Robert Prasch thoughtfully unpacks the firearm regulation debate.
Almost two months after the massacre in Newtown, and six months after Aurora and Oak Creek, our political classes show some signs of taking an interest in gun control. I say some signs as the President has reiterated his deep concern for “rural gun culture” and Senator Harry Reid is on record as being unenthusiastic. Senator Dianne Feinstein, amazingly, is largely on the correct side of this issue. I guess there is a first for everything.
To enhance our understanding of the problem, we need to define some terms. The next step is to consider the several parts of these crimes so as to reveal where intervention may be most effective. Hopefully, such an exercise gets us away from the fatuous “pro-gun” vs. “anti-gun” narratives that generate more heat than light.
A Definition and a Few Facts
Mass shootings and serial murders are each forms of mass murder. In the United States, mass murders are, statistically speaking, a relatively minor element of the death-by-firearm problem. However, mass shootings are different from serial murders in that the latter occur over a period of time. Additionally, serial murderers often target a specific type of person or persons (rival mobsters in the case of mafia hit-men, young couples in the case of the Son of Sam, or prostitutes in the case of the Green River killer). However, though mass shootings are a small part of the problem, they induce the greatest “headlines.” The reason, besides their intrinsic horror, is that their victims are often drawn from populations that — statistically speaking — are substantially less likely than others to be the victims of gun violence (Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, the Amish of Lancaster County, etc.).
Of the approximately 30,000 people killed by firearms in the United States during any one of the last ten years, just short of 2/3rds have been suicides. Of the approximately 10,000 people murdered by gunshot, about 2/3rds were killed with a handgun. Shotguns and rifles account for somewhat less than 10%. The data on the variety of firearm used in the remaining 25% of murders seems to be unknown or unrecorded. Some writers have invoked these statistics to suggest that “assault weapons” are too small a part of the overall problem to warrant regulation or an outright ban. But their conclusion is founded upon the erroneous belief that a handgun cannot be an assault weapon (The Austrian Ministry of Defense clearly thought otherwise in 1980 when it selected Glock as the manufacturer of its semi-automatic pistols).
The Three Components of the Problem
Speaking analytically, mass shootings have three components: a malevolent shooter (or in a very few instances, shooters), one or (typically) more firearms, and a target location.
Examinations of what have by now become a tragically large number of such episodes points to an emerging “profile” of the “typical” mass shooter. They are overwhelming white, male, between 17 and 35 years of age, and from small towns. Most of them exhibit a fascination with violent games and movies, combined with little if any prior military experience (Wade Michael Page is an exception, although his poor record resulted in a General Discharge from the US Army, rendering him ineligible for reenlistment). While, ex post, it has been found that most perpetrators were depressed, few of them had an “official record” at least in part because, being psychopaths rather than psychotic, they had few interactions with mental health professionals, and for that reason were not identified as a threat to society.
Let us turn to the qualities of weapons. Relative to murderers and even serial murderers, mass shooters are more likely to use firearms that can be described as “assault weapons.” Now, it must be understood that “assault weapon” is a popular but loose category, one that requires elaboration. Usually implied in this term are semi- and fully-automatic rifles and handguns with detachable magazines that can hold ten or more rounds. Precision requires a bit of context.
Soldiers are defenseless unless they can fire their weapon. It follows that periods when the weapon is being reloaded are moments of vulnerability unless the soldier is being “covered” by companions. As most mass shooters operate alone, the moments spent reloading are the single best opportunity for bystanders to charge the perpetrator, thereby bringing an end to their rampage. As an example, the Tuscon shooting came to an end when Jared Lee Loughner attempted to change the 33 round magazine on his Glock semi-automatic pistol, which presented Patricia Maisch with an opportunity to grab it as other bystanders wrestled him to the ground.
In the 18th century, a well-trained soldier needed between 15 and 20 seconds to “prime and load” a musket after firing. This means that four rounds a minute were his maximum sustainable rate of fire. The bolt-action rifles that eventually replaced this weapon in the 19th century were not only more accurate, but the expended cartridge could be rapidly discharged and the firing chamber reloaded by merely pulling back and rotating a bolt on the side of the weapon. This would take only 4-5 seconds depending upon the experience of the rifleman (today’s models, such as the Remington 700, a widely used hunting rifle with a 3 to 5 round internal magazine, are even faster). The result was a substantial advance in the weapon’s offensive and defensive value. Offensively, more shots may be fired per minute. Defensively, there is less “down time” between shots, which reduces the rifleman’s vulnerability.
Let us consider the phrases “semi-automatic,” “fully-automatic,” and “selective fire.” The quality of being “automatic” is all about reducing the lapse of time between the firing of rounds — an essential quality for any weapon to be useful for military or police purposes. A semi-automatic weapon, which can be either a rifle (such as the A-15) or a pistol (such as the Glock), has the following quality. Upon pulling the trigger once, the weapon will fire, discharge the spent cartridge, and load a new round in the firing chamber without any further action on the part of the person firing it.
In the case of a fully-automatic weapon (such as the M16), all of the above will occur and the weapon will continue firing until such time as the person operating it releases the trigger, the magazine containing additional rounds empties, or the weapon jams. The only factor limiting the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon is the speed with which one can pull the trigger. By contrast, the limitation on the rate of fire of a fully automatic weapon is exclusively mechanical. Consequently, the latter can fire at rates of between 450 and 900 rounds per minute (obviously, a soldier will have nowhere near enough ammunition on hand for this to be a sustainable rate of fire). Finally, a selective fire weapon, such as the M16 (the military version of the A15), can be switched at will from semi- to fully- automatic. Its most modern version, the M4, allows for an additional choice, a three round “burst.”
The final factor to consider is the locations favored by mass shooters. As with their personalities, many factors are present, but the number of recent tragedies allows for the identification of some patterns. In general and perhaps unsurprisingly, mass shooters are drawn to places where substantial numbers of unarmed persons congregate. This suggests that these individuals are interested in killing while seeking to avoid a fight. We do not see them going after “hard targets” such as police stations or border posts. On the contrary, the locations they select have much in common, perspective-wise, with the violent video games and movies they seem to favor – where the “action figures” can act upon others without themselves being targets in any meaningful sense. Stated simply, mass shooters are not “tough guys.” Taken as a whole, they are distinctly cowards. While they are clearly suicidal, they seem anxious to avoid a painful death. While they are willing to kill themselves with a bullet to the head, or surrender to authorities, they appear equally anxious to avoid being shot in the course of their crime. Of course, and most sickeningly, they do appear to take pleasure in imposing pain (and death) upon masses of people whom they have not met or otherwise interacted with.
What Can We Do?
From the above, it seems that there are essentially three “points of entry” for preventive measures. We may enhance the monitoring and regulation of individuals. We may enhance the regulation and monitoring of weapons. Or we may enhance the regulation and monitoring of spaces where large numbers of unarmed persons gather for fun, prayer, learning, or shopping. Let us consider each of these, in rank order of their undesirability.
Greater Monitoring and Regulation of People
For the past twenty years, there has been a strong and uninterrupted push by governments across the English-speaking world to increase the monitoring and surveillance of the citizenry. CCTV cameras are ubiquitous in the United Kingdom and rapidly gaining ground across the United States and Australia. National ID cards were a fascination of the Labour Party in the U.K. and are periodically raised in the United States. Private data collection, NSA’s massive monitoring of all our communications, the evisceration of FISA under the flimsy guise of reform, data fusion centers, the insidious but persistent push for a national biometric data-base, and other efforts have each and severally been embraced by the political classes. Whatever happens with firearms regulation, and we are already seeing it in the several Democratic Party proposals for “immigration reform,” we can be sure that increased monitoring of the citizenry will be part of the plan. We already select whom to kill in Pakistan and elsewhere on the basis of a “disposition matrix,” and those who may or may not board an American flagged commercial aircraft are selected, secretly of course, by the same methods. You can be certain that many of those who rule over us are itching to extend these information-based technologies to gun ownership for reasons other than the safety of the citizenry.
Just in case you do not know, a disposition matrix determining whether or not you could own a gun would likely draw upon criteria such as the status of your student loan, your credit rating, your employment history and whether or not you change jobs frequently, whether or not you adhere to an unpopular religion, things you have said by email or on your Facebook page, etc. These and many other criteria could all be factors in the construction of such a matrix. Again, as with those being barred from commercial aircraft, you would be deemed guilty until proven otherwise, you would not know the rationale for your having been barred, and there would likely be few, if any, grounds for appeal. Big brother knows best. As is always the case in these matters, being poor or individualistic are prominent “red flags.” In short, the program would be just one more form of enforced homogenization of the population and its attitudes. As mentioned, we have enough of this in the United States already. Lets not present our government with yet one more rationale to secretly monitor and manage the population.
Securing Places Where the Public Congregates
What about securing more of the locations where innocents congregate? This has been the “solution” advanced by the National Rifle Association and other self-styled 2nd Amendment protectors. Their proposal is that more of us should carry weapons, and especially concealed weapons, in the hope that a modification of risk-factors will deter future shooters who, as indicated above, usually do not have any inclination to fight. Now, if our focus is narrowly and exclusively to address the problem of mass shooters, this is not a completely stupid idea because, as we have seen, these are not “tough guys.” Being fearful of pain and lacking much military experience, they are not prepared to handle the chaos of a shootout, even if (as would be likely) they had the inherent advantage of superior weaponry over a random civilian who happened to be nearby with a small pistol tucked into their handbag or under their coat.
