Just The Facts
Jason Alexander is almost completely wrong. His heart is in the right place, but, I’m sorry, he’s just flat wrong on most of what he says there. The one point he has right is that this is not the time for reasonable people to be silent on gun control and the sorts of tragedy we recently had in Colorado. As in so many other areas of public debate, we cannot leave the debate to the crazy people on either extreme.
On pretty much everything else, he’s wrong. We should have a reasonable discussion about this issue, but that should start with a firm understanding of the facts and, in his words, the ‘hard statistics.’ I would love to find some way of keeping any weapon–not just a particular scary-looking weapon, but any weapon out of the hands of the kind of nutcase who is going to go out and slaughter a bunch of people, but the problem is harder than it’s often made out to be. I have a few, probably futile, thoughts at the end, but first let’s look at some of Jason’s points.
He starts out by dragging out that old saw, long disproven, that the 2nd Amendment only applies to militias. (It was exactly this argument, by the way, back in the ’90s that led to the rise of right-wing groups calling themselves ‘militias.’) For the record, the explanatory clause at the beginning of the sentence doesn’t change the meaning of the main clause: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” To argue otherwise is to argue that ‘the people’ means something different in the 2nd Amendment than it does in all the rest of the Constitution. There is no basis for doing so, and courts up to and including the US Supreme Court have upheld that the 2nd Amendment right to arms is an individual right.
You may not like it, but that’s what it says, and means. Change it if you like, and can, but until you do, that’s the constraint that you have to work in.
100,000 Americans that die every year due to domestic gun violence
Not true. The figure for 2007 (the most recent year I have numbers for) is 31,224. Of those, 17,352 were suicides, leaving 12,632 homicides. (Including criminals killed by the police.) 12,632 is a tragic number, but a far cry from 100,000.
By the way, in 2007 there were 41,059 motor vehicle deaths in the United States. More people died on our roads on July 20, 2012 than James Holmes shot. No one outside their families cares about them, though.
What purpose does an AR-15 serve to a sportsman that a more standard hunting rifle does not serve? Let’s see – does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes. Does it fire farther and more accurately? Yes. Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? Yes.
Allow me to correct his answers.
Does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes.
Does it fire farther and more accurately? No. Most hunting rifles fire a more powerful cartridge to a greater distance with more accuracy.
Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? No. See above. The Remington 700, to pick an archetypal ‘hunting rifle,’ fires a 7mm cartridge. There are a number of bullets available for that round, but one example fires a 7.1 gram slug at 1,100 meters/second, for a muzzle energy of 4,057 joules (2,992 foot-pounds).
The AR-15 fires a 5.56mm cartridge. The common 55 grain (3.56 gram) load has a muzzle velocity of 965 meters/second, for a muzzle energy of 1,658 joules (1,223 foot-pounds). We can easily see that the ‘more lethal than a hunting rifle’ AR-15 fires a bullet with less than half the energy of a common (and not particularly powerful) hunting rifle. (More powerful rifles, like a .458 Winchester Magnum, pack over 7,000 joules of muzzle energy.)
Jason asserts that if ‘these weapons’ were regulated, James Holmes might have been caught before he carried out his atrocity.
Regulated, he would have had to go to illegal sources – sources that could possibly be traced, watched, overseen.
Does Jason really think that illegal sources are more closely monitored than legal channels? That someone is tracing every illegal firearm transaction? Do I even have to explain how silly that is? It’s the legal transactions that have a greater chance of someone noticing an unusual purchase going on. (More on this later.)
These weapons are military weapons
This is a common misconception. The AR-15 style weapons that civilians can buy are not military weapons. They are designed to look like military weapons, but looking like something doesn’t make it that thing. The biggest, most crucial different between the civilian AR rifles and the military M-4 and M-16 rifles is the thing that makes the military version worthwhile as a military weapon; the ability to fire bursts or full-auto.
