Posted 11/19/17


What can be done to prevent mass shootings?


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Please forgive us if this essay seems a bit more prescriptive than what Police Issues normally offers, but it’s only been a few days since an angry, heavily armed man opened fire in a rural Texas church, leaving twenty-six dead and more than a dozen injured, many critically.

     It’s not to make light of this horror to point out that within hours of last month’s reveals about Hollywood Harvey, waves of similar accusations engulfed prominent figures on both sides of the Atlantic, leading a growing number of highly-placed “untouchables” to lose lucrative contracts, past honors and memberships in influential groups and making them vulnerable to unwelcome non-sexual advances by aggressive prosecutors.

     So where’s the follow-through when dozens of innocents are gunned down? That’s the question we should have asked after Las Vegas. And Orlando. And San Bernardino. And Sandy Hook. And Aurora. And on and on. (Click here for CNN’s comprehensive list of mass shootings.) To be sure, one might argue that every killer was appropriately punished. Excepting a few such as James Holmes, who drew life without parole for murdering a dozen movie-goers in Aurora, Colorado, mass shooters have usually perished at their own hands or those of the police.

     When it comes to violent crime, it really is all about prevention. Poor behavior is far less likely when one has the capacity to reason and a lot to lose. Publicly shaming Hollywood Harveys affords a lot of welcome support to victims of sexual misconduct. Lasting cultural reform seems just around the corner. In contrast, calling it a day (as we usually do) after yet another unhinged killer commits suicide or is killed by a cop seems wildly inadequate.

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     So far, though, the White House has played it close to the chest. Sure enough, President Trump called the Las Vegas shooter “sick” and “demented.” But our Commander-in-Chief otherwise declined to show his hand. Gun control? “At some point perhaps that [discussion] will come. That’s not today.” His reticence was mirrored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Look, the investigation has not even been completed, and I think it’s premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if there are any.” (That’s our emphasis, by the way.)

     Then Texas happened. Once more, President Trump attributed the massacre to mental illness: “Mental health is your problem here. This was a very, based on preliminary reports, this was a very deranged individual, a lot of problems over a long period of time.” This time, though, he also addressed gun laws. In his view, tougher restrictions would not have helped:

    ...there would have been no difference three days ago, and you might not have had that very brave person who happened to have a gun or a rifle in his truck go out and shoot him, and hit him, and neutralize him. I can only say this, if he didn’t have gun, instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead. So that’s the way I feel about it…You look at the city with the strongest gun laws in our nation is Chicago, and Chicago is a disaster, a total disaster….

     This post will outline a variety of approaches to prevent mass shootings. We’ll begin with the two championed by our Twitterer-in-Chief, then move on to address our long-running preoccupation with firearms lethality.

Keeping firearms from the mentally ill

     Fear of punishment can’t be expected to deter those whose capacity to reason is seriously impaired. Skimming the personal histories of mass shooters suggests that they are indeed a flaky bunch. Consider, for example, the title of a recent New York Times piece about the Texas shooter: “In Air Force, Colleague Feared Church Gunman Would ‘Shoot Up the Place’.” Or the headline that crowns a CBS News report on the Orlando gunman: “James Holmes saw three mental health professionals before shooting.”

     Mental problems have beset at least a few so-called “terrorists.” Consider, for example, Ahmad Rahami, the prototypical holy warrior who was recently convicted of planting improvised bombs in New York City, injuring several dozen. Although he seemed normal as a youth, by the time he reached his late twenties Rahami had become sullen and aggressive, leading to repeat entanglements with the law, once for violating a restraining order and another for stabbing a relative.

     A detailed 2016 study for the Department of Justice reported that forty-eight percent of “solo” mass killers (four or more victims) had a history of mental illness (p. 23). But some experts caution against equating one with the other. A recent Congressional report concedes that most mass killers “arguably suffered from some form of mental instability, at least temporarily.” However, many didn’t meet the clinical definition of “psychotic” or “hallucinatory” and lacked significant encounters with police or the mental health system (p. 30).

