Many national problems have simple, effective solutions. To curb global warming, reduce fossil fuel use. To combat child poverty, give money to families with kids. To end a pandemic, get people vaccinated.
But some problems are impervious to any plausible remedy. Mass shootings are one of those.
In the days after the bloody carnage in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, politicians and activists offered familiar proposals: Ban assault weapons. Outlaw high-capacity magazines. Expand federal background checks. Close the “Charleston loophole” that allows gun sales to go through if the FBI can’t complete the background check within three days.
Not all of these ideas are without value. But none holds any serious prospect of averting future horrors. The proposals stem from the idea that the perpetrators of this kind of slaughter are weakly motivated and easily foiled. They rest on mistaken beliefs about the guns that are often used.
The term “assault weapon” is a triumph of marketing over function. These guns have no capabilities that ordinary ones lack. They are no more lethal than any number of semiautomatic firearms, and they don’t fire more rapidly. They can accommodate magazines holding 30 or more cartridges, but so can traditional rifles.
Banning them would be a fool’s errand. First, because some 16 million have already been sold, and no one is going to confiscate them. Second, because any attempt to define them allows manufacturers to produce modified versions that are no less deadly. The shooter who murdered 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 had an AR-15-style rifle designed to comply with Connecticut’s ban on assault weapons.
Third, because anyone bent on taking many lives can find innumerable alternatives. The shooter who killed eight people at spas in Georgia used a 9 mm pistol. The statistics portal Statista notes that “handguns are involved in about 78% of mass shootings.” Most mass shooters don’t use assault weapons.
Advocates who want to prohibit them make much of the supposed success of the 1994 federal ban, citing data that mass shooting deaths declined while it was in effect and rose when it expired. But a good deal of scholarly research found no overall benefit. A 2017 analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, found that laws forbidding these guns “were not associated with changes in firearm homicide rates.”
If the number of mass shooting deaths rose after 2004, the expiration of the ban is not necessarily to blame: Correlation is not causation. Often, it’s coincidence.
The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety says mass shootings are “far deadlier when they involve assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” But that doesn’t mean guns and magazines are the reason.
Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck told me by email, “The strength of motivation of shooters (how badly they want to hurt a lot of people) affects both 1) how many people they shoot, and 2) their choices of weapons and magazines to use in their attacks.”
Take away assault weapons and these criminals would use other, equally deadly firearms. Take away 30-round magazines and they would use several 10-round magazines or multiple guns. Most mass shooters bring more than one gun.
There is a common belief that forcing a shooter to stop to switch out magazines would save lives by allowing someone to subdue him. But in a real-life situation, he would not be surrounded by potential victims who would leap to grab his gun during the few precious seconds they would have. It’s a scenario more likely in movies.
Expanding background checks to private sales and eliminating the Charleston loophole would be justifiable measures to make it harder for people who are not allowed to own guns, such as felons and fugitives, to get guns. There is no good reason to maintain holes in a dike.
But it’s not likely that tighter rules would avert mass shootings anytime soon, if ever. Most of the mass shooters, including the most recent ones, were not barred from buying firearms.
The conservative notion that more armed citizens are the answer is equally flawed. Colorado allows adults to openly carry rifles and pistols without a permit. Only three states have more people with concealed-carry permits than Georgia. Neither fact was any help to those who were attacked.
It’s painful to consider that even in America, mass shootings are such freakish, random events that they are impossible to prevent. But the writer Flannery O’Connor once noted, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”