A Philosopher's Blog

High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2012
English: A Vektor LM5, the semi-automatic vers...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The mass killing that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary school in December of 2012 ignited the debate over guns once again. Sadly, the event followed what is becoming a script: a mentally disturbed person seeks out a concentration of unarmed targets and commits murder until stopped. The American media then focuses the spotlight on the issues raised by the event and the pundits and commentators appear to say the usual things about guns, laws, and the mentally ill. As usual, the rote blaming of video games and movies also occurs.


Being a sane and ethical person, I was saddened by the terrible murders. I would certainly prefer that such an event never occur, which is true of most people. As might be imagined, there are many suggestions regarding what should be done to reduce the chances of such murders occurring again. One area of focus is, not surprisingly, on the weapons.


Folks in the media tend to focus obsessively on the weapons used in such terrible crimes and, somewhat ironically given this obsession, often display their ignorance of such weapons. The murderer at Sandy Hook had two semi-automatic pistols (a Glock 10mm and a Sig Sauer 9mm) and a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle (essentially a civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle). Watching the media coverage, I noticed considerable focus on the fact that these weapons are semi-automatic and the way the matter was discussed seemed to be aimed at creating the impression that this was somehow unusual or new. However, semi-automatic weapons date back over a century and they are rather common. For those who are ignorant of weapons, a semi-automatic weapon is (crudely put) such that once manually cocked it will fire a round with each pull of the trigger with the weapon automatically chambering a new round and cocking after each shot (until the rounds are exhausted). This is in contrast with weapons that require manual reloading and cocking. For example, the classic Winchester lever action rifle (the one seen in cowboy movies) requires that the user work a lever to eject the empty shell casing, load a new round and “cock” the gun. Fully automatic weapons, such as a machine gun, will fire until the trigger is released or the ammunition is expended (or a jam occurs).


The main concern expressed regarding semi-automatic weapons is that they have a higher rate of fire relative to weapons such as revolvers, lever action rifles, pump shotguns and other such weapons. As such, a person armed with a semi-automatic weapon can potentially kill people faster than a comparably skilled person who is armed with a slower weapon. It is also commonly asserted that there is no legitimate use for such weapons and this is often expressed in terms of their not being suitable for hunting. From these claims it is often argued that such weapons should be banned to increase safety. The rather obvious concern is whether or not such a ban would have an impact on such incidents.


One obvious concern is that semi-automatic weapons are only marginally faster than many other weapons, such as revolvers and pump shotguns. As such, even if a potential killer did not have access to semi-automatic weapons, such a person could still kill many people. However, it could be argued that the possibility of slight to moderate reduction in carnage would justify a ban on such weapons. There is, however, the rather obvious fact that someone who is willing to murder other people is probably not going to decide to call off his planned (or unplanned) slaughter because he does not have semi-automatic weapons.


Of course, it is not just the semi-automatic aspect of such weapons that gets attention. There is also the concern that they often have high capacity magazines. A typical 9mm pistol magazine holds 15 rounds, although extended magazines can be purchased.  More powerful handguns, such as the .45, typically hold fewer rounds. Military style rifles typically hold 20-30 rounds, although very high capacity drum clips (so named because they look like drums) are also available.


The concern with high capacity magazines is that the user of the weapon can fire more without reloading, thus increasing his ability to sustain fire. Reloading, obviously, takes time away from shooting and a person who is reloading is effectively unarmed and thus more vulnerable to being taken out by an intended target. As such, high capacity magazines make mass killings easier and thus presumably more likely to occur.


As with the semi-automatic feature of guns, it is often claimed that there is no legitimate reason for civilian weapons to have high capacity magazines. After all, as is often pointed out, hunters are typically restricted in the number of rounds they are allowed to have in their guns and this is usually a low number, such as three.


Combining these claims, one can argue that high capacity magazines should be banned—as was done in the 1990s.


One rather obvious concern is that even if a potential killer had access only to low capacity weapons, he could work around this limitation in two ways. One way is to simply carry more weapons and switch them as their magazines are exhausted. Another way is to practice reloading. Swapping clips can be done very rapidly and even revolvers have speed loaders that can fill the entire cylinder in about the time it would otherwise take to put a single round in the weapon.  While lack of access to high capacity clips would have some impact on the rate at which a person can kill, the impact would not seem to be considerable. There is also the obvious fact that a lack of high capacity magazines certainly would not deter a would be mass murderer from engaging in murder.


Much of the media coverage of the terrible murders in Connecticut has described the .223 Bushmaster as a high powered weapon. While the .223 round is more powerful than most pistol rounds, it is actually not a high powered round compared to the rounds used in actual high powered hunting rifles, sniper rifles and battle rifles. After all, many hunting rifles are designed to kill large animals such as deer and bear with single shots. Naturally, a .223 round can kill a person—but to characterize it as a high powered round seems to be either a mark of ignorance or an attempt to make the weapon seem more frightening.


