Bans on high-capacity magazines (variously defined as those holding more than ten, fifteen, or twenty rounds) seem to be part of just about every law to ban assault weapons. The rationale is to prevent the ability to engage in killing sprees like the one on Friday in Connecticut.
Would a ban on high-capacity magazines (and not just a ban on new manufacture, as the 1994 federal law provided) make any difference in these massacres of the unarmed? I am hard pressed to see how. Detachable-magazine pistols and rifles have been in common use in the United States for more than a century. To replace an empty magazine with a fully loaded one typically takes one to two seconds, even under stressful conditions.
In a gunfight, being able to reload with new magazines is a real advantage, and this is why police officers and licensed civilians regularly carry spare magazines for their pistols. The deputy sheriff who was my concealed-weapons instructor in California emphasized to our class the importance of always having at least four spare magazines on your belt in case you are attacked.
When magazine bans were first proposed, the theory was that they would make police officers safer when attacked by criminals. But even the Clinton administration’s 1999 study of the federal assault-weapons ban (which banned new manufacture of magazines over ten rounds) found no statistically significant differences in murder rates of police officers because of the new law. This justification for the ban on high-capacity magazines has not survived real-world experiment.
How much actual “advantage” does a high-capacity magazine give to a monster who is shooting unarmed people? Practically none. The victims have no idea whether he is about to change magazines and are therefore in no position to flee or engage in a barehand attack (even if one of them has the remarkable coolness of mind to try something that courageously foolhardy). For practical purposes, a mass murderer with ten-round magazines is about as deadly as one with 20-round magazines. I suppose if you were to impose a really low limit, such as two or three rounds, you would start to make a real difference in these horrors, but that brings us to the other side of the equation.
A recurring question that I hear from gun-control advocates is, Why does anyone need high-capacity magazines? The implication is that they have no legitimate function. If they don’t, they should be prohibited to police officers, who carry handguns for self-defense; their job is not to shoot people in summary execution. A police officer’s use of a handgun is not so terribly different from that of a civilian with a gun in his home or, if licensed, on his person. While it is rare for either a police officer or a civilian to need 15 or 20 rounds in a gunfight, it is not unknown, and in some cases it is the difference between life and death for individuals engaged in self-defense. (When I lived in the Los Angeles area, I knew two different couples who experienced multiple invasions of their homes by intruders, with horrendous results. Yes, this has made me a little sensitive to the problem.)
There is one other situation where a high-capacity magazine serves a necessary, even praiseworthy function. During the riots following the Rodney King trial, many shopkeepers in the Korean section of Los Angeles confronted mobs threatening to loot and burn the stores. Some of the shopkeepers used high-capacity magazines in rifles to avoid taking lives. Yes, you read that right. By firing two or three shots over the heads of the rioters, the shopkeepers were able to impress on these criminals that they should keep their distance or risk death. Because they had 30-round magazines in their rifles, they could afford to fire two or three warning shots. Had they been limited to three or five rounds per magazine, they likely would have had the choice of abandoning their stores or making every bullet deadly.
On a shooting range, it’s really quite easy to keep every shot on the paper. Things are a bit different in a high-stress, poorly illuminated gunfight inside your home, where it is possible that for every three or four shots you fire, only one delivers an incapacitating blow to an attacker. Yes, you can change magazines rapidly with a modern pistol or rifle, but it is better not to have that distraction in the middle of a gunfight.
It is true that where I live now, I don’t worry about intruders or even burglary. I also haven’t had a flat tire in more than 100,000 miles, but I still keep a spare in the trunk: The cost of doing so is low, and the consequences of not being ready for that rare situation are too high. A high-capacity magazine is like that spare tire.
— Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill.