Gun control has been in the news for the last few weeks because of the Parkland shooting, but there’s been a lack of critical analysis on what gun control would and wouldn’t accomplish, and what would really need to be done to stop mass shootings. The most prominent proposal is to ban “assault weapons” and bump stocks, along with ideas to expand background checks and to raise the minimum age for purchasing guns. People also say that the government should do more to improve mental health, usually without any concrete policy proposals.
“Assault weapons” is an ambiguous term, and a bad one to set policy by. It’s supposed to ban military-style weapons like AR-15s other semi-automatic rifles. This sounds like a good idea on the surface, as most mass shootings in the news are committed with AR-15s, because the rifle is so deadly by itself and can be made fully automatic. Semi-automatic rifles are especially deadly in mass shootings because their individual rounds are usually more powerful than those of pistols, and they fire just as fast. Bump stocks make them deadlier by making them fully automatic, if much more inaccurate. However, the problem with banning bump stocks is that an AR-15 can do the same thing if you fire it from the hip with a belt loop, like this. Bump-firing an AR from the hip would be even less accurate than with a bump stock, but accuracy doesn’t matter if a madman is shooting in the middle of a crowd.
The issue with banning “assault weapons” is that manufacturers just need to change their weapons enough to get past the legal prohibitions and will still make military-style weapons that are only slightly neutered. Banning semi-automatic rifles as a whole, instead of just “assault weapons” would be a much clearer definition, and would prevent manufacturers from using loopholes to get around the ban in the future.
However, whether banning semi-autos will be effective in stopping school shootings is a different question. They are used frequently in mass shootings, but this is mostly because they’re more well-known and attract mass shooters. When used in a crowd while bump firing, they would be deadlier than pistols. In a school, though, a mass shooter doesn’t need a rifle to kill lots of people. The Virginia Tech attacker killed 32 with a Glock and Walther pistol; Adam Lanza killed 27 at Sandy Hook with a rifle. Banning the AR-15 alone won’t stop a single mass shooting; it will only mean that the killers use pistols instead of rifles. In addition, the murders committed by mass shooters are unrepresentative of the gun murders committed in America more broadly. According to the FBI, in 2014, 5,562 murders were committed using handguns; only 248 were committed with rifles, with mass shootings that got media attention probably accounting for an even smaller portion of that.
Speaking of Adam Lanza, his case highlights another issue with gun control. Lanza had OCD and possibly schizophrenia, which might’ve stopped him from buying a gun if there were more mental health restrictions. The problem is that he never bought a gun; he stole an AR from his mother before murdering her and driving to Sandy Hook to murder children. No background check would’ve stopped him from committing a massacre. The only way to stop him would’ve been to prevent his mom from owning a gun, which would essentially mean repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating most guns. This is the only way to really stop most mass shootings, since otherwise weapons will be too easy to get from family, or friends, or illegally. That would be a tall order in a country with as many guns as people, requiring an effort by the government not seen since the New Deal.
I’m not making these arguments because I oppose gun control, or because I really like guns. The only person in my family who owns a gun is my brother-in-law, and when he let me shoot it I got a giant bruise on my shoulder. I’m just concerned that people are pushing very marginal changes as wholesale solutions to mass shootings, and ignoring the vast majority of gun homicides. In reality, the only meaningful solution to end mass shootings and more common murders is to repeal the Second Amendment and confiscate most guns. You can be for or against doing that, but it’s a totally different discussion, with much more serious implications than simply closing background check loopholes or banning the AR-15.