A reader whose views I respect criticized my recent response to the New York Times’ historic front page editorial, “A Gun Epidemic,” because it was based more on my opinions than on facts.
Although I don’t entirely agree with that criticism, I thought I would post this further fact-driven response to one of the main conclusions of the editorial: “It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. . . . It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition. . . . Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership.”
My fact-driven response follows.
FACT #1: Rifles are not a big part of the problem. To the extent that homicide is a problem in the United States, rifles of any sort (combat rifles being just a part of all rifles) are a very small part of that problem. Beyond the graphic above, FBI crime data for 2012 and 2013 show a continuing downward trend in the number of homicides by rifle, down to 298 in 2012 and 285 in 2013.
Furthermore, every year from 2009 to 2013, there were more murders by shotgun than by rifle (not to mention knives, hands/fists/feet, other weapons). And, of course, the overwhelming majority of murders in the United States are committed by handgun.
FACT #2: Mass public shootings are not a big part of the problem. Mass public shootings are defined differently by different groups for different purposes. But using Mother Jones magazine’s definition — shootings in public places in which 4 or more people died other than the shooter — and their data, we find there were 4 mass public shoot events in 2013 with 42 victims (31 deaths), 2 events in 2014 with 12 victims (9 deaths), and 4 events in 2015 with 70 victims (37 deaths). Without minimizing the significance of those deaths and injuries, in the big picture these continue to be extremely rare events constituting a very small proportion of all homicides in the U.S. and with no clear trend in either direction (increasing or decreasing).
FACT #3: Homicides are not even the biggest part of the problem. Around 2/3s of firearm-related deaths are suicides not homicides. Garen J. Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, and no friend of guns has observed: “Suicide by firearm is far more common than homicide,” says “Over the past 30 years, firearm suicides have exceeded homicides even when homicide rates were at their highest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But, since 2006, the gap between the two has been widening, with firearm homicides decreasing and suicides increasing.”
I will explain why I include this fact later in this post.
*FACT #4: Intentions matter more than means. I put an asterisk by this fact, because it is not as well-established as the previous facts. But based especially on a paper delivered at the American Society of Criminology meetings, I think that the intentions of mass murders to harm a large number of people matter more than their tools.
In that paper, Gary Kleck found that in his sample of 88 mass shootings from 1994 to 2013, only one-quarter (21) involved ammunition magazines larger than 10 rounds. In those 21 incidents, all of the killers carried either multiple guns or multiple magazines. He concludes, therefore, that the choice of large-capacity magazines (among those who choose them) reflects a desire to inflict a great deal of harm, but does not seem to facilitate its realization.
Put concretely, the mass murders at Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino used “combat rifles.” But the mass murders at Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Charleston, and Binghamton used only handguns. The Newtown murderer also had two handguns and a shotgun, the Aurora killer also had a pump action shotgun and handgun, and the San Bernardino killers also carried handguns.
If combat rifles were banned (ignoring the fact that some criminals would still have and use them), those intent on hurting a large number of people would simply turn to another readily available weapon, like a semi-automatic handgun (or a shotgun, or a bomb, or poison, or knife). Although not every weapon is equally lethal by design, the fact remains that weapons in wide-circulation other than combat rifles are certainly plenty lethal to commit a mass homicide.
IMPLICATION: The implication of all of this is that if the New York Times wants to address a “gun epidemic” in America by focusing on combat rifles because they are used in mass public shootings, it is wasting its time and moral/political capital (to the extent it still has that among the broader American public).
Based on the facts above, to get the biggest bang for its buck (so to speak), the Times ought to be focused on suicides, which after all are neither rare (like mass public shootings) nor declining (like homicides).
Whether addressing homicides or suicides, however, if the Times wants to address the role of guns in those events through bans, it should focus its attention and scorn on handguns.
CODA: Why didn’t the Times call for a ban on handguns, then? Well, maybe they did, actually.
In re-reading the editorial for this post I noticed something I hadn’t noticed previously. What the Times actually said was this: “Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership.”
“Certain kinds of weapons, like…” Well, what else could fall under this rubric? I can imagine it would target what could be called “combat pistols”: the Glock 17, Beretta M9, Colt M1911/1911 A1, and all sorts of handguns like them.
What about “certain kinds of ammunition”? This is more vague, because if you ban combat rifles then you don’t need to ban the ammunition they use. So, are they thinking of any kind of “hollow point” or expanding tip ammunition? Any ammunition over a certain caliber? Maybe “combat ammunition” is any ammunition that goes in a combat rifle or combat handgun? For example, the .45 ACP (at least according to legend) was developed to more quickly and efficiently stop Moro rebels in the Philippines in the early 20th century. What business does an average citizen have owning that kind of ammunition?
I will be interested to if those moved by the Times editorial will introduce legislation to ban not just combat rifles, but combat handguns and ammunition. But I won’t be holding my breath.