Somewhat ironically, high-powered rifles actually do have a legitimate role in hunting (of course, some people consider hunting an illegitimate activity). Most of the lighter rounds (such as the .223 and the 9mm) were actually intended to be used against human targets. Banning actual high powered weapons would seem to have little impact since they are generally not the weapon of choice for such murders. Banning the lower powered weapons would make some sense—unless one considers that killers would simply go with the actual high powered weapons and this might actually result in more deaths.


On the face of it, it would seem that focusing on the usual suspects (high capacity, high power semi-automatic weapons) would have little impact. After all, people intent on slaughter would simply turn to alternatives.


I turn now to the general matter of gun bans. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that the sale of new guns was banned. This could be a ban on specific types of weapons (such as assault weapons or scary weapons) or a general ban on all guns.


Even if such a ban became law tomorrow, there would still be millions of guns in the hands of the public. While some guns will break, get confiscated by the police or be otherwise taken out of circulation, it will take a very long time for the existing base of guns to be reduced significantly by normal attrition. After all, a well-made gun will last a very long time if properly maintained.


This, of course, the fact that the process would be slow is not a reason to not have a weapon ban. However, it is worth keeping in mind that even if the ban went into effect yesterday, it would be a very long time before it had a significant effect. There is also the fact that if someone who is intent on mass murder cannot get a gun, then he is very likely to use some other means, such as explosives or even a knife (as occurred in China).


Because of the slowness of natural attrition, it might be suggested that the government should pass a law allowing private weapons to be confiscated by the state. One approach would be for the state to buy the guns and then destroy them (or equip the police with them). This would be an expensive endeavor and, of course, many gun owners would refuse to part with their guns—even if they were offered fair market value.


A second approach would be for the government to simply seize guns (using force if need be) on the grounds upon which any illegal possession can be seized by the state. This raises the moral concern about violating property rights and also raises a very practical concern: some people will see this as the fulfillment of their once paranoid fear that the government would be coming for their guns. While some people will yield to the superior firepower of the state, it seems likely that others will resist such attempts violently, resulting in injuries and death. There is also the matter of the broader impact, such as how what would seem to be a clear violation of the Constitution would be perceived. Criminals would, of course, not turn over their weapons and would no doubt be pleased that the general population had been disarmed by the state—thus making them easier targets. When considering such an approach, such costs should be carefully considered. This is not to say that the results would not be worth the cost, but this is something that we should rationally consider. If it is worth the cost, then this is something that should stand rational scrutiny and not require an appeal to emotions, however understandable those emotions might be.


While I, in general, like guns I would feel slightly safer in a world without guns. Of course, I know the history of violence fairly well and know that people would just go back to other ways of killing and probably invent some new ones.


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  1. […] High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic […]

  2. T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Nice post. It would be great if the mainstream media could say anything about guns without mangling the facts. Even people like ex-Marine Mark Shields are saying that automatic weapons are easily obtained. And as you point out, the only difference between an “assault weapon” and a regular hunting rifle is that the “assault weapon” looks scary.

  3. magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 10:05 am

    While I do not blame movies and video games, clearly something is different in our culture from other well-armed countries, like Switzerland. Insights

    • T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

      We live in a low-trust, atomistic society in which you can live next door to someone for many years and not even know their name. In a homogeneous, high-trust country like Switzerland this would practically never happen, and a mentally ill person would be identified much sooner.

      • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

        Good analysis. We used to be a high-trust society. I once had the idea of using the trust index to determine what kind of violence US commanders may face in certain areas of the world.

      • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am

        Another thing TJ, is that we are low-trust because we have a good idea that our neighbors don’t see the world like we do. Your point about homogeneity is well taken. This is why multi-culturalism fails. A nation of groups of people that hold largely different fundamental values is not a nation. It’s a mass of warring tribes.

        • T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm

          We need to get our melting pot back and start agreeing on some universal values of being an American:

          1) an American values liberty above security

          2) an American believes that no one is above the law

          3) an American reveres the Constitution, while allowing that it is not perfect

          4) an American bows to no one

          5) an American believes that his elected representatives work for him (i.e., are his employees) and do not deserve special treatment

          6) an American is a citizen of a republic and makes his own decisions about what is best for himself

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 18, 2012 at 1:28 pm

          In one regard you are right: a culture needs a set of core shared values in order to exist as a culture. Of course, merely sharing values is not enough for stability and the values might be horrible. In another regard you are off base: people can hold different fundamental values while also being part of a unified group. For example, I have different religious values than most of my close friends and also different political values.

          • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm

            Religious values? Yes. But not on what’s right and wrong. In LA you have entire swaths of the population who think it’s ok to rob electronics stores if no one happens to be able to stop you because they’re busy quelling a riot.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm

      The Swiss do have universal health care, so mental issues probably get addressed better than here in the US.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 1:37 pm

        Actually the Swiss have a very good model for health care.

        • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm

          Yeah, TJ, But it’s hardly reason they have fewer mass gun killings, as Mike implies. Maybe they actually lock these folks up like we used to do in the 60s and 70s. Or is that part of their universal health care?

          • T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm

            I think they do indeed hospitalize proportionally more mentally ill people than we do.

            Here is some more on the Swiss model:

            Features of the Swiss health sysetm

            Swiss citizens buy insurance for themselves; there are no employer-sponsored or government-run insurance programs. Hence, insurance prices are transparent to the beneficiary. The government defines the minimum benefit package that qualifies for the mandate. Critically, all packages require beneficiaries to pick up a portion of the costs of their care (deductibles and coinsurance) in order to incentivize their frugality.

            The government subsidizes health care for the poor on a graduated basis, with the goal of preventing individuals from spending more than 10 percent of their income on insurance. But because people are still on the hook for a significant component of the costs, they often opt for cheaper packages; in 2003, 42% of Swiss citizens chose high-deductible plans (i.e., plans with significant cost-sharing features). Those who wish to acquire supplemental coverage are free to do so on their own.

            99.5% of Swiss citizens have health insurance. Because they can choose between plans from nearly 100 different private insurance companies, insurers must compete on price and service, helping to curb health care inflation. Most beneficiaries have complete freedom to choose their doctor, and appointment waiting times are almost as low as those in the U.S., the world leader.

            Switzerland’s imperfections

            Naturally, such a system will not be attractive to those who implacably oppose the idea of a private health-care sector. But conservatives will also find objectionable elements to the Swiss system. In important ways, the Swiss system resembles that of Massachusetts and PPACA. The Swiss have an individual mandate. The government defines the minimum benefit package, which has been subject to expansion from special-interest lobbying, and is more comprehensive and less consumer-driven than it could be. The government has enacted Medicare-style price controls for hospital and physician reimbursement. Insurers must charge similar rates to the young and old (“community rating”), must cover pre-existing conditions, and must operate as non-profit entities. Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt describes Switzerland as “a de facto cartel of insurers and health care practitioners who transact with one another in a tight web of government regulations.”

            As I noted above, Ezra and others believe that the similarities between PPACA and Santésuisse indicate that conservatives should support Obamacare. But there is an enormous difference between adding Swiss-style controls and subsidies onto a purely private, individual health insurance market, and bolting those same provisions onto the malformed American system, as PPACA did. The most significant difference between the Swiss and American systems is in the ability of individuals to consume health care in value- and cost-conscious ways. Only one tenth of Americans buy insurance for themselves, the rest getting coverage through their employers or the government. In Switzerland, everyone buys insurance for himself.


            • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm

              This is either a straw man or a false dilemma, not sure which. On nearly every shift during my time as a cop, my department dealt with the mentally ill. One of my best friends was a liaison from the Maine State Department of Mental Health. He rode in my cruiser most of the time when I worked day shift. In fact, every person who was considered a danger to himself or others was brought to a hospital regardless if they had insurance or not. They were evaluated by a doctor. If they were considered a danger, they were brought to Bangor Mental Health Institute. Now, they rarely stayed for long. But some of them did stay for months and months.

              The guy who shot up the DID NOT NEED FREE HEALTH CARE MIKE. His parents were millionaires. Major Nidal Malik Hasan HAD HEALTH CARE MIKE. The Virginia Tech shooter was known to be mentally unstable and the professionals did nearly nothing.

              Psychiatry does not stop evil. Unless we think the more famous psychopaths of history just needed some couch time.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:49 pm

              My claim is not that the particular shooter needed state sponsored health care. Rather, that we need better mental health care than we have now.

              Since I believe in moral agency, I do not buy into the idea that all bad people are just mentally ill. However, I do accept that some people do wrong because they are mentally ill. Perhaps those people could be helped by a better science of the mind than we have now. Perhaps not.

            • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm

              “The guy who shot up the *school.”

            • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

              Here’s a thought: Psychiatry is making these people worse. Comments?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm

              In some cases it probably does, at least in its existing forms. There is considerable support for the claim that professional care of the sort typically offered has the same cure rate as just talking to people.

      • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm

        I hope you’re joking, Mike.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm

          Proper care for the mentally ill would seem to reduce the likelihood of incidents such as what happened at Sandy Hook and in Colorado. So, no I would not be joking.

          • magus71 said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

            Was this as common an occurrence when we were kids as it is now? Was there universal health care then?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 18, 2012 at 6:47 pm

              Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that violence has declined. While there are more deaths numerically, the percentage of people being killed is (he claims) lower. If he is right, things could be somewhat better than the days of our youth.

