Semi-Automatic Thinking on Gun Control

Semi-automatic rifles on display for sale at The Nation's Gun Show in Chantilly, Virginia on July 28, 2012 Photograph by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Landov

It’s perplexing and infuriating to gun-control advocates that as a political matter, there is little chance of new national restrictions on firearms. Politics aside, what’s really dumbfounding many liberals is that no amount of legislative tinkering would stop or even seriously slow the sort of evil psychotics who shoot innocent people in movie theaters, shopping malls—or a suburban Sikh temple.

Having previously reviewed (here and here, for instance) the current partisan circumstances precluding a real push in Congress for tougher gun control, let’s turn today to what we know about Milwaukee to illustrate why gun control is going nowhere.

In response to the Sikh killings, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center and one of the country’s smartest gun-control activists, told Reuters that the common thread connecting recent mass shootings is that they all involved semiautomatic handguns. “There is no valid reason for civilians to have assault rifles, semiautomatic handguns, and high-capacity magazines,” Sugarmann said.

But Milwaukee, like Tucson before it, shows that you don’t need an “assault rifle” to kill and maim a lot of people in a few minutes. Assault rifle is a term that Sugarmann and some of his colleagues demonized in the early 1990s because they knew a lot of ordinary people confuse it with “machine gun.” (I describe this episode in some detail in a recent book.) Fully automatic machine guns, which spray bursts of bullets with a single pull of the trigger, are already illegal. In this context, “assault weapon” is nothing more than a scary-sounding synonym for a semiautomatic military-style rifle. Round-for-round, a semiautomatic military-style rifle is no more powerful or dangerous than a traditional wooden-stock deer-hunting rifle. (Traditional deer-hunting rifles, as it happens, are derived directly from military-style weapons of an earlier era.)

We tried banning assault weapons from 1994 through 2004, when the ban expired. The law had no significant effect on crime rates (also discussed in my book). The ban was riddled with loopholes, not least that it focused on cosmetic features, such as whether rifles had bayonet mounts, which had nothing to do with lethality.

What about large-capacity magazines? In the wake of Tucson and Colorado, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and other gun-control advocates have renewed their push for restrictions on ammunition capacity. Personally, I see no justification for the sale to civilians of the sort of 100-round drum magazine employed by the Aurora movie theater killer. But the Milwaukee horror illustrates that a determined mass shooter can simply use multiple magazines, which can be quickly snapped into the grip of a semiautomatic pistol. Lautenberg, Sugarmann, and their allies would like to see a revival of the 10-round limit on magazine capacity that was included in the ill-fated assault weapons “ban.” Again, personally, I don’t think such a limit would seriously interfere with anyone’s Second Amendment rights. But the truth is that the 10-round rule backfired. Manufacturers like Glock saw the rule coming and stockpiled warehouses of large-capacity magazines. Then Congress passed a law that banned only the manufacture and sale of new large magazines. Existing equipment was “grandfathered in.” A booming market in “pre-ban” magazines provided all the large-capacity gear anyone could possibly want. Indeed, the porous ban made both military-style rifles and large-capacity magazines more popular than they had been because American gun owners tend to run out and buy anything that gun-controllers try to deny them. Talk about unintended consequences.

Currently, pending legislative proposals to restrict magazine capacity—which are D.O.A. because they have no support from the White House and, in any event, face massive opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives—have little chance of deterring a purposeful mass killer. Why? Because the measures would not ban possession of existing equipment, let alone authorize confiscation of the millions of large-capacity magazines already in private hands. Good thing, too. Can you imagine being the sheriff in a rural county given the mission of confiscating people’s pistol magazines (or, for that matter, military-style rifles)? It would lead to civil insurrection.

That leaves Sugarmann’s call for denying civilians semiautomatic handguns, such as the one the Milwaukee murderer reportedly used to deadly effect. But apart from its magazine (see above), a semiautomatic handgun, or pistol, is as ordinary, traditional, and basic as a firearm can be. The 9 mm model used in Milwaukee fires rounds the same size as a .38 caliber revolver. Yes, a pistol, with its spring-loaded magazine, can carry more ammunition than a six-round revolver, but that takes us back to the mag debate. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that under the Second Amendment, citizens have a right to keep handguns for self protection. That clearly covers the 9 mm pistol as much as it does the .38 caliber revolver.

The problem gun-control advocates confront is that we live in a society with upwards of 250 million firearms already in private hands, along with a lot of accoutrements. The right to “keep and bear” arms is protected by a foundational constitutional provision. The Second Amendment is more than a legal technicality. It represents independence, self-reliance, and security to many millions of Americans.

There’s little debate that we can and ought to prevent felons, children, and the mentally ill from acquiring guns. The Milwaukee killer seems to have avoided that screening mechanism—the FBI background check—despite a blemished military career, affiliation with odious hate groups, and some drunk-driving infractions. It might be worth debating whether his personal history should have put him into the FBI database. In contrast, it’s a waste of time to fulminate about semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons.

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