The politics of banning “assault weapons”

Had a good discussion with a professor friend at lunch today about the over-focus on banning “assault weapons.”  Of course, the whole idea of “assault weapon” is very much a vague one.  That said, reasonable people could agree that it is a high-powered, semi-automatic rifle with a high-capacity magazine.  That is a weapon designed for killing large numbers of people.  Not one designed for hunting, personal defense (unless you are attacked by a zombie horde), etc.  Thing is, though, it is really the high-capacity magazine that makes these weapons so lethal.  Give all the mass murderers a six-shot revolver and there’s presumably be a lot less victims of mass murder (and I also strongly suspect a six-shot revolver would do the trick for self-defense in >99% of situations).

You don’t need an assault rifle to be really lethal. Just a modern gun that holds lots of ammunition.  The previous high for mass murder was the Virginia Tech shooter who simply had two semi-automatic pistols.  If it’s hard to get an AR-15 (or similar, of course), you can do just as much damage with a Glock 9.  I really cannot think of any reason the carnage in Orlando would have been less had the shooter been using a handgun or two with high-capacity magazines.

So, rationally, I think it makes a hell of a lot of sense to focus on ammunition capacity as a first step.  That’s the argument Alex Yablon makes in Slate:

 Today, many experts instead believe the most effective means to lessen the carnage in attacks like the one in Orlando is to ban high-capacity magazines. These devices feed semi-automatic firearms, including handguns, large amounts of ammunition, allowing shooters to fire for longer before reloading. While assault-style rifles like the AR-15 could increase the lethality of an attack in some situations, they say, it is high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire dozens of shots without stopping.

Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives said the Orlando shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle, which fires as quickly as its user can pull the trigger and can be equipped with detachable magazines that hold any number of rounds. The Orlando shooter used 30-round magazines, according to the ATF, which are illegal in a handful of states but not in Florida. That almost certainly contributed to the high body count, since the shooter did not have to pause to reload as frequently as he would have with a smaller magazine…

Though assault weapons have become a potent symbol of mass shootings, bans of that style of gun are a “distraction,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and the author of Gunfight. For starters, he says, it didn’t actually stop manufacturers from selling assault rifles. Because the 1994 ban defined weapons based on “cosmetic” features like pistol grips or collapsible stocks, gun-makers evaded these restrictions by removing just enough design features so as to not trigger the ban. Meanwhile, the weapons remained semi-automatic and could still accept magazines of any size.

Winkler says he believes a ban on magazines that hold lots of ammunition would be a more effective strategy in limiting the carnage from a mass shooting. “It makes far more sense to focus on high-capacity magazines than assault rifles,” he says. Winkler notes that it’s not the style of a gun but “the size of a magazine [that’s] associated with the amount of damage a weapon can cause.” …

Restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are supported by a small majority of Americans. A poll conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in March 2015 found that 63 percent of all Americans favored assault weapon bans, and 60 percent favored banning the sale of high-capacity magazines.

Here’s the thing, though.  As we all know, in politics, symbolism really matters.  And there’s a huge symbolism to “assault weapons.”  Pretty much everybody intuitively understands that these weapons go far beyond what anybody would need for self defense and are generally modified on military weapons specifically designed to kill large numbers of humans.  I think, politically, there may be more opportunity for actually making progress against high-capacity, semi-automatic rifles.  And at this point, if we are ever going to have any half-sane gun policies, pretty much anything would be a good start.  Would I prefer politicians focus more on magazine size?  Absolutely.  But at this point, I’ll take energy behind more sane gun policies, period.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The politics of banning “assault weapons”

  1. R.Jenrette says:

    I agree that a more effective method of reducing the number of gun deaths and injuries would be limiting the number of bullets in the magazines.
    Remember that in the shooting around Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the gunman had stopped to reload. Bystanders took the opportunity to rush the gunman and get the gun out of his hands.
    That same shooting incident also demonstrated the weakness is relying on armed bystanders to shoot back and bring down the shooter. In the news coverage, a young man with a gun rushed out of the nearby drug store and took aim at the person holding the gun. In his own words, he described how he almost fired until others kept saying not to shoot, that that person was not the gunman. In the rush on the shooter, the gun was dropped and one of the rushers picked it up. He was the one the good guy with a gun was aiming at.
    Fortunately, he listened and held his fire. Another good guy in a similar situation might have shot an innocent person, one who had intervened to disarm the shooter.
    I agree that if an incremental step toward the goal is available, take it. Then work on to make more progress, step by step if necessary, to achieve the final goal.
    Hmmm – somehow that seems like the same approach I’ve heard recently on achieving other goals.

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