A lot of numbers are thrown around — and ignored — in the debate over gun regulation. Are mass shootings on the rise? Is the United States the most violent nation in the developed world? Is a proliferation of assault rifles fueling a new era of massacres and mayhem? So it would seem, based on the rhetoric of folks like Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). A crux of the current debate is whether to ban so-called assault weapons. Rifles such as the AR-15, a semi-automatic first cousin of the M-16, are Public Enemy Number One.
What do the official FBI crime statistics say? 3.76%. That is the proportion of 2011 firearm homicides in which a rifle was documented as the weapon. Compare that to 4.15% for shotguns and 72.47% for handguns. (Rifles were implicated in 2.55% of all murders.) An important qualification should be made: 19.62% of cases involved “Other guns or type not stated.” I am also taking for granted that the FBI database is reliable. That being said, handguns were documented more than 19 times as frequently as rifles. Some of the miscellaneous cases were undocumented, but the balance defies standard categorization. It may even be that more guns were documented in a miscellaneous category than as rifles, though this is admittedly conjecture.
Even if all of the rifles were assault weapons — a dubious assumption given assurances that an assault weapons ban would not affect the vast majority of law-abiding gun owners — it would seem that gun control advocates are off target in their focus. The truth is that an assault weapons ban would diminish the liberty of law abiding-citizens, but its impact on gun homicides would be minimal. General gun statistics are most representative of handguns, which are far more common — and relatively difficult to demonize.
Gun regulation is a complicated issue. The United States does have a high rate of gun deaths compared to other developed nations. It was also born of a gun culture, forged by a revolution of citizen militias defending their property against a distant tyrant. The ethical, legal, and practical aspects of the debate are uniquely complex. The stakes are high, and emotions run deep, liberty on one side, security on the other. With this in mind, it is important that the discussion be conducted factually and respectfully.
Demagoguing a minor aspect of a larger problem will not solve it. Homicides are not even a leading cause of death in the United States, but suicides ranked tenth in 2011, and were more than twice as prevalent. Yet Congress remains preoccupied by the merits of regulating bayonets and flash suppressors.