Assault Rifle.

Rates of gun ownership in the United States have fallen sharply since the 1970s, from 50 percent of households to 30 percent of households.[1]  However, ownership of “assault-style weapons” has increased dramatically.

An “assault rifle” is a military weapon that is shorter and lighter than a traditional military rifle; and has a “selective fire” capability.[2]  The latter term means that it can fire on “automatic” (pull the trigger once and then hold on until all the ammunition is gone); “burst” (fire 2-3 rounds each time the trigger is pulled); and semi-automatic (fires and then loads one round each time the trigger is pulled).  In most cases, private ownership of automatic weapons like assault weapons was banned by the National Firearms Act of 1934.[3]

The weapon that is commonly referred to in the media as an “assault weapon” or “assault rifle” actually is an “assault-style weapon.”  These are solely semi-automatic versions of the “selective fire” assault weapons used by the military.  They look the same, but they don’t do the same.  Neither gun control advocates nor journalists care about the distinction.  Maybe they’re right.

Generally speaking, “assault-style weapons” make little contribution to America’s high homicide rate.  In 2014, 3 percent of homicide victims were killed with any kind of rifle.  On the other hand, the weapons have been used in several spectacular mass shootings in recent years.  The killers at Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Dallas all used “assault-style weapons.”

“Assault-style weapons” have long been a bete noire of gun control advocates.   In 1994 Congress passed a ten year ban on the sale of 19 different variants of “assault weapons.”  Mass shootings increased slightly during the period of the ban.  Congress did not renew the ban when it expired in 2004.  Mass shootings increased slightly after the ending of the ban.

The most popular “assault style weapon” in the United States is the AR-15 or one of its many knock-offs.[4]  (There are more than 8 million AR-15s in private possession in the United States.)  The AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the fully automatic M-16 rifle used by the Army and the Marine Corps.  The weapons are light, rugged, carefully machined, and easily personalized.  They’re a lot of fun to shoot.  It is also likely that gun owners want them just because control advocates want to ban them.

This impulse appeared in the huge increase in sales of “assault-style weapons” after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.  President Barack Obama urged Congress to re-instate the expired ban on “assault-style weapons.”   Gun-owners flocked to buy the weapons before Congress acted.  They needn’t have worried.

While most Americans move—ponderously in the eyes of enlightened opinion here and abroad—away from gun ownership, a minority of Americans embrace more extreme forms of gun ownership.  It is trite, but true, to see two cultures struggling to assert their views.  America has a long history of the majority trampling on minorities; and of minorities finding ways to survive.  It might be better to treat guns like smoking: “education” rather than coercion.

[1] The Sixties and Seventies were more menacing times to live through than they appear in gauzy hindsight.  The men of the “Greatest Generation” had some experience with handling firearms and didn’t have an attack of the vapors in the presence of firearms.  The rural areas hadn’t emptied out yet.

[2] Generally, these weapons have a much shorter range than traditional rifles.  The effective range of an AR-15 is less than 500 yards, while the effective range of the M1903 Springfield used in the First World War is 1,000 yards.

[3] “Why assault weapons are so popular,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 11.

[4] The patent expired, so more than 280 manufacturers crowded into the market to compete with Colt.

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American opinion on gun control.

Americans are divided on the utility of stricter gun laws to stop shootings. In September 2015, 46 percent of Americans thought that stricter gun-laws were the best way to reduce the number of shootings, while 36 percent thought that the best way would be for more Americans to carry guns for their own protection, and 18 percent weren’t sure.[1] By late-October/early-November 2015, about one-third (35 percent) thought that tighter laws would reduce all forms of shootings, while another third (35 percent) thought that tighter laws would have no effect, and almost a third (30 percent) weren’t sure. On the subject of “mass shootings, however, Americans were clearer in their mind. Almost half (48 percent) thought that mass shootings can be stopped, while one-third (35 percent) think that these events are “just a fact of life in America today.” That means that only one-sixth (17 percent) weren’t sure.[2] However, that was before the San Bernardino shootings[3] and President Obama’s ill-received speech seeking to reassure Americans. By mid-December 2015, 71 percent of Americans believed that both mass shootings and terrorist attacks have become a permanent part of American life.[4]

That is, the share of Americans who believe that mass shootings are just a fact of life more than doubled and moved from a minority to a majority position in about a month. It’s easy to se why they think so. About twice a day for the last twenty years somebody gets killed in an act of workplace violence. More specifically, 14,770 people between 1992 and 2012. Mostly, they were shot.[5] Between 2007 and the end of 2015, 29 people legally entitled to carry a concealed weapon committed “mass shootings.”[6] In the wake of the shooting incident at the Planned Parenthood site in Colorado Springs, CO, people started doing the math for the umpteenth time. Using the expansive definition of “mass shootings” (at least four people including the gunman are killed or wounded), there were 351 mass shootings from 1 January to 30 November 2015.[7] However, this isn’t what most people mean by “mass shootings.” Most people mean “somebody goes postal.” The expansive definition includes criminals who shot up everyone inside of or in front of a row-house in Bal’mer.[8]

Similarly, in Fall 2015, almost half of Americans (46-48 percent) thought that stricter regulation of who could own a gun would reduce shootings by some uncertain amount, while just over a third (35-36 percent) thought that such restrictions wouldn’t be effective. The size of the uncertain group bounced around from 18 to 30 percent. However, the number of the uncertain rose as the issue was discussed in public. The increased size of the uncertain group came at the expense of the supporters of stricter gun laws.

In contrast, the numbers for those who favor carrying personal weapons for protection, who doubt the effectiveness of stricter gun control laws, and who believe mass shootings are just a fact of life are all the same at 35 percent. This matches up with the one-third of Americans who are estimated to own guns.

Gun control advocates are losing the debate. The more they talk, the more they lose. Is it time to re-think strategy and discourse?

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 September 2015, p. 19.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 21.

[3] So far as I can tell, the NYT never referred to the recent attack in Paris as a “mass shooting.”

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 25 December 2015, p. 21.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 11 September 2015, p. 18.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 11 December 2015, p. 16.

[8] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7DhFhzkjcA

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).