The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.
As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.
Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.
Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.
Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.
The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.
The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.
For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).
While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.
While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.
Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.
A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.
The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.
A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.
Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.
As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.
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.