One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. Take the gun debate. After every mass shooting there are emotional calls for action, heated debates, legislative paralysis, and ultimately nothing is done. We could keep doing the same thing; but if we want to make any progress we need to consider doing something different. But what?

It turns out that when you look at specific measures to curb gun violence there is remarkable agreement on some of them across the political spectrum. For example ―

  • Universal background checks are favored by 92% of American voters, with 92% support among gun owners and 86% support among Republicans.
  • Laws preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns garner 89% support, with 91% support among gun owners.
  • Extended waiting periods to purchase guns is also favored by a majority of gun owners and non gun-owners (57% and 84%, respectively).
  • And raising the age limit for purchasing a gun to 21 is popular with 81% of Americans, overall.

Look at this chart in the New York Times which maps gun control measures to a matrix using effectiveness and popularity.  

Legislators – and presidential candidates – would probably not go wrong choosing gun safety measures in the top two deciles of the chart. At the same time, if they don’t make it clear that they are not going to try to push through the unpopular ones, they will leave themselves open to accusations that they are adopting an incremental approach that has confiscation as its final goal, which will exacerbate opposition to these gun safety measures. Basically, where the “opinion spread” between pro-gun and anti-gun voters is small is where they should focus their efforts. Here is an interactive quiz that shows how close Democratic and Republican voters actually are on various specific gun safety measures.

Part of the problem with passing any legislation is the fear that it is a step toward stricter laws and eventually gun confiscation. This is apparently baffling to gun control advocates who view their opponents’ intransigence as an irrational, knee-jerk reaction to any gun safety measure. However, gun control advocates often make statements that are construed as favoring confiscation; for example, they regularly cite Australia’s approach when discussing gun policy. President Obama mentioned it as a possible model after a shooting in 2015, and during the 2016 campaign Hillary Clinton suggested it was “worth considering.”  Robert Reich has spoken favorably about it in a Facebook video, 5 Points to Counter the NRA.1

Such statements from establishment Democratic politicians and others praising the Australia model certainly leave the impression that they favor gun confiscation. Presumably, they believe such statements are popular with their base; but they have the counter-productive effect of making gun-rights people oppose even otherwise popular measures because they are seen as incremental steps toward more draconian measures. There really is a slippery slope, it’s not just a conservative fantasy, which explains their intransigence on any measure.

“Defeating an expansion of background checks means that the fight next time will once again be about background checks—not the item on the gun-control agenda after background checks. That’s how you defend a status quo you like. It’s reactionary, but given the reach of the administrative and regulatory state these days, not especially conservative.”
New Republic: Slippery Slope Arguments: Not Just for Conservatives Anymore

Even proposals like the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018 (H.R. 5087) introduced last year in the House that explicitly grandfather existing semi-automatic weapons are going to be unpopular with pro-gun people. If you ban the “importation, manufacture, possession, sale or transfer” of such weapons, they reason, the next step is confiscation.

When Democrats at the national level are associated with such an unpopular policy, it creates obstacles for Democratic candidates running in parts of the country that have a more pro-gun orientation.

The Democratic Party platform, which does contain some popular measures like universal background checks, also contains some that are going to be very unpopular, like an assault weapons ban and repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA).

In addition, many of the measures that the Democrats have pushed through are ineffective, or only marginally effective, at addressing the problem of gun violence. For example, the idea of limiting magazine size to 10 rounds is hardly going to affect the incidence of mass shootings, or their lethality. The shooter’s simple expedient is carrying more magazines. Such laws have been found constitutional, but that doesn't mean they do any good.

Beyond selecting measures with broad support, it is necessary to be explicit about which measures legislators do not intend to pursue.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban

What is it that makes a rifle an “assault weapon”? The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which was in effect from 1994–2004, defined “assault weapon” based on certain gun features. But ultimately, what makes the rifle effective is not whether it has a telescoping stock, or a pistol grip, a threaded barrel, or a bayonet mount. It’s that it is semi-automatic and has a detachable magazine. That means there are plenty of rifles that aren’t “assault weapons” that are just as deadly, but which would not be covered by an assault weapons ban.

Can you spot the “assault weapon” below? If you guessed the first one, you are correct. However, the second one is essentially the same rifle. It accepts the same magazines, and shoots the same .223 caliber rounds. The Mini-14 Ranch Rifle is just as lethal as the Tactical version, but it is legal under the definitions of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (both the expired 1994 version and the proposed H.R. 5087). In fact, the Mini-14 Ranch Rifle was the weapon used by Anders Breivik to slaughter 69 people in Norway in 2011. Banning the one with the pistol grip and telescoping stock is useless if the one with the wooden stock remains legal and available. The same thing applies to variants of the AR-15 and AK-47.

Ruger Mini-14 Tactical
Ruger Mini-14 Tactical
Ruger Mini-14 Ranch
Ruger Mini-14 Ranch

It’s the fact that they are semi-automatic that makes them the weapon of choice. All those “features” are basically cosmetic and don’t contribute to the gun’s lethality.

