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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.

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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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