Will an Assault Weapons Ban Save Lives?
So now we have another school shooting, and gun control advocates are calling for a renewal of the ban.
But since we actually had a ban for ten years, it’s not necessary to merely speculate on the effects of such a policy. There is evidence.
And the evidence is negative.
The most specific and thorough evaluation of the ban comes from scholars at the University of Pennsylvania. Commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, it was published in June 2004, evaluating the effects of the ban through 2003. It’s long and a bit complicated, but some quotes from the Executive Summary (Key Finding and Conclusions) tell the story:
Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of LCMs (large capacity magazines) in crime, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.Reading this report closely, if one wants to tease out the possibility of legislation to reduce gun violence, targeting large capacity magazines is a better idea than outlawing assault rifles. Of course, anybody with any shooting experience can quickly change a magazine, so it’s not clear this would help any. Especially since large capacity magazines will continue to be available in the black market, available for trade among gun buffs, and so on.
Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. AWs were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. LCMs are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading.
Other studies have found the same thing. In 2005 the National Research Council concluded that:
A recent evaluation of the short-term effects of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes (Koper and Roth, 2001b). Using state-level Uniform Crime Reports data on gun homicides, the authors of this study suggest that the potential impact of the law on gun violence was limited by the continuing availability of assault weapons through the ban’s grandfathering provision and the relative rarity with which the banned guns were used in crime before the ban. Indeed, as the authors concede and other critics suggest (e.g., Kleck, 2001), given the nature of the intervention, the maximum potential effect of the ban on gun violence outcomes would be very small and, if there were any observable effects, very difficult to disentangle from chance yearly variation and other state and local gun violence initiatives that took place simultaneously.Finally, a 2003 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined “51 studies that evaluated the effects of selected firearms laws on violence“ and concluded:
Evidence was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of any of these laws . . .The report went on the explain:
Results of studies of firearms and ammunition bans were inconsistent: certain studies indicated decreases in violence associated with bans, and others indicated increases. Several studies found that the number of banned guns retrieved after a crime declined when bans were enacted, but these studies did not assess violent consequences (16,17). Studies of the 1976 Washington, D.C. handgun ban yielded inconsistent results (18–20). Bans often include “grandfather” provisions, allowing ownership of an item if it is acquired before the ban, complicating an assessment of causality. Finally, evidence indicated that sales of firearms to be banned might increase in the period before implementation of the bans (e.g., the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994) (21).In the wake of a mass shooting, the natural human reaction is to “do something.” That is a natural response. But there are two problems with it.
First, the moral panic may lead us to embrace policies that feel good, and not ask hard questions about whether we are making things better.
Second, the highly visible outrage over a school shooting may cause us to forget that the vast majority of children and youth killed in shootings are killed in very ordinary domestic disputes, robberies, gang shootouts, accidents, and so on.
UpdateEven the New York Times has published an article critical of an assault weapons ban:
OVER the past two decades, the majority of Americans in a country deeply divided over gun control have coalesced behind a single proposition: The sale of assault weapons should be banned.
That idea was one of the pillars of the Obama administration’s plan to curb gun violence, and it remains popular with the public. In a poll last December, 59 percent of likely voters said they favor a ban.
But in the 10 years since the previous ban lapsed, even gun control advocates acknowledge a larger truth: The law that barred the sale of assault weapons from 1994 to 2004 made little difference.
It turns out that big, scary military rifles don’t kill the vast majority of the 11,000 Americans murdered with guns each year. Little handguns do.