For the last decade or two any discussion of gun policy has been relegated to people who are either paranoid or ignorant. The gun rights advocates are paranoid; the gun control advocates are ignorant. Both are passionate.
I’m not trying to be insulting here. When I say gun rights folks are paranoid, I mean their passionate defense of firearms isn’t grounded in reality. They have a completely irrational belief that they need powerful weaponry to defend themselves against their own government and an equally irrational fear that the government intends to seize all their weapons. And when I say gun control advocates are ignorant, I mean that despite their passionate concern for the welfare and safety of their fellow citizens, the vast majority of them have little or no experience with firearms and often don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
Passion is good for debate. Paranoia and ignorance — not so much.
Here’s an example of what I mean about ignorance among gun control advocates. In an editorial in the LA Times today Steve Lopez writes the following:
In this country, you can legally buy assault weapons.
No, you can’t (see note). You cannot walk into a gun shop and buy an assault weapon. An assault weapon is a military weapon; it’s a gun capable of fully automatic fire. If you hold the trigger down, a fully automatic weapon will continue to fire rounds until the ammunition is exhausted. But it’s NOT a machine gun. A machine gun is only capable of automatic fire; it’s either on ‘safe’ or ‘automatic’. That’s it. An assault rifle has the capacity for selective fire: single rounds, bursts of three rounds, or full auto.
Gun rights advocates know what an assault rifle is. If a gun control advocate gets into a discussion with a gun rights advocate and starts barking about assault weapons or machine guns, the gun rights advocate can legitimately disregard what the gun control advocate is saying because he clearly doesn’t have a clue about firearms. If chef Mario Batali hears a person talking about Kraft Mac & Cheez as Italian cuisine, he can rightly ignore him.
So no, you can’t legally buy an assault weapon in the US. You can, though, walk into a gun shop and buy a semi-automatic firearm based on the design of an assault weapon. A semi-automatic weapon is one that fires a single round every time you pull the trigger. If you want to shoot, say, 30 rounds you have to pull the trigger 30 times.
Gun control advocates need to understand the technology they want to regulate. In the past, their ignorance.has led to stupid gun policies. For example, Lopez also writes:
There used to be a federal ban on assault weapons, but it died in 2004
No, there wasn’t a federal ban on assault weapons. There was a federal law that banned a group of weapons that looked like assault weapons. It was, in many ways, stupid policy. The law restricted the sale of weapons that had at least two characteristics from a laundry list of military-style attributes — characteristics like a pistol grip on a rifle or a bayonet mount. Those attributes were essentially cosmetic; they had absolutely nothing to do with the lethality of the weapon.
For example, you couldn’t buy an AR-15, but you could buy a Mini-Ruger. The difference between the weapons are largely differences in cosmetic design. Both fire .223 caliber rounds, both are capable of semi-automatic fire, both can utilize high capacity magazines, both are equally lethal. But the AR-15 looks more brutal and militaristic.
The so-called ‘assault weapons ban’ was instituted by people with good intentions but inadequate information. It was flawed, and because it was flawed, it was difficult to support its renewal. And the failure to renew the ban made it politically more difficult to pass any further gun control legislation.
The next time we introduce gun control legislation, it’s critically important we know what we’re talking about.
That said, there were two facets of the law that potentially could have had an impact on mass murders like the one that took place in Sandy Hook. First, the law also banned magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds. Second, cosmetic differences sometimes matter.
Limiting the capacity of magazines forces mass murderers to reload more often. I’m in favor of that. If it takes seven or eight seconds for the shooter to eject one magazine and inset another, that’s seven or eight seconds more a target has to run or hide. It won’t stop mass shootings, but it’ll help reduce the body count. And that’s a good start.
50 round drum magazine
But why should cosmetic differences in firearms matter? Here’s a true thing about the majority of mass murderers: they may have severe personality disorders, but they’re not crazy. They almost always plan their attacks, and those plans are usually consistent in two ways. First, they require effective weapons. Second — and this doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves — mass murderer plans often include an aesthetic component.
Why do so many mass murderers wear camouflage or an all black outfit? It’s not so they can blend into the environment of the mall or schoolhouse. Why do they often wear masks or balaclavas? It’s not to hide their identity; most either kill themselves, force the police to kill them, or surrender without a fuss. Why do so many wear tactical gear like helmets and vests, which can be easily purchased by civilians?
They dress that way because popular entertainment culture says that’s how mass killers are supposed to dress. They don’t want to just kill and wound a lot of people; they want to look cool while they do it.
That mass murderer aesthetic also influences their choice of weaponry. The two most popular weapons for mass murderers are the AR-15 and the Glock pistol. Why the AR-15? Because, as the legislators who voted to ban the gun noted, the damned thing just looks lethal. It looks like it means business. As a killing tool, it IS more effective than many other weapons (partly because of AR accessories and the wound ballistics of the .223 round), but mass murderers also choose it for aesthetic reasons. It looks badass.
There’s an aesthetic facet to the Glock as well. It has a clean, no-nonsense look. The physical design of the Glock has actually influenced almost every other handgun manufacturer; they all now produce pistols that look similar to the Glock. Mass murderers also pick the Glock for the same reason two-thirds of police departments have selected it; the Glock is an incredibly effective and efficient handgun.
The AR-15 and the Glock have one other thing in common: they both accept high capacity magazines. You can legally buy 100 round magazines for the AR-15. James Holmes, the gunman who killed 12 people and wounded 58 others in an Aurora, CO movie theater, was armed with a Glock and a variant of the AR-15 that had a 100 round magazine. He’d have killed more if the AR-15 hadn’t jammed.
Mass murderers may consider aesthetics in their preparation, but what they’re ultimately after is a high body count. We can’t do much about the aesthetic choices of mass murderers. We can try to reduce the body count through intelligent legislation based on a sound understanding of firearm technology.
We can re-institute the most effective part of the 1994 law: we can ban magazines holding more than ten rounds. Will that stop mass murders? No. Nor will it reduce the body count immediately, because there are thousands and thousands of high capacity magazines out there now. But if we banned them, we can be assured of one thing: gun nuts will begin to buy them and hoard them, which effectively removes them from circulation. Over time, it will reduce the body count.
A typical gun show (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
There are other common sense things we can do. We can also close the loophole that allows firearms to be sold at gun shows without a background check. We can tighten restrictions on who can legally sell firearms at gun shows. Around 40% of all gun sales are ‘private’ sales, many of which take place at gun shows by unlicensed dealers.
We can follow the Canadian model and require that every gun buyer must have two people willing to vouch for him before he can buy the weapon. Will that stop mass murders? No, the weapons used in Sandy Hook were purchased by the shooter’s mother. It won’t stop mass murders, but it will very likely reduce the number of them.
We can eliminate the absurd restrictions placed by Republican lawmakers on background checks. For example, right now the law limits the amount of time a background check can take. If the check isn’t finished in the allotted time, the sale is allowed to proceed by default.
We can require retailers to report the sale of tactical gear to civilians. Will that stop mass murders? No, but it will alert the police to a possible problem. And it will deny mass murderers the additional pleasure of dressing like a badass when they go off to murder innocent people.
We can take a number of small steps to reduce the incidence and severity of mass murders. We can do that without treading on any legitimate Second Amendment rights. We can do that if we go about it intelligently. And that means gun control advocates need to educate themselves about firearms.
We need to stop being stupid about this stuff.
NOTE: You can, in fact, buy a true assault weapon in most states, but it’s a much more involved and rigorous process that can take several weeks or months to complete.