The Gun Control Mirage
Stephen Paddock’s motives for his murderous rampage in Las Vegas on Sunday still aren’t known, and neither are all the details of his plans and methods. But since our friends on the left have decided to make this a debate over gun control, someone has to explain why their familiar solutions won’t stop mass shootings.
The impulse to do something after an event of such horror is understandable, and progressives believe that every human problem can be solved with a policy tweak. A ban here, a background check there, and, voila, no more mass shootings. But American life and human depravity don’t always bend to government dictates.
Police say they found 23 firearms in Paddock’s hotel room—from a handgun to high-caliber rifles—and 19 more in his home. Investigators haven’t disclosed the weapons Paddock used to fire on the crowd, though audio suggests rapid fire akin to automatic gunfire.
But if Paddock had an automatic weapon, he probably obtained it illegally. Automatic weapons have been heavily regulated since the 1930s, and it has been illegal to buy a new automatic firearm since 1986. An automatic weapon made before 1986 must be registered, and only specific dealers may transfer them. Buyers must undergo a lengthy FBI check that includes fingerprints and photos, and local law enforcement is alerted.
Paddock also possessed several semi-automatic “assault” rifles, such as an AR-15. But what defines an assault weapon are its cosmetic features—not its caliber or velocity. That is why the Clinton-era ban on such rifles had no discernible effect on gun violence, and why the Department of Justice in 2004 found no purpose in renewing it.
Ah, but what about so-called bump stocks, which Paddock used to simulate quick, automatic-style fire? Outright modification of a firearm into an automatic is already a federal felony punishable by 10 years in prison. Congress could outlaw bump stocks, but how does it outlaw a technique? The practice of quickly “bumping” a trigger with one’s finger to engage in rapid fire long predates bump stocks or other accessories.
Congress could again try to ban certain types of rifles, but a 2015 Congressional Research Service report found that from 1999 to 2013 assault rifles were used in 27% of public mass shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter in 2007 killed 32 people with two handguns. FBI statistics show that of 15,070 homicides in 2016, 374 people or 3% were killed with rifles. Some 656 homicides were committed with “personal weapons” (hands, fists, feet) and 1,604 with knives.
Mass shootings are in more than half of all cases related to domestic or family violence. Another big chunk are crime-related, including gang violence. According to John Lott’s Crime Prevention Research Center, most mass shootings with 15 or more casualties since 1970 took place outside the U.S., including France and Norway that strictly regulate guns.
As for background checks, several Nevada gun shops have told the press that Paddock passed all requisite checks, and he appears to have no history that would have flagged him under a more stringent background system. He was able to buy his guns legally so he had no reason to use what is sometimes called the gun-show loophole.
Then there’s the red herring about “silencers,” which Hillary Clinton and Senator Tim Kaine flogged. “The crowd fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer, which the NRA wants to make easier to get,” Mrs. Clinton tweeted. She’s referring to legislation that would let gun owners obtain “suppressors” to protect their hearing. A typical firearm suppressor reduces muzzle report by about 30 decibels, bringing down (say) an AR-15 report to about 135 decibels. That is still as loud as a jackhammer.
Well, how about the Australia model, where the government in the 1990s outlawed and bought back more than 650,000 firearms? Australia had few mass shootings before the buyback, which had little measurable effect on overall gun violence.
Australia also lacks America’s centuries-old gun culture and a Second Amendment that protects individual gun ownership. The Supreme Court’s Heller decision allows for reasonable gun regulation but specifically protects hand guns and other weapons “in common use.” With more than 300 million firearms in the U.S., common use surely means rifles as well. Even if a future Supreme Court ruled otherwise, good luck confiscating those weapons without causing an insurrection.
None of this is a counsel of despair. Americans expect concerts and other public events to be safe from lunatics with guns, and government should do what it can to separate the two. This means better use of Big Data to identify threats, better state laws to deny guns to the mentally ill, and law enforcement that can respond rapidly when called.
We aren’t opposed to background checks or regulating large magazines or bump stocks, but no one should think these will stop a determined killer. After each gun tragedy, progressives denounce the “gun lobby” and demand that politicians “do something,” but each time they run into the reality that their solutions won’t work. The “gun lobby” are Americans who want to retain their right to self-defense.
Appeared in the October 5, 2017, print edition.