As a result of the recent Florida school massacre we are again engaged in a national debate about gun control. I admire young people from all over the country who are putting up a valiant fight to get sane gun control legislation. Sadly though, after the initial shock subsides, no legislation of significance is likely to occur just as it didn’t after Sandy Hook. Some “feel good” laws like the recent one in Florida will probably be passed. But they will have virtually no positive impact on the incidence of gun violence, including mass shootings.
In any discussion of mass shootings we must separate the rhetoric from the reality and explore solutions that over time really would reduce the incidence of such events. At the same time there is an underlying level of gun violence in America, mostly in cities, that also requires our attention. That is even more deadly than mass shootings but gets less public attention and may require different solutions. Here I am only going to address measures that might reduce the carnage of mass shootings.
To begin we must face several realities. First, until there is a fundamental change in America’s love affair with guns, we simply cannot prevent mass shootings. We can only hope to minimize the frequency and severity of them. Second, there is virtually no limit to the misinformation being distributed by organizations on both sides of the gun control issue. Third, the infamous AR-15 rifle getting all the attention is an assault style rifle, not a true military assault weapon. It only looks like one. Real assault rifles are capable of firing fully automatically like a machine gun. The assault style rifles sold for civilian use are only capable of semi-automatic operation. With one major exception those guns and other assault style rifles used in mass shootings are technically similar to any one of the estimated 150 million-plus semi-automatic firearms in the hands of US citizens.
So why do mass shooters prefer assault style rifles? They are more lethal! The fundamental difference that makes them more lethal than other firearms is that they have easily detachable magazines that can hold as many as 100 cartridges or more. When empty, the magazine can be removed and a full one reattached in 3 seconds or less. That dramatically increases the shooter’s killing power in a very short time span. It also reduces the time potential victims have to escape or disable the shooter during the reloading process.
There are several ideas that could possibly help reduce the incidence or severity of mass shootings. Universal criminal background checks likely would help in a small way. Increasing the age from 18 to 21 for a person to be legally allowed to buy an assault style rifle may be of limited usefulness. Revisiting and/or revising the HIPPA rules may be beneficial in identifying potential gun violence risk from the mentally ill. “Red Flag” laws also have the potential to reduce the chance of an undiagnosed mentally ill or violent person having access to a gun. One point worth considering relative to mental illness, however, is that an analysis of mass killings by a Columbia University researcher found that only about 20% of the killers were found to suffer from mental illness. We should investigate the potential benefit of these ideas for addressing mass shootings. But I think they will not significantly change the mass shooting landscape even if we enact all of them.
Currently there is some national enthusiasm for banning all assault style rifles, or even all semi-automatic weapons. That would dramatically reduce, maybe even eliminate, mass shootings. Australia actually did that 20 years ago in response to a mass shooting in that country. They have not had one since. Regardless, that idea is impractical here. It would never get enough political support to be enacted. If it were though, the incidence of all gun related homicides and suicides, not just mass shootings, would plummet.
In my judgment, the one thing short of an outright ban of weapons that would have a substantial mitigating impact on mass shootings would be to limit the capacity of magazines (all magazines including those in handguns). Limiting magazine capacity to say 5 or 6 rounds, the capacity of most typical hunting rifles, would substantially reduce the rapid killing power of a shooter. He/she would have to reload much more often improving victims’ opportunities to escape or take down the gunman.
Contrary to the NRA and other similarly subversive organizations’ rhetoric, there are no legitimate sporting activities or defensive needs that would be unreasonably impacted by limiting magazine capacity. We already limit magazine capacity to three cartridges in shotguns used for hunting migratory birds. That limits the number of birds a shooter can kill. Yet we have no limit on magazines that shooters can use to kill people. How can that be rational gun control?
The beauty of the magazine capacity limitation alternative is that we would not necessarily even need to confiscate high capacity magazines. We could pass federal legislation requiring all of them to be federally registered to the owners and make it a federal felony with mandatory prison time for possessing an unregistered one. We already have experience with that approach. In the 1930s gangsters’ weapons of choice were often machine guns. Then Congress passed the National Firearms Act in 1934. It required a statutory excise tax on the manufacture or transfer of all machine guns, registration of all existing such weapons in private hands, and a 10 year prison sentence for violations. That effectively ended the use of machine guns in criminal activities.
We need to take every step politically possible to prevent mass shootings (recognizing we can never eliminate them). And limiting magazine capacity will be a very heavy political lift. But it is the single least intrusive and best chance we have to reduce the number of casualties when attempted mass shootings do occur.