: “Assault weapons were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.”
The Center for Disease Control released a study of gun control legislation, including the assault weapons ban and found “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence.”
The National Research Council noted that all of the studies they had looked at “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence” and noted “due to the fact that the relative rarity with which the banned guns were used in crime before the ban … the maximum potential effect of the ban on gun violence outcomes would be very small…”
If there was ever a single quotation that summarized the fears of the gun rights crowd surrounding the “assault weapon” ban, it is this one, written by a gun control advocate:
“No one should have any illusions about what was accomplished [by the ban]. Assault weapons play a part in only a small percentage of crime. The provision is mainly symbolic; its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control.” – Washington Post editorial, September 15, 1994
As we have seen, the battles of gun control have been fought, won and lost with definitions. Categories are created, connotations ascribed with the stroke of a pen. The Brady Campaign, the strongest advocate for these bans, has taken this particular work one step farther since Aurora. They have now redefined “mass shootings” to include all drive-bys involving a shot fired toward three or more people, regardless of whether anyone was even actually hurt, leading them to assert that there are “20 mass shootings every year”. People who follow the news with some regularity may sense that there is something wrong with this statement, but this sort of redefinition does influence many people who don’t have the time or will to investigate such a claim.
It is intentional deceptions like this that have peaceful, gun-loving folks like myself looking over our political shoulders all the time. Add to this the fact that the Brady Campaign strategically changed its name from the more honest designation of “Handgun Control, Inc”, and perhaps it’s easier for the Left to understand why those of us who believe in the importance of ALL of the items in the Bill of Rights (including firearm ownership) are worried about the progressive nature of these bills.
With intentionally dishonest lobbying groups pushing already-failed legislation while calling it a “stepping stone”, we can see the slippery slope right in front of our feet.
If gun control advocates want to actually have meaningful discussion and debate about the “assault weapon” and “high capacity” ban, they MUST address these questions:
– Why ban cosmetic features?
– Why ban guns used in a mere 2% of crime?
– Why base gun control legislation on rare and statistically insignificant mass shootings to begin with?
– Why ban magazines that have been consistently sized since their invention?
– How would banning these magazines have saved lives, given that all a shooter needs is multiple magazines and 3 seconds of time (i.e. Cho)?
– How will a ban on either these weapons or magazines reduce crime, since there are many millions of them legal and available anyway, especially since production has ramped up after the ban’s expiration?
And most importantly:
After a decade of failure, why assume that the bans will reduce violent crime THIS time around?