In the midst of seemingly perpetual mass shootings including the massacres in Parkland, Sante Fe and Christchurch, there are increasingly strong calls to outlaw the purchase of high capacity magazines and the so-called “weapons of choice” for mass shooters: assault weapons. An assault weapon, as defined in most proposed legislation, is a semi-automatic firearm with a few distinguishing features that improve functionality — a foregrip or a threaded barrel, for example. Proponents of a ban contend that it would reduce the lethality and prevalence of mass shootings, lower homicide and save lives generally. There is, however, scarce and conflicting evidence for this conclusion; a federal ban on assault weapons appears to be nothing more than a political distraction from the important moral questions we ought to be asking about guns in America.
While the limited available data on gun ban effects is not conducive to rigorous statistical analysis, most statistical analyses of state assault weapon and high capacity magazine bans and Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) expired 1994 federal assault weapon/high capacity magazine ban do not find statistically significant effects of the bans on homicide or suicide. As for mass shootings, a review of existing literature by the RAND corporation, a non-partisan American think tank that reviewed over 1,000 published studies pertaining to effects of gun policy, found “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings.” The analysis by the RAND Corporation also found inconclusive evidence for the effects of assault weapon bans on violent crime and homicide.
A similar review of firearms research in 2004 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that the 1994 federal ban “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes.” Another fact-check by the independent, investigative journalism team at ProPublica refuted Feinstein’s claim that her ban worked, writing “gun violence experts say the exact opposite.” Even the 2016 Epidemiologic Review meta-study often cited by gun control advocates reports only one statistically significant result pertaining to the 1994 federal ban: a study out of Quinnipiac University which found a 19.3 percent increase in murder rates during the effect of the ban, after controlling for socioeconomic and demographic variables.
This is not to say that there is no evidence for positive effects of an assault weapon ban. One statistical analysis that met RAND’s criteria for inclusion in their meta-study, for example, suggests that an assault weapons ban is correlated with a decrease in the lethality of mass shootings. The same author also found that assault weapon bans could result in fewer school shooting victims.
Each of these studies — both suggesting and refuting the effectiveness of gun reform — rely on limited available data about effects of gun legislation and thus should not be convincing enough to enact new policy. Lack of data and comprehensive research prevents us from making certain conclusions as to the effects of gun policy, even if the vast majority of research on this issue has not found conclusive evidence for positive effects from assault weapon and high capacity magazine bans.
Further, our focus on assault weapons distracts from the vast majority of violence perpetrated using firearms, as in practice, assault weapons are overwhelmingly less dangerous to American society than handguns. In 2016, a rifle of any kind was used in about three percent of gun related homicides, according to the FBI.
Still, some will point to Las Vegas and Stoneman Douglas and Pulse Nightclub, some of the most deadly shootings in American history, as examples of the devastation that such firepower can generate. Of course, these tragedies do far more harm than that which is incurred by the victims, their friends and families. Mass shootings, in which assault weapons are disproportionately used, strike fear and leave deep scars across the country, so much so that it can be hard or impossible to quantify the suffering. Still, it is important to keep our fears consistent with statistical reality. Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than they are to die in a mass shooting.
We do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that an assault weapons ban would have positive effects on gun safety outcomes, and enacting a ban certainly would not lead to a conclusion to the political squabbling regarding guns. So then what is the purpose of such a policy if it might not make us safer or improve discourse?
Instead, we must focus on the deeper questions of values and rights that serve as the groundwork for debates on gun reform. For argument’s sake, let us grant gun control advocates some conclusions on gun violence and defensive gun use. If a society with dramatically fewer firearms, or even no private gun ownership, is a safer society (for which there is currently scant if any causal evidence), is this a moral path to take? Are we willing to strip away the individual right to self-defense in favor of a less violent collective? Should I be denied the right to defend myself and my family because infringing on that right may reduce the lethality of acts of violence, or because those fatalities may outnumber lives saved by defensive firearm use? There are real debates here to be had about collective good, individual liberty and the purpose of the 2nd Amendment, even accepting many claims that I and other gun rights supporters want to contest.
But none of this is possible without civil discourse on the issue of guns. While some right-wingers peddle cruel and baseless conspiracy theories that the Parkland survivors were crisis actors, some liberals also make gross and false claims, calling the NRA and its 5 million members “funding the killers” and “child murderers.” As ambassadors of higher education, we need to be leading the way with fact, reason and philosophy-based discussion about firearms in this country, knowing that we all want a better society for our children and putting aside our strong feelings to achieve it.
Donnie Sahyouni ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.