The White House’s gun control agenda would not have prevented the Sandy Hook Massacre.
President Obama gave the final press conference of his first term Monday, addressing his gun control agenda. The Associated Press reported Monday morning:
Obama is vowing not to back off his support for sweeping gun legislation that would require congressional backing — including banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines and instituting universal background checks — despite opposition from the influential gun lobby.
“Will all of them get through this Congress? I don’t know,” Obama said at a news conference Monday.
“My starting point is not to worry about the politics,” he said. “My starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works.”
That is an ostensibly reasonable standard. Reducing gun violence became a national priority after the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut. Politico reported Monday afternoon that Joe Biden’s leadership of the White House’s gun policy task force included a concerted dialogue with the loved ones of those who died:
Biden’s personal gun violence outreach now includes the families of the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Biden told the Monday meeting [of Democratic allies] that he’s been reaching out to the families. A White House official confirmed the vice president has been in touch directly with some of the families.
“The vice president mentioned that he has called every one of the families that has lost children in Connecticut, and that the conversations have lasted no less than 45 minutes,” [Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.)] said.
President Obama’s focus on policy efficacy is admirable. The fundamental question is whether the three legislative proposals he floated in his press conference would effectively reduce gun violence. Because the current debate was sparked by a specific tragedy, it is natural to ask whether that event would have been prevented by an assault weapons ban, magazine capacity limit, and the institution of universal background checks. Based on my knowledge of firearms and understanding of how the Newtown incident unfolded, my firm answer to that question is no. President Obama’s gun control agenda would not have prevented the Sandy Hook Massacre. There is also good reason to think it is not an effective strategy for reducing gun violence.
It is important to define effectiveness in this context. Every policy has a benefit and a cost. One or the other may be negligible, but this fact is inescapable. Gun control policy has debatable benefits with legitimate arguments on both sides, thanks in part to inconclusive data about whether there is a causal link between gun ownership and gun violence. However, it is undeniable that gun regulation has costs, namely, the diminishment of gun owner’s individual liberty and their Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The vast majority of gun owners are responsible, essentially reasonable people. They have no intrinsic desire to violate the law. For this reason, they bear the preponderant cost of gun control policies targeted at other people, violent individuals who pose a threat to others.
The president’s three proposals probably do not encapsulate his entire policy agenda for Congress. That being said, they are virtually certain to end up at the center of the imbroglio triggered by his final plan. The first is an assault weapons ban, presumably similar to the one in place between 1994 and 2004. It defined assault weapons as follows:
In the former U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name (e.g., Colt AR-15, TEC-9, non-select-fire AK-47s produced by three manufacturers, and Uzis) and other semi-automatic firearms because they possess a minimum set of cosmetic features from the following list of features:
Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Bayonet mount
- Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
- Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device that enables launching or firing rifle grenades, though this applies only to muzzle mounted grenade launchers and not those mounted externally).
Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
- Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
- Barrel shroud that can be used as a hand-hold
- Unloaded weight of 50 oz. (1.4 kg) or more
- A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
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