Last weekend, America regrettably witnessed one of the deadliest mass shootings in the country’s history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were murdered and over 50 injured. The atrocity was carried out by a fanatic who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, using a civilian semi-automatic rifle, the Sig Sauer MCX. (Early reports that it was an AR-15 were mistaken.)
In the wake of this attack, many people have laid the blame on America’s relatively lax gun laws, arguing that so-called “assault weapons” (more appropriately known as semi-automatic rifles) and high-capacity magazines should be banned from civilian use.
They note that many of the deadliest shootings in American history have involved rifles like the AR-15, and they propose that such rifles should be banned to prevent heinous crimes like the Orlando massacre from occurring in the future.
But while it may be true that many mass shootings involved semi-automatic rifles, these events are rare. In fact, the latest data (2014) from the FBI show that all types of rifles were only confirmed to have been used in 248 homicides, down from 351 in 2009. Given the total number of homicides (11,961), rifles were confirmed to have been used in only two percent of murders.
You're more likely to be stabbed, strangled, or beaten to death with bare hands than killed by someone with a rifle.
It’s impossible to know the true number of murders involving “assault weapons,” because the term is so nebulous, and because the FBI only looks at the categories of rifle, shotgun, and handgun. There are also nearly 2,000 gun murders in which the type of firearm used is unknown. But a rough estimate of 328 homicides with all rifles (extrapolated from rifle's share of gun murders where the type of weapon is known) is probably close to the truth.
To be very generous to the assault weapon ban argument, let’s assume that all of these 328 murders were done with assault weapons. That would imply that such weapons were involved in less than three percent of all homicides in the United States, at most.
Such deaths are as terrible as any murder, but it is also true that knives, blunt objects, and hands/feet were confirmed to have been used in 1,567, 435, and 660 murders respectively. You are much more likely to be stabbed, strangled, or beaten to death with bare hands than killed by someone with a rifle, and the chances of being killed with an “assault-type rifle” are necessarily lesser still.
Bans Don't Work
There is also little evidence that these weapons bans have worked in the past. From 1994 to 2004, Congress banned the manufacture, sale, or transfer of a large number of “assault weapons” (including some handguns and high-capacity magazines). An assessment study commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2004 found no evidence that the ban had had any effect on gun violence and concluded that “should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
Violent ideologues will not be deterred from their paths of destruction by minor inconveniences.
Research by economist Mark Guis of Quinnipiac University revealed no evidence that either state or federal “assault weapons” bans reduced firearm-homicide rates. Carlisle E. Moody of the College of William and Mary found no evidence that the federal ban on high-capacity magazines had any effect on homicide rates.
Regarding terrorist attacks like the one in Orlando, it’s not clear, even in retrospect, that they would be prevented by more restrictive gun control measures. Stringent gun laws in California and France failed to prevent the recent massacres in San Bernardino and Paris. People driven to violence by ideology will not be easily deterred from their paths of destruction by minor inconveniences; it is simply naïve to believe that smaller magazines or not having a folding stock would have stopped them.
In any event, keeping in mind the horrors that mass shootings entail, “assault weapons” are not even connected to a significant amount of crime in the United States. Even if confiscating and banning them completely erased homicides with committed with them, and the perpetrators didn't substitute them with other legally available firearms, the effect on homicide rates would be statistically very small.
Many Americans simply don't believe that some of the most popular rifles in America (overwhelmingly owned for legal and peaceful reasons) should be banned or that tens of millions of Americans’ rights should be infringed upon for so little to show for it. If you care about violence in America, you shouldn’t waste your time on the red herring of “assault weapons.”