     Therein lies the crux of the dilemma. Federal law prohibits possession of firearms by any person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution.” (Emphases ours.) Prior judicial determinations are also required under State laws (e.g., Arizona). So the law’s present reach is at best limited. What’s more, most states don’t require background checks for gun transfers between private parties; even if someone is of record as mentally ill, enforcement is uncertain.

     What about early intervention? “A Stitch in Time” suggested that police officers are well placed to identify candidates for mental health services. Rahami might have benefitted from such early attention. Ditto for Kevin Neal, the Northern California man who went on a rampage earlier this week, gunning down five including his wife and wounding several others before deputies shot him dead. His guns included several “home-made” AR-15 type .223 caliber rifles whose sale was never registered in California, where all gun transfers (including between private parties) must be recorded. Neal faced  assault and robbery charges, was under a restraining order for allegedly stabbing a girlfriend and striking her mother, and had been ordered by a judge to surrender his guns because neighbors had repeatedly complained of his reckless gunfire and harassment. But he still wasn’t considered sufficiently deranged to be forcibly committed.

     What could be done?

  • Compel aggressive citizens to seek mental health treatment and make it part of the official record
  • Extend legal prohibitions on gun possession to persons who have been treated for mental illness although not formally adjudicated
  • Subject all gun transfers, including between private parties, to a background check
  • Prohibit private citizens from assembling firearms from parts, or require that such weapons be registered

     To be sure, these measures are inherently intrusive and could conflict with Federal and State laws and constitutional provisions. They are also at odds with some sentiment in the mental-health community. According to a major advocacy group, “most people with mental illness are not violent” and barring them from guns would be counter-productive:

    Creating new federal or state gun laws based on mental illness could have the effect of creating more barriers to people being willing to seek treatment and help when they need it most. Solutions to gun violence associated with mental illness lie in improving access to treatment, not in preventing people from seeking treatment in the first place.

Arming private citizens

     After massacring more than two dozen parishioners, Devin Kelley left his Ruger AR-556 .223 caliber rifle (an AR-15 clone) in the church and stepped out brandishing two handguns. That’s when an armed citizen opened fire with a rifle, wounding Kelley twice. After a wild car chase, Kelley shot himself dead. Although President Trump’s claim that “you would have [otherwise] had hundreds more dead” seems wildly overblown, private citizens brought the episode to an end, safeguarding the lives of other persons and police.

     It’s to be expected that in a society as awash with guns as the U.S. interventions by armed citizens will occur with some frequency. A pro-gun website, Crime Research, tracks such incidents, or at least those that turn out well. Those that don’t are fodder for groups with opposing views. Indeed, past posts have mentioned significant goofs by armed “good guys.” In one, a well-meaning armed citizen tried to take on the Tacoma Mall shooter and lost – badly. And there was the Johnny-come-lately armed citizen who mistakenly went after the wrong person at the 2011 Tucson massacre. (Thankfully, unarmed civilians apprehended the real shooter.)

     Academics have long debated the value of arming ordinary folks. A 1999 paper by John R. Lott Jr. (a well-known booster of gun carry) and William M. Landes reported significantly fewer multiple victim shootings where permissive gun carry laws were in effect. In his seminal pro-gun book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” Professor Lott went so far as to conclude that “without concealed carry, ordinary citizens are sitting ducks, waiting to be victimized” (p. 197). As one might expect, anti-gunners have risen to the challenge.

     For a “fair and balanced” assessment we turn to an exhaustive 2005 meta-review by a CDC-affiliated working group. Its members examined fifty-five studies that assessed the influence of gun laws on violence, including four that addressed the effects of permissive (“shall issue”) concealed-carry statutes. (Eight papers including one co-authored by John Lott were excluded for the same methodological flaws that have some academics to criticize his alleged pro-gun bias.)