For that matter, 63% of mass shootings have been perpetrated with semi-automatic pistols. The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, with 32 fatalities the worst mass shooting to that date, was perpetrated with a Walther P22 and Glock 19. And in the Ft. Hood attack in 2009, the shooter used a single FN Five-seven to kill 13 and injure over 30. Rifles are not the most common weapon used in mass shootings by a long shot. From 1982–2017, rifles of any kind were only used about 22% of the time, and of those some percentage were not “assault weapons.”

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban had little, if any, effect on gun violence during the 10 years it was in effect. The idea that it did is a myth.  This is open to some interpretation, but here is a good article examining the issue.

In any case, crimes with “assault weapons” make up a very small percentage of gun crimes. Therefore, even if an assault weapons ban were 100% effective (unlikely), and even if potential shooters didn’t simply choose a different weapon (very likely), there would be at best a minuscule decrease in the overall problem of gun violence and mass shootings.

Number of homicides, by weapon, in 2016. Data from FBI

As shown in the diagram above, rifles are only used in 2.5% of total homicides and only 3.4% of homicides with firearms. In 2016 there were only 374 homicides by rifle. (The Gun Violence Archive has a slightly higher number of 429 rifle homicides, of which only 180 were with rifles identified as “assault weapons” by law enforcement.)

The bulk of firearms homicides, over 65%, were due to handguns. The number is probably much higher, since the majority of cases in which the type of firearm is “Unknown” are probably handguns.

In short, even a strict assault weapons ban is not going to put a dent in mass shootings. The deranged individuals who perpetrate them can use rifles or pistols that aren't banned to achieve the same ends, or they can obtain a banned weapon legally (because it was grandfathered in) or obtain one illegally.

The political cost

The political cost of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban turned out to be severe.

“When Congress passed the assault weapons ban, the NRA vowed vengeance. Months later, the Republicans, backed by the still-outraged NRA, romped the Democrats in the midterm election, gaining 54 seats and control of the House for the first time in 40 years. [President Bill] Clinton, for one, believed that voting for the assault weapons ban had cost about 20 House Democrats their seats–meaning that the measure had caused a political backlash that led to a GOP majority in the House.”
MotherJones: What the Fight Over Clinton’s 1994 Assault Weapons Ban Can Teach Obama

Additionally, many people believe it was responsible for Al Gore’s loss to G.W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Like any counter-factual argument, this can’t be proved, but it was certainly a contributing factor. Passing the Assault Weapons Ban was political suicide for the Democrats. If there had been a corresponding benefit in terms of a decrease in gun violence it might have been justified, but that was simply not the case.

Has the situation changed enough between 1994 and 2020 that we can be confident that Democrats advocating an Assault Weapons Ban won't meet the same electoral fate?

Mass shootings

As far as discouraging mass shootings like the one that happened in Parkland, Florida, it’s doubtful that an assault weapons ban would help. If the shooter had used a couple of semi-automatic pistols, or a semi-automatic rifle without any “assault weapon” features, would the toll have been any different? Probably not. Or the attack in Santa Fe, TX, where the shooter, armed with a shotgun and a .38 revolver, killed 10 fellow students. When your targets are unarmed school children at close range, any firearm is going to be devastating. That’s the brutal truth. An assault weapons ban that does not include other “non-assault,” semi-automatic weapons is thus ineffective at preventing or mitigating mass shootings.

Schools are safer than they were in the 90s, and school shootings are not more common than they used to be. If that sounds wrong it may be because the mainstream media are pushing the opposite narrative, and some politicians are eager to jump on board. Obviously, even one school shooting is a tragedy. But it is a very rare tragedy.

“[It] is nearly impossible to design a policy that can bring the incidence of an already exceptionally rare crime down to zero — and given the inherently limited nature of legislative time and resources, it would make little sense to prioritize such a marginal and difficult issue over public health challenges that kill exponentially more people.”
New York Magazine: There Is No ‘Epidemic of Mass School Shootings’

Overall, mass shootings are a bad way to understand gun violence, because they happen rarely. Their contribution to the total number of firearms deaths is small (about 2.2% in 2017) compared to the large number of homicides that occur day to day. That day-to-day killing disproportionately impacts the African-American community.

“Mass shootings, unsurprisingly, drive the national debate on gun violence. But as horrific as these massacres are, by most counts they represent less than 1 percent of all gun homicides. America’s high rate of gun murders isn’t caused by events like Sandy Hook or the shootings this fall at a community college in Oregon. It’s fueled by a relentless drumbeat of deaths of black men.“Gun control advocates and politicians frequently cite the statistic that more than 30 Americans are murdered with guns every day. What’s rarely mentioned is that roughly 15 of the 30 are black men.”
Pro Publica: How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives’

A Semi-automatic Ban

The measure that would actually reduce gun violence, at least hypothetically, would be a total ban on semi-automatic rifles and pistols. This is the path that Australia took, using a forced buy-back to confiscate over 600,000 weapons. This is the only way the US could attain low, European levels of gun violence.

