Thoughts on Banning Certain Types of Rifles and Magazines

As expected, California Senator Diane Feinstein has introduced legislation that would ban “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazines. I am actually trying to read as little about this as possible because I am already mad at myself for the amount of time I am spending thinking about “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazine bans (in quotes because one person’s assault weapon is another’s military-inspired modern rifle, and one person’s high capacity magazine is another person’s standard capacity magazine). Maybe one more post will get this out of my system.

As I continue to read and think about this one part of the current debate, I still think it is wrong to base public policies on anomalous events (like spree killings), and believe banning certain types of rifles and magazines is a panacea designed to make us feel better without making us significantly safer.

Second Amendment considerations aside (since the meaning of the 2A is determined by a Supreme Court which is constantly changing), these bans come at the expense of the overwhelming majority of their owners who are law-abiding citizens and use them for perfectly legal purposes. These sorts of weapons are not my cup of tea, as I have noted previously, but just because I personally don’t like to use them does not mean that I would place restrictions on others who do. It would be nice if those who dislike guns could have some perspective on this. FBI Uniform Crime Report data clearly show that only a small percentage of all homicides each year are by rifle, of which military-inspired modern rifles are just a subset, as this graph from Monderno’s website shows:

fbi crime data

I also do not find strong evidence that the proliferation of rifles that look like the rifles carried by the US military — these are the best selling rifles in America — has any effect on the kinds of mass shootings that Senator Feinstein has used to justify her legislation.

Using data from Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, from his book Mass Murder in the United States: A History, reported by the Washington Post, William Briggs has shown that mass public shootings are not correlated with gun ownership, and certainly not with the proliferation of AR-15 style rifles.


The figure above speaks to events, and not to number of victims. Do high capacity magazines make those mass shootings that do occur more harmful (i.e., more victims)? Again, I do not find data that shows this convincingly. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox has presented the following table in arguing that there has been no systematic increase in mass shootings in the United States over the past 30 years, and the number of victims of mass shootings has fluctuated seemingly randomly.

Mass Shootings 1980-2010-thumb-533x320-79419

None of this is to say that gun violence is not a problem that needs to be addressed. It would be nice if the pro-gun side acknowledged this more often, beyond just saying that the solution to gun violence is more guns. But the major causes and most common manifestations of gun violence have very little to do with rifles and magazines that look scary to some people. The more time spent on these things, the less time spent on things that really matter — about which I will write more when I can.


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