     No matter. After a substantial effort, the task force concluded, in effect, that no conclusion was possible:

    Based on findings from national law assessments, cross-national comparisons, and index studies, evidence is insufficient to determine whether the degree or intensity of firearms regulation is associated with decreased (or increased) violence. (p. 59)

Do Gun Laws Work?” arrived at a similarly unsatisfying end. We initially found that as the strength of state gun laws increased, homicide rates significantly declined (r= -.366*). But when differences in poverty were taken into account, the association between gun laws and homicide became statistically non-significant (r= -.196). (On the other hand, the relationships between gun law strength/gun deaths and gun law strength/gun suicides remained substantial.)

     Arming private citizens raises some critical issues:

  • Psychological suitability. Would expanded carry laws imperil public safety by encouraging mentally unstable persons to “pack”?
  • Effects on the police workplace. Can armed citizens help? Would they be readily distinguishable from criminals? Or are they more likely to disrupt the police response, adding needless complexity to fluid and uncertain situations?

     One might tackle such concerns by revisiting the concept of a citizens militia. Certain gun privileges could be conditioned on membership in an organized, vetted and well-trained citizen group. Excluding marginal characters wouldn’t be easy, though, and require a process that resembles what’s presently done when hiring police.

Limiting gun lethality

     Prior posts (see, for example, “Bump Stocks” and “A Ban in Name Only”) have commented about this concern in considerable detail, so here we’ll summarize aspects that seem most pertinent to mass shootings.

     Mass killers have nearly always used “assault weapons,” usually militarily-derived semi-automatic rifles with large magazine capacities and fearsome ballistics. AR-15 clones in .223 caliber have proven especially popular, featuring in the recent Northern California massacre as well as those in Texas, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook and Aurora. Lethally equivalent AK-47 clones in 7.62 caliber were used by the shooter who wounded four at a Congressional baseball practice in June and the sniper who murdered five officers and wounded nine while perched in a Dallas office building last year.

     These weapons share particularly lethal features. Large magazine capacities reduce the need to reload. A high cyclic rate allows quick discharge of a volley of rounds. Accuracy at range lets snipers deposit accurate fire from a distance. Yet the possibly most significant characteristic, ballistics, is seldom mentioned even by the most rabid anti-gunners. High-velocity centerfire rifle projectiles such as .223 and 7.62 calibers create temporary cavities in flesh that are many times the bullet diameters, shattering bones and pulverizing organs and blood vessels (Vincent Di Maio, “Gunshot Wounds,” Chapter 7, summary here).

     We’ve repeatedly warned, most recently in “Bump Stocks”, that rounds fired by such weapons easily penetrate the ballistic vests normally worn by street cops. That’s how two Palm Springs (Calif.) police officers died last October, struck by .223 caliber rounds fired through a home’s front door. Table 38 of the UCR’s latest “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” report quantifies this threat in stark terms. Rifle fire killed all but one of the twenty-two officers slain between 2007-2016 with rounds that penetrated body armor. That’s why police have “militarized,” deploying armored vehicles and adopting tactics that seem more attuned to combat zones than our nation’s cities.

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     So what can be done? “A Ban in Name Only” pointed out the futility of reinstating the Federal assault weapons ban. Cannily devised to avoid upsetting the firearms industry and gun enthusiasts, it made much hash of irrelevant external baubles such as handgrips and flash suppressors while allowing substantial magazine capacities and ignoring ballistics altogether. For a study in contrast consider England’s reaction to the 1987 Hungerford massacre. One year after sixteen persons were gunned down by a deranged man wielding a handgun and two rifles Great Britain banned all semi-automatic rifles beyond .22 rimfire, a prohibition that still stands.

