About once a year, and in some years more often, the issue of gun control and its impact on gun violence and the 2nd Amendment is pushed through the media. It almost always is in conjunction with a mass shooting or some other event of a heinous and barbaric nature that stands out from the day to day criminal activities, such as in the city of Chicago, that the majority of the masses have become inured to.
In fact the 2nd Amendment is one of the most controversial Rights in the nation. It has been referred to, and its application debated, as early as the 1800’s. But perhaps the most relevant Supreme Court case would be the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Court took a more strict understanding of the Amendment and how it applies to public ownership of firearms.
But after several highly publicized mass murder events from 1966 at the University of Texas, to Columbine, to most recently Las Vegas the quest for gun control restrictions has grown. The term “assault weapon,” coined in the 1970’s to describe several military firearms, has expanded to encompass – in common usage – to include virtually any and all firearms. Laws have been pushed through several States, including New York and California and Illinois, presumably to protect the public in reaction. Thus the question that should be asked is if legislation alone is the solution?
Perhaps the first thing is to address the terminology being used. What is an “assault weapon”? In the 1970’s it was clearly defined as a fully automatic firearm, that can be belt or magazine feed, with extremely high rates of fire, that will continuously fire as long as ammunition is available, expressly intended for military use. An example is the Rifleman’s Assault Weapon, developed in 1977 and used by the Marine Corps. It should be noted that fully automatic firearms have been highly regulated, and overwhelming excluded from public access, since 1934.
It was roughly 1985, in a Bill by California State Assembly, that began the modern conflation of “assault weapons” and semi-automatic rifles. To define a semi-automatic firearm, it is a firearm that can be magazine fed, that reloads the next round in a firearm as each round is fired, but is not a continuous rate of fire. Virtually every modern rifle is classified as a semi-automatic. The distinction is not subtle, and news media are supposed to note the difference, as mentioned in the Washington Post in 2013. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, many gun control advocates has blurred, or wholesale ignored, the difference.
Thus, what was originally a military term, exclusive of civilian access or use, is now confused with civilian firearms. Many find this conflating and confusion of terms to be a purposive act meant to evoke images of action movie excesses and prejudice public opinion.
It should also be noted that virtually all media and politicians use the terms gun owners and firearm ownership synonymously. Further, firearm owners are implied to uniformly be rifle owners by media and social media posts, without regard to handgun, shotguns, or other firearms. This oversimplification and generalization has no confirmed nor credible verification in fact.
The next thing to be addressed are firearms and owners. Currently it is estimated that there are around 300 million legal firearms in America. According to the highly cited Pew Research report from 2013 a range of 270 million to 310 million firearms exist. A 2015 article by the Washington Post estimated that the figure could be as high as 357 million firearms. These numbers include all firearms: handguns, shotguns, and rifles. Thus it can be said that there are at least as many firearms as people in the United States.
The number of gun owners is harder to determine. Partially as this is almost always expressed as a percentage rather than a hard number. Add to this that there is no definitive national database of gun ownership. Another factor is that many news media use varying sources for reporting, some using data nearly a decade old (from 1999 where sources range from 34-46%) to more recent figures such as 2016 USA Today article citing a Harvard report claiming 22% (55 million Americans) own firearms, to polling indicating 48% (September 2017 NBC poll).
The only conclusion that can be credibly drawn from this data is that a substantive minority of Americans own firearms of some sort, and have done so for generations at the least. This pool of firearm owners may well be the reason for the famous quote attributed to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto “You cannot invade mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind each blade of grass.”
Given these terms and facts, let’s address gun control restrictions. The premise is that by creating redundant and numerous laws to restrict firearm ownership gun violence will be limited, if not eliminated. Inclusive and essential to this thought is the specific and targeted restriction of semi-automatic rifles.
Laws such as the SAFE Act, enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York State on January 2013, were a reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. Like many laws put into place at that time and since, the key components of the law are restrictions to ownership of rifles, and to a lesser extent other firearms, that have several features that pro-gun restriction advocates support. These components of law are: limits to magazine size; pistol grip; telescoping stock; Bayonet and grenade launcher mounts; and flash suppressors. These targeted set of criteria are more commonly called “military style” features. This is meant to refer to and visualize motion picture depictions of assault firearms. This reliance on “military style” directly goes to the opposition argument posed by Josh Sugarmann who stated “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons — anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun — can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”
The logic is therefore, if a firearm looks menacing it should be banned to enhance public safety. This can be said as a folding stock and pistol grip have no impact on functionality of any firearm. Bayonet and grenade mounts are expressly military use items, but additionally have no impact of usage or effectiveness of a firearm. The same is true of flash suppressors.
Additional features commonly attributed as “military style” and components of “assault firearms” are features that are common historic improvements to firearms. These include threaded barrels – also known as barrel rifling, created in 1498, to increase range and accuracy. The importance of the look of a semi-automatic rifle may be most clearly identified by 2 separate legislations.
