Assault weapons.

In America, a lot of people own guns, but most people don’t own any guns.[1] Therefore, most people get confused by the terminology bandied about in public discourse. Government estimates are that Americans own 310 million guns: 196 million “long guns” (110 million rifles; 86 million shotguns), and 114 million hand guns (pistols). Perhaps 4 million of the “long guns’ are what might be called “assault weapons.”[2] A semi-automatic weapon fires one round each time the trigger is pulled. Semi-automatic weapons are fully legal, whether pistols, rifles, or shotguns. In contrast, an automatic weapon fires continuously as long as the trigger is depressed. So, an automatic weapon is a machine gun. These have been banned since 1934.

There is nothing like war to encourage innovation. One of the weapons that made the First World War so appalling was the machine gun—a heavy weapon served by the crew of three or four. Toward the end of the war, weapons-designers invented single-man-portable machine guns: the Thompson sub-machine gun and the Bergmann machine pistol. Other countries soon followed. Toward the end of the Second World War, the German weapon-designer Hugo Schmeisser (yes, that one) produced the “Sturmgewehr” (“storm rifle”). The Russkies soon adapted this into the AK-47.[3] The US countered with the M-16. Both weapons are “selective fire”: they can fire on either automatic or semi-automatic.

There is a semi-automatic version of the M-16 that is known under the generic label of the AR-15. The civilian version of these weapons still fire at a high rate (up to 50 rounds per minute) and they have little recoil. The latter facilitates a different kind of “gun control” than what liberals have in mind.

Sales of semi-automatic, civilian versions of “assault rifles” have been booming. One type rose from 4,600 sold in 2006 to 100,000 sold in 2010. Part of this reflects a deep distrust of the federal government.[4] “The weapons that would be most suited to overthrow a dictatorial federal government would, of course, be weapons of war, and not sports equipment.”[5]

Homicides rarely involve “assault weapons.” In 2011, there were 323 murders committed with any kind of rifle, but there were 6,220 committed with hand-guns. “Assault weapons” were used in less than half of the “mass shootings” in the last thirty years. On the other hand, some of the most eye-catching mass killings involved “assault weapons”: the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, and the Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, both used civilian versions of “assault weapons.” One estimate suggests that banning assault weapons[6] would reduce the death toll from shootings by as much as 100 victims per year. That isn’t much in comparison to the 11,000 gun homicides a year in the United States. Unless you’re one of the dead or the bereaved.

On one level, the question is how did James Holmes (Aurora, CO), or Adam Lanza (Newtown, CN), or Jared Loughner (Phoenix, AZ) get a gun in the first place? On another level, the question is why people are obsessed by 4 million weapons that caused 300-odd deaths?

The real issue is hand-guns. Who owns them? Why? Would regulation work?

[1] If you just “don’t like guns,” then my tedious explanation is not for you. I understand your emotions, but do not share them.

[2] “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

[3] See: “The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar.”

[4] Which criminalized Japanese ancestry in 1941.

[5] David Kopel, Cato Institute, quoted in “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

[6] As Australia did after one terrible massacre in 1996.

Mass shootings.

What is a “mass shooting”? Answers differ: at least four people shot dead in a public place; or at least four people shot dead anywhere; or at least four people shot—wounded or killed–anywhere.

In liberal discourse, the US leads the world in mass shootings. By one count, 31 percent of all mass shootings occur in the United States.[1] Proponents of this view are quick to slide in the “developed country” qualifier because in reality, it doesn’t. Why not drive into a Mexican border town to check it out? Still, saying “well it’s worse in Guatemala” doesn’t help.

The most expansive totals for “mass shootings” appear to be arrived at by rolling in all the shootings associated with a sub-culture of violence among poor people. Drive-by shootings get counted just like massacres in fast-food restaurants. “Would you like death with that?”

One trope, less noticed and less publicized than others, holds that mass killings have a copy-cat element to them. Mass media attention devoted to one killer then helps put the idea into the pointy little heads of others. So, one solution would be to regulate the press to reduce the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality.[2] This would involve curtailing the First Amendment.