I’m afraid we must here digress back a few decades for a bit of history. A hundred years ago, military rifles were much like the Remington 700 that I mentioned above; slow-firing rifles that shot a big, powerful bullet a long way with great accuracy. In the 1930’s and ’40’s, as arms-makers were trying to shrink the machine gun so every soldier could carry one, studies found that most soldiers never took advantage of the great range and power of the full-sized rifle. The rifle might be accurate out to over a mile, but a soldier on the battlefields of Europe would almost never see a target that far away.
The big full-sized rifle cartridges were also too powerful to fire full-auto (where the gun continues to shoot as long as the trigger is held back) in a hand-held weapon. Arms makers began to look at ‘intermediate’ cartridges; something in between the large rifle cartridges and the smaller, pistol, rounds fired from submachine guns.
Thus was born the modern ‘assault rifle,’ in the form of the German StG 44 (Sturmgewehr–Storm Rifle 44). It fired a cut-down version of the German 8mm Mauser rifle cartridge and carried 30 of them in a removable box magazine. Compared to the older, full-sized, rifles it was crude, cheap, underpowered, and inaccurate. Its only virtue was that it could put out a lot of those underpowered bullets quickly.
The influence the design had on the AK-47 and M-16 is obvious.
The civilian AR-15 rifles and carbines imitate the military M-4 and M-16, but lack the ability to fire full-auto or bursts (three bullets for each trigger-pull). (You also can’t get an M203 grenade launcher attachment.) They shoot faster than a bolt-action hunting rifle, but still only a tenth as fast as a military assault rifle.
(An aside; the Batman shooter, James Holmes, started his rampage with an ordinary shotgun. Then he switched to his AR, but the imposing 100-round magazine he had attached to it jammed and he switched to a pistol. It would be interesting, in an admittedly morbid way, to know how many people were killed by each sort of weapon.)
These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. […] I’ll say it plainly – if someone wants these weapons, they intend to use them. And if they are willing to force others to “pry it from my cold, dead hand”, then they are probably planning on using them on people.
As of 2008 about 2.5 million AR-15 type rifles had been sold in the US. Over 300,000 were sold in that year, so now in 2012 we have probably about 3 million floating around the country.
Of those 3 million inherently evil guns that are only acquired by people who plan on using them on other people, how many have been used in mass-shootings over the past, oh, twenty years? Ten? Fifteen? Let’s say thirty, though I don’t think it’s been that many, just to make the math easy. That’s .001%.
Would it make you uncomfortable to point out that police departments are the most eager AR-15 purchasers of all?
I have been reading on and off as advocates for these weapons make their excuses all day long. Guns don’t kill – people do. Well if that’s correct, I go with @BrooklynAvi, let them kill with tomatoes. Let them bring baseball bats, knives, even machetes — a mob can deal with that.
The (common) mistake Jason is making here is assuming that if weapons like the AR aren’t available, mass-murderers would use something less effective. Unfortunately, history doesn’t bear that out. As I explain above, the AR-15 isn’t the most potent rifle available, and besides the biggest mass murders (by individuals; states are still the all-time champions, by many orders of magnitude) of all time have been carried out by bombs. Timothy McVeigh didn’t use an AR to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City. Andrew Kehoe didn’t use an AR to kill 45 people at the Bath Consolidated School. They both used bombs. Vasili Blokhin used a humble .25 caliber Walther pistol, about as weak a firearm as can be found, to murder about 7,000 Polish officers, but that’s something of a special case.
James Holmes’s apartment was booby-trapped with numerous explosive and incendiary devices. Who is to say that if he hadn’t been able to buy an AR-15 he wouldn’t have firebombed that theater? Anyone who thinks that firebombing a crowded theater wouldn’t have killed more than twelve people has never seen the inside of a crowded theater.
There are two things that determine how much harm an individual can cause other people; capability and intent.
An invalid who can’t raise his arm from his hospital bed might have all the malign intent in the world, but hasn’t the capability to go on a murderous rampage. Most healthy adults have the capability to go forth and slaughter, but no intent to do so. I’ve talked about this before.