     Of course that seems a very far stretch in the U.S., where massacres (their victims are invariably ordinary citizens and street cops) draw far less of a response than the sexual peccadillos of the wealthy and famous. With that in mind, here are a few options:

  • Devise a point system that scores firearm lethality. Factors to consider include ammunition capacity, cyclic rate, accuracy at range and, of course, ballistics. Guns whose scores exceed specified thresholds could be subject to a range of controls, including limits or outright prohibitions on manufacture, possession and transfer.
  • Require that all gun transfers to private parties, or all that involve firearms whose lethality exceeds a specified threshold, go through a licensed dealer and be subject to a criminal records check.
  • Prohibit the marketing of parts that private persons can use to assemble firearms while circumventing a records check. (For more on that click here and here).

     Your faithful blogger is ready to help (pro bono, no less) a public university or major nonprofit assemble a public symposium on mass shootings. Sure, it’s politically chancy. But given what keeps happening, it’s really, really hard to think of a more pressing concern. Here’s hoping that there will be a taker!

     Incidentally, this also happens to be our three-hundredth blog post. Pop a cork!

UPDATE (3/28/20): Two articles in a special issue of Criminology & Public Policy, “Assessing the potential.....” by Christopher S. Koper, and “Evidence concerning the regulation....” by Daniel W. Webster,  Alexander D. McCourt, Cassandra K. Crifasi, Marisa D. Booty and Elizabeth A. Stuart, report that restricting large-capacity magazines reduces the frequency of mass shootings. Handgun buyer licensing (but not background checks or assault weapon bans) were also found effective in the latter study.

UPDATE (2/14/20): Church shootings have led many congregations to hire guards and create teams of armed parishioners. Some States that restrict gun carry or possession in churches or elsewhere have modified their laws to enable such moves, and similar legal adjustments are in progress elsewhere.

UPDATE (1/9/20): The Chicago Tribune compiled a list of sixty-two shootings and threats of shootings by Illinois concealed-carry licensees between 2014, when the state CCW law was passed, and August 2019. For each incident it summarized the circumstances and linked to available stories.

UPDATE (12/30/19): An oddly-dressed man who seemed to be in disguise pulled a shotgun during services in a Texas church and began firing. Two were killed, including a guard who tried to intercede. Other armed parishioners, members of the church security team, returned fire, killing the assailant.

UPDATE (12/27/19): Forty-one persons have lost their lives in mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year. According to the USA Today/AP/NEU project, which tracks all shootings where four or more are killed other than the perpetrator, that’s the worst toll since the 1970s.

UPDATE (12/12/19): On December 10 self-styled “Black Hebrew Israelites” David Anderson and Francine Graham gunned down Jersey City police detective Joseph Seals, then stormed a Jewish market and engaged in a protracted firefight, killing three citizens and wounding two officers before police shot them dead. Anderson and Graham took an AR-15-style rifle, a shotgun and two 9mm. pistols into the store. A silencer-equipped weapon and a pipe bomb were found in their van. Anderson, an ex-con with prior arrests for weapons offenses, had apparently posted hateful messages on social media and mentioned past massacres.

UPDATE (10/26/19): Dick’s Sporting Goods sells guns. But it no longer sells assault-style weapons or high capacity magazines and requires all gun buyers to be at least 21. That decision was made by C.E.O. Ed Stack after the 2018 Parkland, Fla. high school massacre. He concedes these steps won’t eliminate all mass shootings. “But there will be less loss of life if an assault-style rifle isn’t used. And if we do all those things and we save one life, in my mind it’s all worth it.”

UPDATE (10/24/19): At the urging of Attorney General William Barr, in December 2019 the FBI will host a national training session to prevent mass shootings. Local and state agencies will be exposed to “proven models” drawn from the war against terror; for example, identifying dangerous, “extremely challenging individuals” and compelling to undergo mental health treatment before they strike.

UPDATE (9/1/19): A male in his 30s armed with a rifle hijacked a mail truck and went on a shooting rampage in the West Texas cities of Odessa and Midland. He killed seven and wounded nineteen, including three officers, before police shot him dead.

