Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why We Can’t “Do Something” About the Gun Problem

Sig Sauer MCX, similar to rifle used at Pulse massacre.
(Image source:
In the wake of the horrific massacre in Orlando, people are once again demanding we “do something” about the massive number of guns in American hands — an estimated 357 million privately-owned guns as of 2013, or about 112 guns per 100 citizens. Some demand we get rid of guns altogether; others demand we loosen the legislation to put guns in the hands of more people. And both sides are churning out bogus “facts” to support their positions.

To be clear about my own biases: I believe the Second Amendment as written is outdated and needs revision. I favor reasonable legislation which includes mandatory training and certification as well as reasonable restrictions on carrying and purchasing. However, the research and statistical analysis I’ve done over the last couple of days highlighted for me both the drama and the intractability of the problem. To put it concisely, there’s plenty we can do about the American gun problem … most of which will do little if anything to solve it.

By the Numbers

To give you an idea of the legislative mess:

  • Only 17 states[*] require some form of permit or license to purchase a weapon; in many cases, the requirement only obtains for pistols.
  • Only 9 states require registration, mostly of handguns, sometimes only under certain circumstances.
  • Only 6 states require a license to own a handgun.
  • The concealed-carry laws of 42 states vary from very strict may-issue conditions to non-mandatory permits issued on request for the sake of reciprocity with other states.
  • Open-carry is permitted to some degree in 30 states.
  • There are only 8 states in which local ordinances can do more than limit discharge of weapons; in 22 states, state pre-emption is total.
  • Eleven states have no magazine capacity restrictions; 8 have no “assault weapon” restrictions.
  • Nineteen states require no background checks for private sales.
  • Only one state, California, imposes a mandatory waiting period as well as requiring a purchase permit.
  • Thirty-three states have some version of “castle doctrine” or “stand your ground” law, either on the books or through case law.

In the year 2013, there were a total of 33,636 firearms death in the USA. Of those deaths, 63% were suicides, 33.3% were homicides, 1.5% were accidents, and 1.4% were due to legal intervention or war. Of all the homicides, only about 9% fell in the category of “justifiable”.[†] The age-adjusted death rate overall was 10.6/100k, or about 1.4% of the total death rate (731.9/100k), with black males the most heavily affected racial group (33.5/100k, mostly by homicide). The highest cause of death that year was heart disease, carrying off 169.8/100k; self-harm, the highest cause of firearms death, ranked 10th, while homicide didn’t make the top 15.

To put these figures into a different perspective: The total number of firearms deaths was just over 0.01% of the 2103 US population, approximately 321,773,000. By comparison, the United Kingdom has about 1/5th the population of the US; if their firearms-death rate were proportional, they would have suffered 6,605 losses in 2011, the latest year I had available. However, their real total was a mere 146 — a death rate of about 0.2/100k, or about 2.31 × 10-6% of the population. Even if the UK had a 2011 population equal to the US in 2013, about 45.2 Americans would have died by firearms for every UK resident who suffered the same fate.

The Analysis

Using the legislative information I gathered, I constructed a rough matrix by which I could calculate a relative score of gun-control strength for each state (0 – 15). Then, using data from the Center for Disease Control supplemented by other information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and census data for 2010, I performed a series of “quick ’n dirty” statistical analyses, comparing the effect of the legislation on homicides, suicides, and deaths overall, as well as their effect on two forms of violent crime (armed assault and armed robbery). Again, these analyses are provisional; I offer them as a sociology major’s version of an educated guess.

The results were disturbing. So far as stronger gun-control measures seem to have any impact at all, it is on suicide rates: the harder it is to own and carry a gun, the less likely one is to commit suicide. The urbanization of a state correlated positively with the strength of the gun laws: the more urbanized the state, the stronger the gun laws. However, the strength of the gun laws had no significant correlation to either homicide or armed assault; there was a positive correlation between the strength of the gun laws and armed robbery, but its significance is questionable. And there was no significant correlation between the urbanization of a state and homicide, armed assault, or robbery.

The lack of correlations works both ways. If relatively stronger gun laws appear to have little impact on gun crimes, so do relatively lax gun laws. The difficulty of obtaining and possessing a gun legally in one jurisdiction is probably offset by the ease with which gun-runners can obtain them in a different jurisdiction and transport them for illegal sale and possession. Over 1.4 million guns were stolen between 2005 and 2010; 182,901 were reported stolen in 2012. There’s little doubt these hot guns ended up in the hands of crooks and thugs. In sum, the relatively lax gun laws of some states appear to have no effect on crime other than to undermine the stronger gun laws in other states.