Another trope, much more widely noticed, holds that these appalling crimes arise from American “gun culture.” Widespread gun-ownership and feeble limits on access to guns by evil-doers leads to slaughter. Leaving aside the people who beef with someone at an after-hours party in a rotting former greenhouse on a Saturday night, who are the shooters? Almost all are men; almost two thirds (64 percent) are white.[3] Working backward after mass shootings, scholars have found in about half of the killers some earlier sign of “mental illness.” The trouble is that this runs the gamut from depression to paranoia to full-blown schizophrenia. Moreover, “there is no one diagnosis that’s linked to mass shootings.” Many different diagnoses have been offered. Hence, “We can’t go out and lock up all the socially awkward young men in the world.”[4] Of course not: they often become college professors. (I can hear the gears turning in Lynn Cheney’s head already.) Furthermore, millions of men suffer from some kind of mental illness without ever becoming violent. In our current state of knowledge, it is impossible to predict who will be a killer (perhaps 20 a year) and who will not (millions).[5] Like convicted felons, people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility are barred from purchasing guns. However, less than a quarter of the killers in mass shootings (23 percent) have been treated for a prior mental illness.

So, if you can’t invade First Amendment freedoms because the right of businesses to sell faulty products is sacred, and you can’t predict which mentally ill person will turn into a mass killer, and you don’t like a high murder rate, and the regulation of sales of guns is flawed by human error, then the only logical solution to the problem would be to disarm Americans in general. This is where a lot of the push-back originates.

About 100 people get killed a year in mass shootings out of 11-12,000 murder victims. That is both a drop in the bucket and a sign of the malign influence of media.

[1]. “The killing contagion,” The Week, 11 September 2015, p. 11.

[2] Hillary Clinton has recently endorsed proposals to try to deter the “short term” obsession of the stock market traders, so it isn’t much of a jump to deterring the obsessions of reporters and advertising managers.

[3] Compared with African-Americans (16%) and Asians (9%). The white share of mass shooters matches with the share of the over-all population, while the African-American share somewhat exceeds the share of over-all population (12.2%) and the Asian share is dramatically higher than the share of over-all population (4.7%).

[4] Jeffrey Swanson, Duke University, quoted in “The killing contagion,” The Week, 11 September 2015, p. 11.

[5] See: “Minority Report” (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1995).

Garrison States.

Governments have always oppressed and killed elements of their populations. However, the technological and organizational breakthroughs of the 19th century gave states unprecedented capacities. Telegraph, radio, telephone, railroads, automobiles, and air planes vastly improved communications and transportation, while centralized bureaucracies extended the reach of central government in other ways. Chemistry and machine-tools combined to provide killers with new means to deal out mass death. These trends converged to make the 20th century one of unmatched destructiveness.

The best estimate is that between 1900 and 1987 governments killed about 170 million people outside of combat operations between military forces. In comparison, battlefield deaths numbered “only” 34.4 million for the same period. This trend continued to the end of the 20th Century. In the 1980s about 650,000 people were killed in inter-state conflicts; in the 1990s that death toll fell to 220,000 people killed in international conflicts. On the other hand, about 3.5 million people were killed in civil wars during the 1990s.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon of state-sponsored mass murder has attracted the interest of thoughtful people. A political scientist named R. J. Rummel was one of the scholars who became interested in this phenomenon. His curiosity yielded one new word and two books. The word is “democide” (meaning the intentional killing of citizens by their government); the books are Death by Government (1994) and Statistics of Democide (1997).

In 1998 the CIA commissioned Professor Barbara Harff (Political Science, USNA)[1] to explore the possibility of predicting future “democides.” Harff found that statistical modeling of social, economic, and political factors produced a list of countries “at risk” of genocide. Some of these countries were places with long-running and already savage wars underway (Algeria, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan). The others clustered in northeastern (Ethiopia, Somalia) and central (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) Africa. Last, but not least, there was Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had already slaughtered about one and a quarter percent of the country’s people. (The total population was 24 million.)

Another factor should not be neglected, however.   Twentieth-century “democide” has generally been the child of attempts to create totalitarian social utopias. Democratic governments have virtually never engaged in “democide” in the Twentieth Century. (Admittedly, this isn’t going to make the Indians of the Americas feel any better.) Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung killed millions of people attempting to eliminate racial or class enemies. Their fore-runners (the Young Turks, Lenin) and imitators (Pol Pot) killed millions more.

How can we explain the proliferation of destructive utopia in modern times? Did the organizational and technological means available to madmen become much better developed than in earlier times? Did some accident of political, social, and economic conditions bring madmen to power in a single historical period? Is it possible to forestall catastrophe in the future?


“Human Development Report 2002,” Atlantic, October 2002, pp. 42, 44.

Bruce Falconer, “The World in Numbers: Murder by the State,” Atlantic, November 2003, pp. 56-57.


[1] Curiously, both Rummel and Harff were graduates in Political Science of Northwestern University.