UPDATE (8/24/19): Guns recovered by police in California often come from Nevada, whose gun laws are far looser. California legislators are planning to ask their Nevada counterparts to prohibit assault weapons and high-capacity magazines such as used by Santino Legan, the 19-year old Nevada man who legally bought an AK-47 type weapon at a Nevada gun store on July 9, then used it to kill three and wound a dozen at the Gilroy (CA) Garlic Festival on July 28.

UPDATE (8/9/19): Weeks before the El Paso massacre, the gunman’s mother worried that he wasn’t “mature or experienced enough” for the assault-type rifle he had ordered. She called police but apparently didn’t convey that her son posed a lethal threat. He moved out and legally got his rifle.

UPDATE (8/4/19): Early this morning an unidentified man wearing body armor and carrying a .223 rifle and multiple magazines opened fire in a Dayton (OH) nightclub area, killing nine and wounding more than two dozen. Police shot him dead. This was reportedly America’s 22nd. mass shooting this year (at least four dead excluding the gunman.)

UPDATE (8/3/19): Forty-six persons were shot in an El Paso (TX) shopping center by a twenty-one year old man wielding an assault-type rifle. Twenty have died. Police arrested the shooter, Patrick Crusius. He was dressed in a black t-shirt and was wearing earmuffs and dark glasses. Crusius’ online posts depicted him with a rifle, praised the New Zealand massacre and criticized America’s “invasion” by Latinos.

UPDATE (3/28/19): The Supreme Court let stay a new Federal regulation that essentially outlaws bump stocks, defining them as mechanisms that convert firearms to fully automatic fire. It supersedes ATF’s prior ruling, which said they did not. Plaintiffs must now pursue relief through Federal courts.

UPDATE (3/16/19): Before live-streaming his murderous rampage, which took the lives of 49 parishioners at two New Zealand mosques, the heavily armed, internet-obsessed killer used Twitter, Facebook and an online hate site to promote a white uprising. Brendon Tarrant, 28, held a firearms license that allowed him to legally buy the two semi-auto rifles and two shotguns he used in the attack.

UPDATE (11/8/18): On 11/7/18 ex-Marine gunner Ian David Long, 28, walked into an L.A.-area bar and opened fire with a legally-bought .45 caliber Glock pistol with an extended magazine. Twelve were killed, including Ventura Co. Sheriff’s Sergeant Ron Elus, who had responded to the scene. Long was though by neighbors to be mentally disturbed. Last April mental health workers called by deputies to the home that Long shares with his mother decided he did not meet the standards to be held.

UPDATE (10/27/18): This morning a virulent anti-Semite armed with an “assault-style rifle” and three handguns stormed into a Pittsburgh Jewish synagogue and opened fire, killing eleven and wounding six, including four officers. The suspect, Robert Bowers, 46, was wounded and surrendered.

UPDATE (10/5/18): A 74-year old veteran and disbarred lawyer who bragged about his abilities with military-style rifles unleashed a barrage from “a high powered rifle” on officers serving a search warrant at his Florence, South Carolina residence. One officer was killed and six were wounded. Five citizens were also hurt. Police deployed an armored vehicle to extricate the injured. More

UPDATE (9/14/18): Using what Smith & Wesson bills as the “most powerful production revolver in the world today [with a] massive .500 S&W Magnum cartridge - 2600 ft/lb. muzzle energy” a Bakersfield (CA) man shot and killed his estranged wife, the co-worker with which she was allegedly having an affair and three other persons. He then took his own life as police closed in.

UPDATE (9/6/18): To pre-identify students who may wish to harm themselves or others, many secondary schools and universities have hired companies to monitor posts on social media. Some students have been expelled, but there is little consensus about the value of these efforts.

UPDATE (7/6/18): LAPD and ATF arrest ten L.A.-area gang members who were assembling AR-15 type rifles from parts and selling them to criminals. Forty-five of these untraceable, unserialized “ghost guns” were seized, along with silencers and drugs. The suspects were charged with state violations including illegally manufacturing assault rifles, possessing silencers, and conspiracy.