Resurrecting the Assault Weapons Ban

Much of the current talk revolves around resurrecting the assault weapons ban that obtained from 1994 to 2004. However, there are some serious misunderstandings that need clarification.

First, assault weapons, as generally defined, are not true assault rifles. The distinction is in assault rifles’ capacity to switch between single-shot and full automatic (or multiple-round bursts, on many models). Assault weapons look like assault rifles because they’re usually civilian versions of a rifle marketed to military and law-enforcement units. However, they can only fire in single-shot mode; models built since 1986 have had crucial redesigns of the firing components that make conversion to automatic fire very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone not trained as an armorer, machinist, or gunsmith.

Second, the weapon of choice for most mass shootings since 1982, according to data gathered by Mother Jones, has been the semiautomatic pistol. Semiautomatic rifles only figure in just over 1 in 5 mass shootings, just slightly more than other rifles or shotguns, while semiautomatic pistols appear in almost 3 out of 4 mass public shootings.[‡] Pistols are less expensive and lighter to carry. Extra magazines are inexpensive, making capacity restrictions moot. The larger, heavier bullets fired by the most popular pistols have sufficient stopping power at close range to make the smaller yet higher-energy rounds of semiautomatic rifles unnecessary. Above all, pistols are easier to conceal than are rifles, even assault weapons. Carrying an “assault weapon” into a school or nightclub is more important for its psychological effect than anything else: it makes the shooter look even more like a Barney Badass, and enhances the fear of his intended victims.

The 1994 assault-weapons ban had mixed results. For one thing, it did nothing about the semiautomatic rifles already in the hands of citizens. For another, it did nothing about high-capacity magazines. For example on the latter point, you can purchase a Glock G17 pistol with two 17-round magazines for $599 at Bass Pro Shops; you can purchase aftermarket 31-round magazines for just $39.95, giving you one round more than the 30-round magazine that comes standard with the Bushmaster AR-15 Optics Ready Carbine sold at ProGuns for $1,249.99. For $25 more, you can go with a 50-round drum. Those are the economics of mass murder.

What Do We Do?

“Do something!” But do what?

For one thing, further research is needed on the effects of individual pieces of gun-control legislation, to see what really works, what doesn’t, and what’s counterproductive. Second, we need to rethink the necessity of the Second Amendment as currently written; it was written not out of distrust of the federal government, but rather out of necessities of the time that no longer obtain. Third, semiautomatic rifles are not only unnecessary for hunting, they work against the “one-shot drop” that is “the goal of every responsible hunter,” as Brian Mccombie put it in Outdoor Life. Fourth, semiautomatic pistols are not required for self-protection; as this post explains, revolvers have their offsetting benefits and are more easily mastered. Fifth, the various states need to get together to find means of shutting down the illegal gun trade without involving the federal government more than is absolutely necessary.

Taking semiautomatic weapons, including pistols, completely off the civilian market would do away with the need for legislation restricting the purchase and possession of high-capacity magazines. However, its effectiveness would be dubious if the federal government made no effort to buy back the weapons currently held by civilians, or require their registration under NFA Title II. A buy-back program could easily stretch into the billions of dollars, even when strung out over the course of several years; but that by itself doesn’t make such a proposal impractical.

But the problem won’t be solved by stamping our feet, shouting “Do something!”, and blindly shaming the religious with stupid #dontpray hashtags. (Prayer is much more useful than hashtag campaigns.) Nor will it be solved by fake facts and cliché expressions. (“An armed society is a polite society”? The facts say otherwise.) In fact, so long as we hang on to a Constitutional amendment written in a different time to meet needs that no longer exist, it’s likely that doing anything will be the same in effect as doing nothing.

[*] Here, states includes Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
[†] While the rest of the information in this paragraph is taken from the CDC source, the justifiable homicide information is taken from the FBI sources, which has some different numbers due to different definitions and methodology.
[‡] A report by the Congressional Research Service puts the number of “assault weapons” used in mass public shootings at 18/66 between 1999 and 2013, or about 27.3%. (Krouse, W. J.; Richardson, D. J. (2015, July 30). Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999 – 2013. Retrieved June 18, 2016 from Federation of American Scientists: