United States

Jan 24, 2013

US assault rifle ban: why the NRA is right (sort of)

Focussing on assault rifles and hi-cap magazines in the US gun control debate is a false security, writes University of Queensland professor and American ex-pat Howard Karger. The answer lies in regulating guns.

As an expat American, the first question I'm often asked is "why do Americans love guns?" There is a simple and a complicated answer. The simple answer is that it is fun to shoot. Having said that, America's supposed love affair with guns has been grossly exaggerated by both pro and anti-gun control advocates. There are about 270-300 million guns in the US (or roughly 89 guns for every 100 civilians), of which 110 million are pistols. Worldwide, the US is home to 35-50% of all civilian-owned guns. Despite the rhetoric, gun ownership hasn't grown. About 53% of all US adults don't own a gun. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 43% of US households owned a gun, which is less than the 50% that owned one in 1968. Among gun owners, 58% use it for hunting and 66-67% for targets and self-defence. About 62% of gun owners own more than one gun. Many -- if not most -- gun owners will put their firearm in a drawer or a closet where it will sit for decades unused. Despite the almost 50 million US households that own a gun, only 4 million people are National Rifle Association (NRA) members. And at least some of the 4 million were coerced into membership as a requirement for belonging to a private gun range. Hijacked by fringe right elements, the NRA has exploited personal liberty, the paranoia around government control, the fear of crime, and a general fear of foreign nations reflected in movies like Red Dawn. For these conservatives, gun ownership separates freedom-loving Americans from sheep-like Europeans and Australians. On 7.30, the head of the Gun Owners of America summed it up: "We're not interested in being like Australia. We're Americans." Gun ownership reflects a romanticised notion of what some Americans imagine themselves to be -- rugged individualists, independent, and rebellious in the face of left-wing tyranny. On the other side, US progressives don't understand firearms. Although there is every reason to support the proposed legislation banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines, it is largely symbolic and likely won't stop mass shootings. Although I hate to admit it, the NRA is right about the misconceptions surrounding assault rifles. It is true that the AR-15 and the AK-47 are semi-automatic, but so too are most handguns and some hunting rifles and shotguns. Banned for hunting, the main purpose of an assault rifle is to kill people. But that is also true for handguns. While assault rifles are scary to look at (and even scarier to hold), they are no more deadly than other guns at close range. Any gun is deadly enough in the close quarters in which most mass shootings occur. It is true that mass murderers like James Holmes (Aurora), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and others preferred military-style assault rifles, but in other massacres, such as Virginia Tech (the deadliest massacre), only handguns were used. Assault rifles accept high capacity magazines holding 30-100 rounds. Banning hi-cap mags is based on the belief that in the time it takes to insert a new mag, one or more victims could rush the attacker or escape. Sadly, most mass murderers are well acquainted with firearms and have probably practised reloads. Even without practice, it only takes seconds to reinsert a fresh magazine. It's not necessarily the case that anyone would be discouraged from committing murder simply because they can't get an assault rifle or hi-cap magazine. Only two handguns were used in Virginia Tech; the 1996 Scottish Dunblane school massacre was committed with four handguns; and only a pistol and shotgun were used in the 2002 Erfurt Germany massacre. Although anti-gun advocates may sleep better knowing that assault rifles and hi-cap magazines are banned, it is a false security. Ending mass shootings requires more than symbolic legislation to restrict certain guns or magazines. Instead, it requires serious legislation to control guns, regardless of their design. The NRA and others have exploited fears that gun control will lead to government domination and the loss of individual freedom. For them, all that stands between a free man or woman and state tyranny is the barrel of a gun. There are many things missing from this argument, including the acknowledgement the right to bear arms -- guaranteed in the second amendment of the US Constitution -- was constructed when civilian firepower consisted of a single-shot musket that took 15 seconds to reload. Not the kind of weapon that lends itself to a single shooter massacre. Second, they miss the point that freedom is not just the right to own a gun, but to enjoy personal safety. Freedom is sending your children to school without worrying about them getting shot. It is the freedom to worry about the cost of clothes, not about getting shot at the mall. The answer to gun violence in America doesn't lie in the symbolic ban on assault weapons or hi-cap magazines, but in regulating all guns. *Professor Howard Karger is the head of the School of Social Work & Human Services at the University of Queensland

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21 thoughts on “US assault rifle ban: why the NRA is right (sort of)

  1. Matthew of Canberra

    You’re right – the “assault weapon” terminology is a distraction. The problem is the ability of a bad guy to shoot a lot of bullets quickly and then reload at a time that suits himself tactically.

