Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Banning Assault Rifles as a Class of Weapons

By now, readers will have heard of the shooting in Newtown, where a killer armed with an AR-15 rifle killed over 20 children and several adults.

Amidst the renewed debate on gun control, at least two commentators have said that there is no point banning assault weapons as an entire class of guns, as they are not that different from hunting rifles. Writing on Businessweek, Paul Barrett says that

Although they may have a tough military look, semiautomatic assault weapons, shot-for-shot, are no more lethal than Grandpa’s Remington wooden-stock deer-hunting rifle. Arguing about whether a particular rifle is an assault weapon makes no sense.

Megan McArdle, writing for the Daily Beast, says that

You don't need a special kind of gun to shoot civilians.  You just need a gun. A handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle are all pretty deadly at close quarters, and Lanza went to the school with all three.  (He left the shotgun in the back of a car).  You don't need a military style rifle, or a high-powered scope, or a pistol grip, or a detachable stock, because concealment is not a big issue, and you don't need much aim to put a bullet into someone at ten feet.  Nor can you stop these shootings by restricting people to hunting rifles, which for some reason people seem to think are less deadly than regular guns.  The truth is the opposite: it takes a lot more wallop to bring down an elk than a person, and a couple of rounds of buckshot or a .30-06 would have had the same, horrible results.  Even a ban on semi-automatics is no panacea in a world full of powerful shotguns.

These assertions are incorrect on some points:

1. I don't hunt, but my understanding is that many hunting rifles are bolt action, which means you fire, you pull the lever to chamber another round, and then you fire again. You have to take your eyes off the target. Even for semi-automatic hunting rifles, their magazines would be a lot smaller than 30 rounds. An AR-15 can fire more rounds and it can fire faster.

2. Rifles like the AR-15 are designed so that the firer can freely maneuver them in close quarters to engage multiple targets. Many hunting rifles may be more unwieldy (e.g. longer barrel). So, again, a shooter can engage more targets faster with an AR-15.

3. As to shotguns, they are also lethal against human targets at close range, but many hunting shotguns have even more limited ammunition capacity. Many shotguns are pump action, where you must work the lever after firing to reload. Many are semi-automatic, of course, and they may have magazines up to 10 rounds.

In other words, there is an argument for banning rifles like the AR-15 as an entire class of weapons. They are sufficiently more lethal than other rifles to consider banning as a class, and people are incorrect to assert that they aren't. The previous assault weapons ban was full of holes, and it mainly focused on cosmetic features, so of course it didn't work as manufacturers just redesigned their rifles to comply with the cosmetic features (e.g. they removed bayonet mounts). One could define any semi-automatic rifle with the ability to accept military standard magazines as a class, and ban that entire class of weapons. I imagine one could work out something similar for shotguns.

As both Barrett and McArdle allude to, though, this may not be politically possible, and even if it were, you would somehow have to get the guns and magazines off the market. So, it could be more feasible to restrict magazine sizes, perhaps to 10 rounds for rifles, and lesser for handguns and shotguns.

And banning these weapons would only reduce the lethality of mass shootings, which are only a small minority of firearm deaths in the US. I think we might as well start somewhere, though.