Opinion

Court Upholds “Assault Weapon” Ban With Incorrect Facts

Should “military-style rifles” be banned?  On Tuesday, the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia – in a virtual party line vote – upheld Maryland’s assault weapons ban.  In the 10 to 4 En Banc decision, Democrats supported the ban while Republicans opposed it.

Writing for the majority, Judge Robert King, a Clinton appointee, argued that the Second Amendment does not protect people owning “weapons of war.”  His opinion starts out by listing recent mass public shootings that have used AR-15-type rifles, guns that he also refers to as “military-style rifles,” in their attacks.

The opinion argues that attacks using large capacity magazines and those using assault weapons are the most deadly and that they are used most frequently used weapons.  Yet, none of these points are correct.  King’s decision shows are real lack of understanding about guns and crime.

Democrats have filled the courts with judges who will look for any reason to justify banning guns.  Decisions like this are being made across the country.  It also illustrates the possible impact of President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The AR-15 looks like the M-16, which has been in use by the U.S. military since the Vietnam War. While the M-16 is a machine gun, the AR-15 is semiautomatic, meaning that it fires only one bullet at a time. Yet the AR-15 was covered by the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban (which expired in 2004).

But people continue to ask: Why do people need a semiautomatic AR-15 to go out and kill deer? The answer is simple: Because it is a hunting rifle. It has just been made to look like a military weapon.

The AR-15 uses essentially the same bullets as small-game hunting rifles, fires at the same rapidity, and does the same damage.

The .223-inch rounds used by the AR-15 are actually small compared with what is usually used to hunt deer. Indeed, many states prohibit using bullets of that size for deer hunting. The concern is that the animal will suffer from its wounds rather than experiencing a quick death.

But hunting isn’t the issue here. Semiautomatic weapons also protect people and save lives. Single-shot rifles that require manual reloading after every round may not do people a lot of good when their first shot misses or when they are faced by multiple attackers.

The Circuit court decision gives the false impression that the “assault weapons” used in Orlando and San Bernardino, Calif., are commonly used in mass public shootings. My book, The War on Guns, shows such weapons were used exclusively in only 12 percent of the mass public shootings from President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration through the end of 2015. In another 12 percent of shootings, a rifle was used in conjunction with a handgun or a shotgun.  Sixty-eight percent of the attacks just used handguns.

That research shows that the highest fatality rate was actually in these attacks where multiple guns were used, not the presence of large capacity magazines.  In fact, the average number of people killed in these attacks where there were large capacity magazines and not multiple guns was 6, while attacks with multiple guns and not large capacity magazines was 8.3.

Since the federal ban expired in September 2004, murder and overall violent-crime rates have actually fallen. In 2003, the last full year before the law expired, the U.S. murder rate was 5.7 per 100,000 people. By 2014, the murder rate had fallen to 4.5 per 100,000 people. In none of the years since the ban ended has the murder rate been higher than it was in 2003. The average murder rate during the 10 years of the ban was 6.7 per 100,000 people and in the 10 years after it was 5.1.

In fact, murder rates fell immediately after September 2004, especially in the states that did not have their own assault-weapons bans. My published academic research accounts for other factors and confirms the apparent benefits of the federal ban’s expiration.

There is also a misunderstanding about the large-capacity ammunition magazines used by some of these killers. The common perception is that so-called assault weapons can hold larger magazines than hunting rifles. Any gun that can hold a magazine can hold one of any size. That is true of handguns as well as rifles. A magazine, which is basically a metal box with a spring, is trivially easy to make and virtually impossible to stop criminals from obtaining. The 1994 assault-weapons law banned larger magazines and yet had no benefit on crime rates.

If we finally want to deal seriously with multiple-victim public shootings, it is about time that we acknowledge a common feature of these attacks. Since at least as far back as 1950, over 98 percent of U.S. mass public shootings (with more than three fatalities) have occurred in places where citizens are not allowed to carry their own firearms.  That was true in all the attacks in Europe.

Let licensed citizens carry guns in the sorts of places that keep getting attacked. They will sometimes be able to stop these killings before police can get to the scene.

The AR-15 is a dangerous weapon, but it is not a weapon of war. It doesn’t make sense to ban certain semiautomatic guns just because of how they look. And no, banning all semiautomatic guns is not the answer either. Despite the immediate emotional appeal of doing so, it will actually make Americans less safe.

John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author most recently of “The War on Guns” (Regnery 2016).