Today President Obama will unveil a gun-control platform that is expected to include a reinstatement of the long-expired assault weapon ban. But since the leader of his gun control task force, Vice President Joe Biden, has not emphasized the ban, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said it’d never pass the House, expectations are low that the President will insist upon one in any final compromise.
Assault weapons may be more likely in mass shootings, but so are semiautomatic handguns, which were used in Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora.
Such a strategic retreat will likely renew cries of "caving in." Arianna Huffington voiced pre-emptive dismay on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” yesterday, lamenting “his emphasis … on background checks, on limiting some of the ammunition that a gun can carry, but not a ban on assault weapons.” She declared, “This is actually the time for really radical leadership of this issue, not just to get away with the minimum that we can do, not just to be safe."
There’s little evidence, however, that an assault weapons ban is more effective gun control than the other measures Obama is considering. In fact, the prior ban, which lasted from 1994 until 2004, had serious flaws and was not particularly effective.
For starters, to call the expired law a “ban” is to be generous. Grandfather clauses kept a lot of newly banned weapons and ammunition legally in circulation. Manufacturers were able to either ramp up production before the ban went into effect, or cosmetically tweak their products to get around the law’s stipulations. In 2005, a top gun control advocate said of the law’s demise, “The whole time that the American public thought there was an assault weapons ban, there never really was one.”
Most glaringly, though, the focus on assault rifles ignored the main source of gun deaths: handguns. In 2011, there were approximately 6,000 homicides from handguns, versus little more than 300 from rifles. (Another 20,000 gun deaths were intentional suicides, also primarily a handgun problem.) While mass shootings are nationally traumatic, they are a mere sliver of the gun problem. The 68 dead this year from such crimes is less than one-half of one percent of the 30,000 gun deaths from 2011.
Assault weapons may be more likely in mass shootings, but so are semiautomatic handguns, which were used in Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora. The killers at Columbine and Aurora also used shotguns. In fact, police in Aurora noted that the shooter could have done more damage with his shotgun than with his assault rifle equipped with the infamous 100-round magazines, partly because of the deadly spray effect of the shotgun pellets and partly because his 100-round magazine jammed, as they are known to do.
The very proposals that Huffington pooh-poohs, such as universal background checks, would affect this broader class of guns, unlike the narrowly targeted assault weapons ban.
Did the old ban at least reduce mass shootings? In one sense, no. The rate of mass shootings didn’t change over the course of the 10-year law, and hasn’t changed since. However, there is evidence that another aspect of the expired law was making a difference: the ban on manufacturing new high-capacity magazines of more than 10 rounds. Again, a grandfather clause kept a lot of big clips in circulation, and they were typically used in mass shootings while the ban was in place. But a recent Washington Post investigation found that police in Virginia recovered far fewer high-capacity magazines from crime scenes in 2004, at the point when the grandfather clause had its least amount of relevance, than in 2010. And the casualty rate of mass shootings has gone up since the ban expired, suggesting the law may have been helping to limit carnage.
In sum, we have evidence suggesting some forms of gun and ammunition regulation can help, enough to ignore the disingenuous complaints about the old ban from gun rights absolutists. But we don’t have definitive answers about exactly what works. And there are lots of ideas that haven’t been tested at all, such as installing universal background checks, limiting gun purchases to one per month, banning online ammo sales or beefing up the background check database.
We shouldn’t demand “radical leadership” based on a knee-jerk conclusion that any one provision is essential and non-negotiable, especially when it could sink the entire proposal. In lieu of certainty, we could use some cool-headed leadership that enacts as many different potential solutions as is politically feasible. That would put our government back on a reform footing: testing ideas, collecting more evidence and continually refining our strategy.
To do so, one terrible element of the old law should not be repeated. It’s the reason why we have no assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans today: the 10-year sunset clause.
Superficially, having a time limit on the law makes sense. Congress is then forced to examine new evidence, gauge public opinion and make adjustments. But in practice, the sunset clause gave gun rights absolutists in Congress the power to ignore public opinion and new evidence. All they had to do is sit on their hands, without ever having to take a recorded vote and face their constituents.
So long as gridlock serves those who refuse to accept the problem, we’ll be stuck in another dismal cycle of scattershot legislating, followed by inaction, followed by denial, followed by needless death, followed by pent-up outrage, followed by more scattershot legislating.
We lack the knowledge to pass a law that is certain to reduce gun violence. But we can pass a law that locks in the principle that it is our government’s responsibility to keep attacking the problem of death by firearms until we’re down to the low levels achieved by the rest of the developed world. The gun control advocate’s mantra should be: no sunset.