As the debates over regulating guns continue to gain speed in the wake of the mass shooting in Connecticut, attention has turned (as one might expect given the circumstances) to assault weapons. One problem is the difficulty on defining one’s terms. As Erica Goode explains in an enlightening piece in the NYT (“Even Defining ‘Assault Rifles’ is Complicated”).
There is general agreement that an assault rifle is a semi-automatic with a detachable magazine (for those who have not spent much time around firearms, semi-automatics fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. This distinguishes them from automatics or “machine guns,” which are illegal). But there is any number of semi-automatics with these features that would not fall into the category in question. Thus, we move to additional features:
Those could include features like a pistol grip, designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and perhaps concealed; a flash suppressor, which keeps the gun’s user from being blinded by muzzle flashes; a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil; and a threaded barrel, which can accept a silencer or a suppressor. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are also sometimes included.
Of course, none of this addresses the action or the caliber of the cartridge, and thus does not speak to the killing capacity of the rifle. This small fact did not seem to bother the authors of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, which defined an “assault weapon” as a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine that had two or more of the above listed features. As critics might note, this was regulation by cosmetics.
Last weekend, I attended my first gun show outside of Milwaukee (largely as an anthropological experience). There were several tables selling kits that would allow one to add some of the features described above. Many rifle owners like to customize their guns. I can’t imagine that anyone who bought an rifle without the features listed above would have any difficulty adding the desired components in his or her basement. I would suspect that even if by some miracle Congress reinstated the 1994 legislation, it would not constitute much of a barrier to those who want to customize their firearms.
At the same time, I can’t believe that new regulations would have much of an impact on the murder rate given the simple fact that most firearm-related homicides are committed with handguns.
The FBI Uniform Crime Reports inform us that in 2011, there were 12,664 murders in the United States. Of this sum, 6,220 were committed with handguns and another 323 with rifles. By way of comparison, 1,694 were committed with knives, 496 with blunt objects, and 728 with “personal weapons” (a category that includes hands, fists, and feet). In case you are interested, 2011 was not anomalous. I took the FBI data from the past decade and produced the following graph:
Should there be stricter regulation of handguns? This is a difficult question to answer with precision for two reasons. First, the FBI (to my knowledge) does not report data on what percentage of the handgun-related murders were committed by individuals who had acquired their weapons legally. Second, the regulations vary dramatically by state. In Connecticut, one has to attend a handgun training course, get fingerprinted, and go through a rigorous background check before one can purchase a handgun (certain categories of individuals—felons, those who have been hospitalized for mental illnesses, are under restraining orders, or were received a less-than-honorable discharge from the armed forces—are automatically excluded). In other states, the regulations are far less demanding.
Bottom line: while the current debates have been animated by “assault weapons,” the empirical evidence suggests that rifles (regardless of their cosmetics) are not the core problem. Of course, a cynic might suggest that this fact only increases the likelihood of a new assault weapon ban.