Re: Newtown and Gun Control

by Robert VerBruggen

I agree wholeheartedly with Charlie, but I wanted to add a few notes about some of the specific policy proposals that are floating about.

In general, there are two ways to control access to guns: keeping all guns away from particular people, and banning particular types of guns entirely. The former approach does not seem relevant here, seeing as the guns belonged to the killer’s mother rather than the killer himself.

The killer did, however, use semiautomatic weapons — that is, guns that fire once for every pull of the trigger without requiring the shooter to cycle the action manually. William Saletan of Slate thinks we need to do something about this:

What we need is a frank, precise, constructive conversation about the problem of high-speed [i.e. semiautomatic] weapons. You don’t need rapid-fire weapons to hunt or defend your home. Cops don’t need them to shoot down bad guys. And while it’s true that passing a law against them won’t eliminate them, that’s not an argument against legislation. It’s an argument for going beyond legislation. The community of gun sellers and enthusiasts must act collectively to track and control the technology of mass murder.

This is stunningly naïve. Semiautomatic guns have become more popular with time, and as far back as 1997, 60 percent of gun owners had at least one semiautomatic. These guns are used for everything — hunting, target shooting, and self-defense. Most police departments switched to them in the 1980s or 1990s. All of this is true despite the fact that semiautomatic guns are typically more expensive than the alternatives.

Gun buyers and police departments presumably have a better grasp of what they “need” than does William Saletan. An effort to reduce the sale of semiautomatic weapons would be an assault on law-abiding gun owners, and confiscating the millions of existing ones would not be feasible even without the Constitution in the way. Speaking of the Constitution, the Heller interpretation of the Second Amendment probably makes a semiauto ban impossible.

These guns’ popularity is evidence enough of their usefulness, but it’s important to spell out the specific benefits. In hunting, a semiautomatic gun reduces the recovery time between shots, which is especially helpful during drives, when the targets are running. (In the interest of fairness I should note that semiautomatics can also encourage hunters to shoot deer too many times, ruining the meat.) For self defense, it usually doesn’t matter what kind of gun is used — the most common sequence of events is that a victim pulls a gun and the criminal runs away — but a semiautomatic is unquestionably helpful in the event of a shootout, because semiautomatics hold more rounds than revolvers and are easier to reload. Police, naturally, need to keep pace with whatever criminals are using; the catalyst for their move to semiautos was a shootout in which FBI agents were tragically outgunned. And target shooting is more efficient and enjoyable with the higher firing rate and easier reloading of a semiautomatic.

Saletan also brings up the debate about high-capacity magazines. Unfortunately, when it comes to public shootings, it’s not clear what the net effect of a magazine cap would be. On the one hand, Jared Lee Loughner was tackled while reloading, and lower-capacity magazines require more frequent reloading. On the other hand, high-capacity magazines are more likely to jam, which may have reduced the death toll of the Aurora shooting. In general, it is easy to change magazines quickly. And at Columbine and Virginia Tech, the shooters reloaded without incident.

Gun control always entails tradeoffs — victims left defenseless, criminals undeterred, citizens deprived of their rights. A tragedy, however horrible, does not change this fact.