Politics & Policy

New York’s Fact-Free Gun Ruling

Most of New York’s new gun-control laws have been upheld — on a totally dubious basis.

New York’s new gun-control law, the so-called SAFE Act, largely survived its first federal-court challenge on this past Tuesday. The more than 1,140 New Yorkers it’s made felons will remain so. But even the testimony of the state’s own expert witness failed to show that the law will cut crime.

The judge in this case is William M. Skretny, chief federal judge for the Western District of New York. His decision upheld the state’s gun-registration requirements and ban on assault weapons, but he rejected the seven-round limit for magazines, deeming it arbitrary.

#ad#The decision relied heavily on testimony by George Mason University criminology professor Chris Koper, who argued “that the criminal use of assault weapons declined after the federal assault-weapons ban was enacted in 1994, independently of trends in gun crime.” Judge Skretny wrote in his opinion: “Because New York’s regulations are tighter than those in the federal ban, [Koper] believes, quite reasonably, that the affect [sic] will be greater.”

But Koper’s two studies on the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban don’t support his claims. The first study, with Jeff Roth for the National Institute of Justice, found that “the evidence is not strong enough for us to conclude that there was any meaningful effect [of the weapons ban].”

Seven years later, in 2004, Koper and Roth conducted a follow-up study with fellow criminologist Dan Woods, covering a much longer period after the law. They concluded, “we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”

To make the court ruling even stranger, given Koper’s argument about what effect the ban will have on New York, no evidence was considered on the effects of state law, even though this has been studied by other researchers such as myself. At that level, again, absolutely no benefit is found on crime.

More embarrassing is the judge’s reliance on Koper’s claim that “a [large capacity-magazine] is arguably the most functionally important feature of most [assault weapons], many of which have magazines holding 30 or more rounds.” Any gun that can hold a magazine can hold one of any size. That is true for handguns as well as rifles, implying that virtually all semi-automatic guns are so-called “assault weapons.” But a magazine, which is basically a metal box with a spring, is trivially easy to make and virtually impossible to stop criminals from obtaining. Even if someone didn’t have access to some simple machine tools, the proliferation of 3D printers make it so anyone can produce them.

Judge Skretny also failed to examine other aspects of the law. For example, he concludes that “SAFE Act’s requirement that ammunition sales be conducted ‘face-to-face’ does not unduly burden interstate commerce.” But in New York, going through a federally licensed firearms dealer to get a background check on ammunition purchases reportedly adds $85 in costs to the average purchase; there are also the time costs involved in having to drive to a physical store. And these costs fall hardest on the very people who most need guns for protection — poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas.

Or take his claim of public-safety benefits from registering guns. Not a single study is cited showing that registration reduces crime. Whether in Canada, Hawaii, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., police seem unable to point to a single violent crime where registration has helped their investigation. During a recent deposition, D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier said she couldn’t “recall any specific instance where registration records were used to determine who committed a crime.”

The judge’s reliance on the left-wing Mother Jones magazine to buttress claims about mass shootings is almost comical. Even liberal academic James Alan Fox described the data collected by the magazine as relying on “questionable motive-based selectivity” and criteria that are “not necessarily applied consistently.”

Hopefully an appeals court will be more careful with the evidence. Courts should prevent people from exercising “fundamental rights” only when there is clear evidence that restrictions actually benefit public safety.

— John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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