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.