In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, numerous Democrats have called for legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Unfortunately, such bans are empty gestures, certain to offend many law-abiding citizens but highly unlikely to reduce gun violence.
Simply put, so-called “assault weapons” are nowhere near the root of the American violence problem. According to FBI data, of the two-thirds of murders that involve firearms, about 69 percent involve handguns rather than rifles or shotguns of any kind. Most estimates place the contribution of assault weapons to gun crime at around 1 or 2 percent. These numbers should not be surprising: Rifles are difficult to conceal, and a criminal who decides to use a rifle has little reason to prefer an assault weapon over any other semiautomatic option. Contrary to popular myth, assault weapons fire only once for each pull of the trigger; they are not machine guns.
The features that define assault weapons — such as a folding stock or a pistol grip — may look militaristic, but they provide little advantage to someone intent on killing innocent civilians. Adam Lanza used a variant of the AR-15, but he could have achieved the same result with any number of guns commonly employed in hunting and self-defense. As yet there are no reports that Lanza’s Bushmaster .223 was outfitted in such a way as to fall under Connecticut’s assault-weapons ban (or under the national ban that expired in 2004), and .223 ammo is not unusually powerful; to the contrary, most deer hunters use larger calibers, and many of them are required to do so by state laws.
Further, statistical research has failed to turn up evidence that the federal ban that expired in 2004 did any good. Columbine occurred while the ban was in effect.
A limit on magazine capacity (which was also part of the federal ban) is by far the more plausible of the proposed measures, seeing that Gabrielle Giffords’s shooter was tackled while reloading his gun. However, other shooters (such as those at Columbine and Virginia Tech) have had no problem reloading, and still others (such as those at the Aurora movie theater and possibly the Oregon mall) have experienced jams while using high-capacity magazines. The net effect of such legislation would almost certainly be statistically indistinguishable from zero.
Both of these measures raise Second Amendment concerns as well. It is difficult to claim there is a legitimate reason to ban assault weapons, given the above-explained irrelevance of the distinction. And reviving the 1994 ban’s ten-round cap on magazine capacity would outlaw the standard versions of popular guns such as the Glock 17, which is likely a violation of the Second Amendment interpretation laid out in Heller and McDonald.
The Left would like to take this tragedy as an opportunity to reform our laws in such a way as to make public shootings significantly less likely. This is a noble goal. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will not accomplish it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.