    In all of the examples you list, the guns were semi-auto (rifles or pistols) with swappable magazines. Semi-auto pistols were the tool of choice for mass shootings in the US before the current AR 15 craze took hold (which seems to have started in the early 90’s – they were just becoming available in australia, through queensland, when the libs cracked down on them).

    Ausralia’s gun law was rewritten in terms of “self-loading” firearms – anything that chambers another cartridge after the the gun fires. History suggests that was a wise choice.

    Jared Loughner was jumped after he stopped to reload and his second magazine mis-fed and jammed the gun. That break in shooting, in close quarters, appears to given his victims a chance. It’s not too much to ask, I think. By all means, give maniacs the right to bear arms, but give the rest of the population a right to run for cover now and then.

    But all of this is really just about mass-shootings. The everyday background level of firearm death and injury in the US is a whole other problem. 10,000 a year murdered, 19,000 a year shooting themselves (deliberately or accidentally), another couple of thousand killed by police (or police killed) and so on. 1.28% of all deaths in 2010 in the US were the result of a firearm. In total, 106,000 people were shot, and either died or presented to hospital for treatment (these are all CDC WISQARS search engine results, and easily checked). That’s just the everyday.

    The US problem with guns apparently goes way beyond magazine size.

    The one upside to the american experience with firearms is that the rest of the world knows what happens when a country goes down that path. So in a sense we owe the US a debt of gratitude – they’re running the experiment for us. They’re the ones who have to pay the price, so that we don’t have to.

    And gun manufacturers are laughing all the way to the bank.

  2. philro

    I mainly agree with your article that all guns need to be regulated, lever action and pump action guns are nearly as quick as semi autos. Hand guns are really only meant for self protection or target shooting,assault rifles are designed for war, if you want to be a serious hunter you get a proper hunting rifle with a bolt action, long barrel for accuracy, and 5 round mag etc. Assault type weapons are really only for close range but some people perhaps like to get up close to pump a heap of bullets into their prey, but limiting these weapons with high capacity magazines would still be a wise idea.

  3. Mike Flanagan

    Mat of Canberra;
    Thanks for your clarification.
    I must add that it is disturbing to read in this morning SMH that state governments are allowing people to circumvent the intention of our laws, by building replicas of the monster AR15 Assault rifle locally.

  4. Ian

    Professor Karger’s analysis appears that of a well intentioned person working through the issues. It, and his published work, indicates this isnt an area he is expert in. A “I think” piece from ‘an expat American’ doesnt help much. Why didnt Crikey get someone who knows what the research says to write about what Karger expects?

    A key issue in discussion on the efficacy of proposals is that Congress has deliberately stopped all research, which makes the ‘evidence’ base to evaluate any idea much less than it could be.

    To see what an effort to inform discussion on issues such as high capacity magazines from a research base looks like go to http://www.slate.com/topics/g/gun_control.html.

  5. Gavin Moodie

    I accept that Obama’s measures are unlikely to cut gun homicides. I’m inclined to think that since one is unlikely to get effective gun control in the US initially one should at least start with a symbolic erosion of gun rights.

    But I can see force in an alternative position. Having established that one form of gun control doesn’t cut gun homicides, the gun lobby could argue that further regulation would be equally ineffectual.

  6. Robert Barwick

    Like most debates, this one is muddied by vested interests, including gun manufacturers. However, Americans do have a constitutional right, and that can’t be dismissed lightly. You should have the right not to be premptively treated like a potential criminal, but if that is a principle, then it also applies to the Muslims etc who Bush’s Patriot Act treated as potential terrorists, which unfortunately many in the gun lobby supported. Laws are based on principle, or they are arbitrary. That said, if it is OK for gun rights to be limited, then it’s also time to look at video games, and the culture of (especially) young men getting addicted to the most gut-wrenchingly violent, rapid point-and-shoot games imaginable. I can’t think of one of the major mass-murderers since Columbine, including the Norway nutjob, who wasn’t a dedicated video-gamer. The games may not be the root-cause of their mental disturbance, but they sure feed it, and teach them how to kill without compunction in the process.

  7. ianjohnno1

    Mike F

    The AR15s manufactured in Oz can only be purchased by a select few with the correct licence.

  8. Mike Flanagan

    Thanks for the info.
    My reading of the article was that the ones with correct licece were gun dealers. That hardly restricts their distribution

  9. Patrick Brosnan

    “It is true that the AR-15 and the AK-47 are semi-automatic, but so too are most handguns and some hunting rifles and shotguns.”
    Yes, it would probably be a good idea to restrict the ownership of handguns as we do here. It must be a nightmare for the police not knowing someone they approach may have a pistol. Madness.

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