Where the NRA is mistaken is in their belief that comparative firepower is the only consideration. We know that suicides and accidental shootings rise sharply in households owning a gun, so it is likely that the total number of firearms deaths would rise. Also, as fewer and fewer people have had any experience with the military, we have ever-fewer persons with any exposure to combat training. Among other risks, we face the danger of a teacher’s weapon being grabbed by someone with evil intent, or of a civilian mistakenly shooting an innocent person in a panic. Training America’s teachers, to say nothing of any substantial portion of civilians, in close-quarters combat, fire-discipline, and gun safety would seem to be both impractical and too expensive to be a serious solution. Finally, the proposal to hire retired cops to wile away the day snoozing by the doors of our schools simply provides additional targets and the illusion of safety without adding much in the way of a deterrent. Why? Because the shooter will always have the element of surprise and it is unrealistic to expect an armed guard to be able to nullify that advantage by remaining at maximum vigilance throughout their shift.
Regulating the Qualities of Legally-Owned Weapons
This brings us to the qualities of the weapons circulating amongst the public. Now, before we begin, let us be clear that the United States has always regulated the public’s access to weapons. None of us can own or operate an F-18 fighter jet, a tank, or an artillery piece. Neither may we own a heavy machine gun with its fully automatic features and light-armor-piercing .50 caliber rounds. The principle as to whether or not the government may regulate the public’s access to certain classes of weapons has long been settled. Our contemporary dispute is solely and exclusively about the variety of weapons that we may or may not own.
Let us, then, jump straight to the conclusion. There is no reason why any law-abiding American civilian would ever need a semi- or fully-automatic weapon. Rapidity of fire rather than accuracy is the only reason for such features and that quality, in itself, makes such weapons unsuited to our neighborhoods. Moreover, there is no reason why a civilian would need a magazine that can hold more than seven rounds. They should be banned. I will add that the gun legislation recently passed by New York State’s does not “grandfather” large magazines already in the public’s possession, and I believe that any federal legislation would be wise to follow that example. The problem is not the age of large magazines, it is their existence. We don’t want them around. Our police don’t want them around, and they should be illegal. To ease the burden on those who purchased them in good faith, the government could offer to buy them back, perhaps at a reduced rate over time. After a fixed period, owners of such magazines should be subject to non-trivial fines and other penalties.
But what of hunters? Many people hunt for sport, but we should not ignore the fact that hunting makes a difference in the food budgets of many families. Moreover, with the United States vigorously renewing its commitment to neoliberalism under Barack Obama, we can expect that the median family wage will to either continue the declines it suffered during his first term or the stagnation of the Bush terms that immediately preceded it. Happily, the rules proposed above in no way impede hunting. Hunters have freely selected their weapons for years and, for reasons of weight and accuracy, they overwhelmingly prefer bolt-action rifles. Unsurprisingly, and for the same reason, the US military’s M24 sniper rifle is modified Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, so we can be confident that it is the superior firearm when accuracy is the primary consideration.
But what of defending our homes? After all, with neoliberal economic policies, local budgets have been under pressure for decades. One consequence has been a reduced police presence in the neighborhoods of the poor. Simultaneously, that most stupid of all American wars – the War on Drugs – is continuing to support the growth of gangs. For these reasons, many of our poorest citizens have been forced to contend with greater rates of violent crime even as they are increasingly dealing with it on their own. Are they not entitled to weapons with which to protect themselves? While aggregate statistics support the propositions that increased gun ownership is correlated with increased accidental gun deaths and an increased probability of being the victim of a shooting, it is unreasonable for us to smugly suggest that statistical aggregates should define the choices of every citizen or family. That said, it is hard to understand why any household would need a Glock semi-automatic pistol with one or more 19 or 33 round magazines for self-defense. Anyone anticipating the possibility of such a destructive shootout in their home should be asking themselves some questions about what kinds of goods they are storing in that home. The point is simple. For most of the past hundred and fifty years, people who have felt the need for an additional level of home or personal protection have been well served by revolvers such as those manufactured by Smith & Wesson. The ability to fire 5-7 rounds without reloading should be more than enough to deter anyone attempting to break into a home or, failing that, delay their progress until the police arrive.
In light of the above, the only constituency clearly harmed by the rules such as those proposed above would be “gun enthusiasts.” Some people, as we know, enjoy owning and firing automatic weapons. And let us be clear, they are not criminals and have no criminal intent. While others may not share their taste in recreational activities, we should acknowledge that for some Americans laws such as those proposed here would constitute a positive harm. However, all laws restrain the actions of a few in the interests of society. This is no exception. The point is to make such laws only when necessary. Sadly, we cannot allow the recreational pleasures of a minority keep military-grade “weapons of mass destruction” legally available for anyone who can afford to purchase them.
There is a final point to consider. A popular bumper sticker observes, “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” This may be true. But automatic weapons are complicated to use, especially if one is planning a mass shooting. Potential perpetrators who have not had the benefit of military training will need opportunities to learn to use them and maintain their skills, which will be difficult if such weapons are illegal. That, in itself would constitute a substantial addition to public safety.