The first is the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Ban. Its reliance on “military style” and “menacing looks” resulted in the curious if not illogical ban of the Colt AR-15. This is a civilian version of the M-16 that is familiar to members of the military and anyone who has seen an action movie since the 1980’s. The failure of the logic, and reliance on looks over function alone, becomes apparent when it is understood that the Ruger Mini-14 rifle was not banned. The function and capabilities of both rifles are exact in all details. The only difference is the cosmetic look for the firearms.
The second example is the reliance of the Connecticut gun restriction law on brand names. The full list can be seen here. It should be noted that besides look, the Connecticut law outlaws, by definition, virtually every hunting firearm in existence in the modern era –
E) Any semiautomatic firearm regardless of whether such firearm is listed in subparagraphs (A) to (D), inclusive, of this subdivision, and regardless of the date such firearm was produced, that meets the following criteria:
(i) A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following:
(III) A forward pistol grip;
(ii) A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the ability to accept more than ten rounds;
(III) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to fire the firearm without being burned, except a slide that encloses the barrel;
States that use this and similar, often even more comprehensive, restrictive laws include: California, Massachuesetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York. Regions with extreme restrictions on firearms include: D.C. and Chicago.
An additional item that should be mentioned here is the 2013 Executive Order of President Obama, allowing medical professionals to ask and apparently report, firearm ownership as a part of Obamacare (ACA). What the purpose of doctors documenting ownership has on preventing gun violence and mass killings is unknown and has never been clearly stated.
Finally, special attention should be made to NY Penal Law 265.15.html which presumes guilt and commission of a crime by merely possessing firearms –
“6. The possession of five or more firearms by any person is presumptive evidence that such person possessed the firearms with the intent to sell same.”
Given these actions, addressing the look of a firearm and mere possession as well as the broadest classifications of firearms and documentation of ownership, has the public become safer? No. Empirically, the only answer is no.
Though not nationally highlighted in a manner seen with mass shootings, the city of Chicago remains one of the deadliest places on Earth. Since 2012 over 14,000 people have been victims of gun violence. On average, in the 274 days of 2017 ending Oct 1st, there have been 10.5 gun violence victims per day. This is a 22.8% increase over the 6 year daily average of 8.62/day. Chicago is considered one of the most restrictive locations in regard to firearm ownership.
In fact, according FBI crime statistics (Crime in US 2014, 2015, 2016 – figures to follow) for the States of California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York – 4 of the strongest gun restriction States – gun control laws show virtually no impact. After enactment of laws to react to mass shootings, like the aforementioned SAFE Act, all States show higher firearm murders than the 3 yr average in all but Connecticut. At the same time murders due to knives and bare hands show the exact same occurrences.
Deaths due to rifles in 2016, the primary target of gun restriction legislation under the “assault weapon” mantra, are virtually unchanged versus the 3 yr average in each of these States, except in Illinois (which has doubled). Handgun murders in Connecticut and New York were unchanged, with California and Illinois having increases. In all 4 States, murders due to knives, by hand, and all other means not otherwise listed (bombs, cars, ect.) were significantly higher than rifles and shotguns.
|FBI Murder Data||Firearm murders||Handguns||Rifles||Shotguns||Knives||By hand||Other|
Factually, increases in the number of gun restriction legislations have done nothing to improve the safety of residents of States with the most extreme laws. Equally, murders by means other than firearms has been unaffected and untargeted by those claiming to seek the safety of the public.
There is no quick fix to the problem of mass shootings. As identified by Professor James Allan Fox,
“Over the thirty-year time frame, an average of about 20 mass murders have occurred annually in the United States with an average death toll of about 100 per year.”
Though social media and a 24 hour news cycle may make these horrific events seem more prevalent, there has been no real change to historic trends. This includes when federal bans are in place and when they are not. According to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com, based on FBI data, the 13 year trend from 2000-2013 shows 12 incidents per year with an average of 3 people killed per incident or 36 annually. The agency counted 160 such incidents from 2000 to 2013 in which a total of 557 people were wounded and 486 killed. It should be noted that the FBI, looking at an even shorter timeframe of 7 years, claimed an increase in incidents.
FiveThirtyEight further concluded than in an analysis of 33,000 firearm related deaths, there is no singular solution.
The causes vary, and situations affect different groups of people in different ways. Most of all, mass shootings are separate of all other forms of gun violence. If we focus on mass shootings as a means of understanding how to reduce the number of people killed by guns in this country, we’re likely to implement laws that don’t do what we want them to do — and miss opportunities to make changes that really work. Gun violence isn’t one problem, it’s many. And it probably won’t have a single solution, either.
Ultimately, the reality returns to the same conclusion. Creating more gun restriction laws won’t prevent gun violence or mass shootings. This methodology has failed to prevent the Orlando, San Bernadino, and now Las Vegas shootings. There is no data nor information to suggest that even more laws will create a different result in the future.