When there is a tragedy like the Aurora shooting we as a society make the same mistake as when there’s a terrorist attack; we focus on the capability. In particular, the tools used to carry out the attack, and where the attack took place. We look for bad stuff, and we want to make the bad stuff go away.
The problem isn’t the capability; the problem is the intent. I could kill every person in a crowded movie theater. So could you. But, I don’t want to do that. I presume you don’t either. Most people don’t. It’s not bad stuff that makes people do bad things, it’s bad people using stuff to do bad things.
Most people have the capability to do great evil, but not the desire.
We can’t stop bad people from getting their hands on stuff. There are too many things that can be used to hurt people. You want to take away all the guns, everywhere in the world? Okay. How about gasoline? That’s what Tim McVeigh used; gasoline and fertilizer. There are a lot of other nasty things you can do with it too, which I won’t go into for obvious reasons.
To me, “Why do some people want to do this?” is a more interesting and productive question than, “How can we keep people from getting this kind of gun?” or “How can we protect our movie theaters?” What in our society is causing this sort of alienation and hate, and what can we do about it?
Hell if I know.
An outright ban on guns, or even certain types of guns isn’t the answer. The UK has enacted a sweeping ban of all semi-automatic weapons over .22 caliber, but gun crime has gone up. Knife crime has also gone up, even as stricter knife bans are passed. The US ‘Assault Rifle Ban’ of the ’90s had no impact on crime.
(Update 7/23/12: Some very polite (of course) people from the UK have pointed out that my information here is out of date. After some years of trending upwards, gun crimes in the UK have been trending downward, since about 2004. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the ban finally eroding the pool of firearms available to the public, how much is the rise in CCTV surveillance in that decade, and how much is a change in crime reporting that went into effect in 2003, but credit where credit is due. Despite one mass shooting incident in 2010, gun crime in the UK is steadily declining.)
Focusing on the bad stuff doesn’t work. We keep trying it, it’s so easy and tempting and obvious, but it just doesn’t work.
As with terrorism, we have to look at the bad people. This is hard, very hard, because until the nutcase goes on his shooting spree, or sets off his bomb, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. We can’t, as much as some people might want to, arrest ‘pre-criminals.’ That’s a very scary road to go down.
The only thing I can think that might work, at least a little–and I hate like hell to say this–is running all firearm-related purchases through a national database. Guns, ammunition, accessories, training classes, all of it. Let people buy what they want, but track it. Any unusual purchases–someone who’s never bought a gun before goes out and buys five in one week, for example–throws up a flag in the computer system and that person’s information gets routed to a special investigative division of Homeland Security, who would then check this person out.
Here’s the thing; this can’t be some ordinary beat cop, some TSA package-grabber, who does the investigating. The investigator has to be more psychologist than cop, because the idea isn’t to determine what the person has done, or what they’ve bought, or what they may be guilty of. We already know that what they bought, and they may not be guilty of anything, yet. The idea is to determine their mental state, to try and get an idea of what they might do.
In other words, if someone starts buying a bunch of guns out of the blue, send a smart person over to talk to them and try to find out if they’re a fucking nutcase who’s about to flip his shit and kill a bunch of people.
Sure, there are problems with this system. Private party sales won’t be tracked. I don’t like the idea of the government doing the tracking in the first place. A lot of perfectly innocent people are going to be pissed off by some badge-flashing shrink knocking on their door and wanting to talk for a few minutes. Good lord, the idea of Homeland Security actually being able to do a competent job of setting up a system like this?
The thing is, though, it could work. And I can’t think of anything else that can.
Edit, 2/2/13: I was always uneasy, as I say above, about having the government track this sort of information, but suggested it as something that could work if done properly. In the six months since, though, the government has shown, most emphatically, that it is interested in banning guns, not controlling crime. That is, gun control is the goal, not the means to an end. So, to hell with that. Even their response to a plea for help with a mental health issue is a swat team assault. Pretty much exactly not what I suggested.
So, fuck them.