However, this is a very unpopular proposition among gun owners, to say the least. Even a ban on new sales that grandfathered in existing weapons will be bitterly opposed by millions of Americans. Besides being unpopular it is impractical. It’s a political non-starter. But it has to be mentioned because some people are calling for it, or inadvertently call for it when they demand something like the Australian model.

Trying to enact a law like this would have some or all of the following consequences:

  1. A nasty, emotional and potentially violent fight in which Americans were pitted against each other.
  2. An immediate legal challenge. In the unlikely event that the case progressed as far as the Supreme Court, given the current makeup of the court and its recent decisions, it’s easy to imagine the law being struck down, thus setting a precedent. In order for a ban to be effective it would probably have to be unconstitutional.
  3. If it were not struck down, there would be the question of enforcing it. Presumably, police would be forced to find and confiscate people’s guns when they didn’t comply voluntarily. What could possibly go wrong? There might be violent resistance, justifying increasingly heavy-handed government action.
  4. Gun sales typically surge prior to the implementation of new regulations, flooding the market and filling the coffers of gun manufacturers.
  5. There would be an increase in black market gun sales and gun smuggling, and probably illegal gun manufacturing. It's not that hard to build your own AR-15. We could end up with a much more lethal version of Prohibition.
  6. Some states might try to make it difficult or impossible to enforce the federal law. What would happen if a state refused to enforce a federal law?
  7. Significant costs, if a buyback program were implemented. There are millions of privately owned semi-automatic weapons in the United States. According to this estimate, there are 3,750,000 AR-15-type rifles in the United States today. That represents approximately 1% of the total firearms ownership of 310 million, and that’s only talking about one specific type of rifle. That would mean spending $1.9 billion dollars just on buying back AR-15-types (at $500 per rifle, which is a below-market price).

One may believe the unintended consequences of such a law are manageable or are worth the cost. However, people who blithely advocate for an assault weapons ban or a semi-automatic ban often seem not to have really thought it through. It is really incumbent on people calling for these types of laws to address the likely outcomes, and possible consequences.

Politics

Part of the problem is that gun violence is a “hot button” issue for establishment Democrats and Republicans. It’s a dependable tool to drive their base to the polls. Neither party wants to give it up because polarization serves a purpose. There is more purely political value in not compromising than in passing the best legislation that can be negotiated, and then moving on.

Democrats have more to gain, politically, by proposing unpopular legislation and failing than in winning by passing broadly popular and effective measures. Meanwhile, Republicans have more to gain by preventing Democrats from passing any gun safety measure.

There is also a very real possibility that Democrats in Congress will be outmaneuvered on this issue by President Trump. Trump has in the past been a proponent of gun control. There is no reason to believe he would not go against the NRA by passing some of the measures that are actually popular among gun owners (as he did with bump stocks). Conversely, he could use the issue to activate his base by claiming, regardless of whether it were true, that the Democrats “are coming for your guns.”

On the other hand, if Democrats were to cease being seen as the “anti-gun” party, it would take away one of the Republicans’ main talking points in our domestic culture war.

Trying to pass a new Assault Weapons Ban seems particularly short-sighted. If the Democrats try and fail they will have wasted valuable time and resources, suffered a significant political setback, and accomplished nothing. If they succeed it will have been at potentially great political cost, for a result that will have an insignificant impact on the problem of mass killings and gun violence in general. It is a high risk, low reward, endeavor.

If Democrats don’t intend to implement some kind of national ban on semi-automatic rifles and pistols, then it would be a good idea to definitively take it off the table. And if they do intend to pursue such a course, then they need to be clear about what exactly they are proposing, and how they expect to deal with the legal, social and political issues that are certain to arise.

The pragmatic position at this time is an acceptance, whether grudging or enthusiastic, that the Second Amendment applies to semi-automatic weapons. Then we can get on with taking measures at the federal level that are popular across the political spectrum that don’t infringe the Second Amendment ― as it has been interpreted by recent court decisions.

I hope candidates in the Democratic primaries – especially those who are challenging the establishment – will support popular gun safety measures and not jump on the bandwagon of unpopular and misguided proposals. We have an unusual opportunity in 2020 to break from the failed policies of the past.

To win in the general election, the Democratic candidate will need to appeal to voters in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Iowa, which happen to have strong pro-gun cultures. Favoring popular measures like Universal Background Checks may garner votes, but running on the ineffective and unpopular ones like the Assault Weapons Ban is running a needless risk.

Finally, people need to realize that the fact that they are really, really upset by the latest mass shooting does not constitute a logical argument for implementing any arbitrary gun control measure. Anguished calls for political action may be cathartic, but they are counter-productive. People also need to realize that by calling for those measures that are ineffective and unpopular, they are strengthening the resolve of pro-gun activists to resist any gun safety measure. Forgive the metaphor, but a lot of well-intentioned gun control advocates are shooting themselves in the foot.

Let’s stop doing what has not been working.


1. The Robert Reich video asserts that the Assault Weapons Ban resulted in a 37% reduction in Gun Massacres, and its lapse resulted in a 200+% surge in 2004.The data on this question is inconclusive, at best. See Did the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban work? Reich did not respond to a request for clarification.