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Off Target

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.

Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
  • Detachable magazine.

The list notably lacks reference to features that affect the basic operation of a firearm, with the exception of extended magazines, which will be discussed separately, and shotgun magazine design. There is no reference to the action of a gun, i.e. the moving parts which allow it to fire. (Grenade launchers are outside of this essay’s scope; in any case, grenades did not play a role in Sandy Hook.) Machine guns, defined as firing multiple rounds with a single trigger pull, were banned almost a century ago to curtail prohibition gang violence, and were not dealt with in the 1994 ban.

The Newtown shooter could have used a “standard” rifle to fire ammunition of the same or comparable type with the same or comparable accuracy, precision, and rapidity as the AR-15 he used. He could have used a rifle bought at a sporting goods store, which says less about rifles than the people who wield them. He could have killed just as many children. Banning assault weapons would not have changed that. The category was contrived by the people who outlawed it.

High-capacity magazines are a different story. They clearly have implications for the basic operation of a firearm. Assuming no difference in reliability, a high-capacity magazine seems to have utility for someone interested in killing a lot of people in a short amount of time. Setting aside the fact that mass shootings are exceedingly rare, account for a tiny percentage of gun deaths, and have neither increased nor decreased in recent years, including last year, the policy case for banning high-capacity magazines almost makes itself: Reloading takes time; increasing the frequency with which a shooter must reload dramatically decreases the damage he or she can do. Basic math, right?

It would be, if not for the tacit assumption that the time it takes to change magazines is significant. As with any other aspect of handling firearms, the facility of the user is decisive. A warning, the following video contains brief profanity:

That was a demonstration of fast magazine changing with an AR-15. For the reasons noted above, a completely legal ‘standard’ magazine-fed rifle could be reloaded with comparable speed and consistency. Again, the decisive factor is the facility of the user. Pistol magazine changes can be executed even more quickly and consistently, so banning high-capacity pistol magazines would be even less consequential:

An effective (as distinct from legal) ban on high-capacity magazines might well have lessened the death toll of recent mass shootings. And yet the fact remains that the ban would impact far more people using guns for self-defense or sport than mass shooters, for the simple reason that mass shooters make up a tiny minority of gun users. Such a ban would not affect the vast majority of violent gun incidents, and by extension, gun deaths. In any case, 3-D printing technology is maturing to the point that once it is widely adopted, it will render such a ban unenforceable, unless we ban 3-D printing.

This leaves the question of increased background checks, including information sharing among relevant state and federal databases. Exceptions in the background check mandate currently exist for sales between private individuals (the “gun show loophole”) and by federally licensed dealers. That question has a very simple answer: The Newtown shooter never faced a background check because he stole the guns he used from his mother, murdering her before traveling to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It is the bitterest of ironies that, of the three policies President Obama mentioned, the one with the greatest potential impact on gun violence mattered least in the case of Sandy Hook. That massacre, which continues to fuel a furious debate over gun rights and regulations, was a statistical aberration. But no fact, figure, or circumstance can ever make it less of a nightmare, or the nightmare any less real. What happened happened, and it makes any decent person recoil, as it should.

Honoring the victims of Sandy Hook means not focusing on the politics, which are fueled by overwhelming emotion. It means focusing on what makes sense given the relevant facts of the case. It means focusing on what works. Only draconian, unconstitutional gun regulations would have prevented what happened in Newtown one month and two days ago. If the shooter was simply an evil human being, then it is hard to see what remedy policy makers can offer. If men were angels, there would be no debate about violence of any kind, but ours is a fallen world.

We do know that the shooter was unwell. He was undergoing treatment for serious disorders of the mind. He was an adult and is fully culpable for his actions. With that understood, the Sandy Hook Massacre is most plausibly a symptom of a mental health crisis that exploded when the policy of deinstitutionalization began half a century ago. There is no American mental health system. There is no functional legal framework for commitment. There are hardly any mental hospital beds. There are medications which only theoretically address conditions we are barely beginning to understand. And there are the streets, jails, and prisons where millions of severely mentally ill people live without dignity, at the mercy of their demons. These people are easy to forget about and ignore. For our own sake, but more importantly for theirs, we should start paying attention. We should take responsibility for our fellow human beings. We should start exploring serious, systematic policy solutions.

As for the victims of gun violence whose suffering has been thrust into the public consciousness, all sides should tread with caution. There is a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation, and mistrust in this debate. The stakes for our freedom and our security are high. We should not let fear and emotion drive us away from the truth.

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