              I do wonder what impact the 24/7 news cycle has on incidents like these. While murder rates are supposed to be lower, perhaps these sorts of mass murders are greater in number in part because the killer becomes very famous courtesy of the 24 hour news channels.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 10:37 am

    This is why we can’t depend on government to protect us. It took 20 minutes for the police to arrive. 20 minutes!

    At the police station, dispatchers began to take calls from inside the school. Authorities say the first emergency call about the shooting came in at “approximately” 9:30 a.m.

    “Sandy Hook school. Caller is indicating she thinks someone is shooting in the building,” a dispatcher told fire and medical personnel, according to 911 tapes.

    Police and other first responders arrived on scene about 20 minutes after the first calls.


  5. T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Dems often claim that they are the party that respects science. Yet I have never heard any Dem confront Putnam’s scientific findings. Do these social markers sound familiar?

    Lowered trust in areas with high diversity is also associated with:

    Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
    Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in one’s own influence.
    Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
    Higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result.
    Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
    Less likelihood of working on a community project.
    Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
    Fewer close friends and confidants.
    Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
    More time spent watching television and more agreement that “television is my most important form of entertainment”.


  6. […] High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  7. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 19, 2012 at 2:14 am

    Good article. Nothing new, really, if one is as old as I am… and lived in Arkansas. Bolt action riles were used in both incidents…

    “Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24, 1941 – August 1, 1966) was an engineering student and former Marine who killed 13 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting rampage located in and around the Tower of the University of Texas in Austin on the afternoon of August 1, 1966. Three persons were killed inside the university’s tower, with 11 others murdered after Whitman fired at random targets from the 28th-floor observation deck of the Main Building. Whitman was shot and killed by Austin Police Officer, Houston McCoy”

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman

    “Mitchell Scott Johnson (born August 11, 1984) and Andrew Douglas Golden (born May 25, 1986) are former middle school students who on March 24, 1998 committed a massacre at Westside Middle School in unincorporated Craighead County, Arkansas, United States, near Jonesboro.[1] A total of five people, four female students and a teacher, were killed. Ten people, nine students and one teacher, were injured.” They were released upon turning 21 years of age.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westside_Middle_School_massacre

  8. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 19, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Your statement here, professor, is more true than you may know:

    “A second approach would be for the government to simply seize guns (using force if need be) on the grounds upon which any illegal possession can be seized by the state. This raises the moral concern about violating property rights and also raises a very practical concern: some people will see this as the fulfillment of their once paranoid fear that the government would be coming for their guns. While some people will yield to the superior firepower of the state, it seems likely that others will resist such attempts violently, resulting in injuries and death.”

    Alex Jones has been hyping this for many years, is running a mass mind control operation patterned after Jim Jones’ Jonestown, which desensitizes people’s to hatred and violence, and is preparing patriotic American gun owners to shoot police and federal agents the minute they knock on their door, because these zombified patriots have been pre-programed to do exactly this.

    I suggest you listen to his broadcast, especially of late, and listen to the disgusting violent rhetoric and fear-mongering this CIA/STRATFOR agent engages in on a daily basis. The only difference between these two Joneses is 1) the scale of the operation (Jim Jones did the wet test in 1978) and 2) the targets of the mind-control operation (Jim Jones targeted socialist and communists, whereas Alex Jones has targeted freedom loving American gun owners.

    Jones has laid a trap for these patriots which is about to be sprung on them the moment the authoritized begin confiscating guns from them.

    See: Shooting Cops? How Ryan Dawson and Alex Jones create paranoid patriots and encourage them to shoot police and federal agents: http://ajmacdonaldjr.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/shooting-cops-how-ryan-dawson-and-alex-jones-prepare-and-create-paranoid-patriots-and-encourage-them-to-shoot-police-and-federal-agents/

    See: VIDEO – Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple: http://ajmacdonaldjr.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/video-jonestown-the-life-and-death-of-peoples-temple-2006-full-movie/

    See: !WARNING! – PSEUDO-PATRIOT ALEX JONES IS RUNNING A JONESTOWN-STYLE CIA MIND-CONTROL PSYOP ON THE PATRIOTIC AMERICAN PEOPLE!: http://ajmacdonaldjr.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/warning-psudo-patriot-alex-jones-is-running-a-jonestown-style-cia-mind-control-psyop-on-the-patriotic-american-people/

    See: Alex Jones STRATFOR Connection: http://truthernews.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/alex-jones-stratfor-connection-and-the-murder-of-andrew-breitbart/

    • magus71 said, on December 19, 2012 at 7:20 pm

      I’ve never understood why Alex Jones is not called out for what he is. The guy’s a nut.

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