(Updates with details on the guns used from the police news conference.)
The ritual has become sickeningly familiar. A madman opens fire in a crowded space. Innocent victims fall. Politicians put aside prepared remarks to talk about hugging children more tightly. Lawmakers debate irrelevant gun issues. Nothing happens.
This time, after the Aurora (Colo.) movie theater massacre, we’re going to hear a lot of jibber-jabber about what kind of gun the insane killer used—the local police chief has mentioned an AR-15 rifle, a shotgun, and two Glock pistols—and people who know anything about firearms will sadly shake their heads. That’s because the type of gun is a distraction. When it comes to weaponry and mass shootings, the issue to focus on is magazine capacity. And then there’s more bad news for gun-control advocates: As a matter of practical politics and Second Amendment reality, nothing useful will happen on magazine capacity.
As my colleagues at Bloomberg News have reported: At least a dozen people were killed and as many as 59 injured when a gunman in a gas mask opened fire at about 12:30 a.m. in a theater showing the newest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises (TWX), in a Denver suburb. The 24-year-old suspect, James Holmes, a medical student at the University of Colorado who withdrew from school last month, apparently has no ties to terrorists and no criminal record.
“We may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this,” President Barack Obama said in Fort Myers, Fla. “Such violence, such evil is senseless. It’s beyond reason.” The president canceled campaign events to return to Washington. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement he was “praying for the families and loved ones of the victims during this time of deep shock and immense grief.”
The New York Times reported that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and principal owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg Businessweek, said on his weekly radio show: “You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.”
Sounding a similar theme, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released this statement: “This tragedy is another grim reminder that guns are the enablers of mass killers and that our nation pays an unacceptable price for our failure to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.” The statement added: “We don’t want sympathy from the president or other elected officials. We are insistent that our elected leaders take action to prevent future tragedies.”
Act how? My bet is that gun-control advocates will call for restricting so-called assault weapons, of which the AR-15 is one variety. From 1994 to 2004, we actually had an assault weapon ban, of sorts, but one so riddled with loopholes and pointless provisions that criminologists have concluded that it probably had no real effect on crime rates. The truth is that military-style, semiautomatic rifles are not intrinsically more dangerous than other rifles; indeed, the old-fashioned deer-hunting rifle your grandfather used might be more powerful and, shot for shot, more deadly. There are more deer rifles around than AR-15s, and both are available for purchase by adults with clean records.
What makes a rifle, or a pistol, more dangerous is ammunition capacity: the size of the magazine, not the model of the weapon. (Fully automatic machine guns are already illegal.)
So rather than obsessing about assault rifles, gun-control advocates might focus on magazine capacity. We’ll have to see whether the Aurora shooter had oversized magazines similar to the one used by the Glock-wielding killer in the January 2011 Tucson (Ariz.) massacre.
The assault weapon ban included a measure that limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds. One of the many structural flaws with the ban was that it applied only to newly manufactured magazines; “pre-ban” equipment was grandfathered in. As a result, in the runup to the law’s enactment, manufacturers such as Glock ran their factories full tilt and created huge backlogs of large-capacity magazines, which were then readily available (and very much in demand) after 1994. With the ban long gone, there is an enormous supply of large magazines on the market. The only way to address their presence would be to confiscate existing ones and prohibit the sale of new ones. This is simply not going to happen.
If liberals proposed magazine confiscation, we would have a National Rifle Association-led culture war that could devolve into armed resistance. No sane police chief or sheriff would try to go into people’s homes to grab their magazines.
Just as there is no turning the clock back on the profusion of guns in private hands in the U.S.—250 million to 300 million by some estimates—there is nothing we can do about the prevalence of large-capacity magazines. Unless we repeal the Second Amendment—not likely—confiscation is simply not going to wash.
And there’s more bad news for gun-control advocates: The Aurora killer reportedly was carrying a shotgun, too. In close quarters, the spray of shotgun pellets can kill more people more quickly than a semiautomatic rifle. Do you think it would be worthwhile to try to confiscate or restrict shotguns, which millions of people associate with hunting duck and shooting clay pigeons? Not likely. As for the pistols in Aurora, remember that the Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the Second Amendment protects a right to keep a handgun in the home, providing it is acquired legally.
Rather than weapons, we ought to look at ways of more efficiently identifying people with mental and emotional problems and ensuring that their names get into the already existing instant-background-check system that all gun buyers must go through. Even that approach will do little about the potential misuse of the arsenal already in private hands.
We’ve proven to ourselves for more than a decade that our national politicians, as a group, lack the will to grapple with gun control. That may be a good thing if you’re a Second Amendment enthusiast or a bad thing if guns strike you as repellent.
This is a lesson the citizens of Aurora and the rest of the Denver area have learned all too painfully. In 1999, two students shot 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in suburban Denver before killing themselves. The Columbine bloodshed did not lead to new gun control at the national level. Neither did the Tucson shooting in 2011. And, in all likelihood, neither will the deaths in Aurora.