UPDATE (6/29/18): A shotgun-toting computer engineer barged into the offices of the Capital Gazzette, a newspaper in Annapolis, MD, and opened fire, killing five and wounding two. Jarrod W. Ramos, 38, unsuccessfully sued the paper in 2012 for running a story about his harassment of a former classmate, an incident for which he was prosecuted and received a suspended sentence.

UPDATE (5/19/18): On May 18 Dmitrios Pagourtzis, 17, stormed into his Texas high school and opened fire with his father’s pump-action shotgun and .38 caliber revolver, killing ten, mostly students, and wounding ten others, including the school police officer. Pagourtzis also scattered pipe bombs around campus. A good, well-liked student, he had made some disturbing social media posts and his diary contained written plans for the attack and his suicide. But he surrendered to police.

UPDATE (5/14/18): According to the L.A. Times nine states now have “red flag” laws that authorize courts to order the seizure of guns from persons who are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Five of these laws were passed since the Florida school shooting.

UPDATE (4/23/18): On April 22 a naked, delusional man armed stormed into a Nashville restaurant and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, killing four and wounding seven. Travis Reinking, 31, was arrested the next day. He had been arrested in July 2017 for breaching the White House perimeter. Four guns including the AR-15 were taken from him and later released to his father.

UPDATE (4/6/18): On April 3 Nasim Aghdam, a woman in her 30s, opened fire with a pistol at YouTube in San Bruno, wounding three. She then shot herself dead. Aghdam, a YouTube user angry with the company’s policies, legally purchased the gun from a San Diego gun store in January.

UPDATE (3/18/18): As early as 2016 school employees were so concerned about spoken threats made by Nikolas Cruz, the Florida school shooter, that they recommended he be committed for evaluation. But no action was taken.

UPDATE (3/11/18): In the New York Times and Washington Post, illustrated features about the grievous damage inflicted on the human body by ultra high-velocity projectiles such as those fired by AR-15 style rifles.

UPDATE (3/9/18): Florida’s Governor signed into law a bill that lets some school employees carry concealed handguns, bans “bump stocks” and extends the State’s 3-day waiting period for handgun purchases to long guns. It also raises the minimum age to buy a rifle to 21, a provision that the NRA is challenging in court as a violation of the Second Amendment.

UPDATE (3/1/18): In Georgia, a well-liked history teacher (in 2012, the school’s “top teacher”) brought a handgun to Dalton High School. He barricaded himself inside a classroom and fired a gunshot out the window. Randal Davidson, 53, surrendered peacefully.

UPDATE (11/29/17): Air Force officials concede they failed to convey information about the domestic assault conviction of Texas church gunman Devin P. Kelley to the Federal database used to screen persons who buy guns from retail stores. For the armed services, that lapse may be commonplace.

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Going Ballistic     A Distinction Without a Difference     “Friendly Fire”     Red Flag (I) (II)

Preventing Mass Murder     Again, Kids Die     Ban the Damned Things!     Bump Stocks     A Lost Cause

Do Gun Laws Work?     Silence Isn’t Always Golden     A Ban in Name Only     A Dead Man’s Tales

A Stitch in Time     A Matter of Life and Death     All in the Family     The Elephant in the Room

Say Something     Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough     Gun Crazy     Reviving an Illusion

What About Body Armor?     Long Live Gun Control

Posted 10/8/17


Outlawing them is a good idea. But it’s hardly the solution.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On October 1 a middle-aged man with no criminal record became the most prolific mass killer in American history, slaughtering 58 persons and wounding 489 as they enjoyed an outdoor concert on the Las Vegas strip. As a stunned land reels from the carnage, one thing seems certain: the willingness of “ordinary” citizens to put guns to unimaginably evil use has made a mockery of the meager legal constraints that America has imposed on the right to bear arms.

     To be sure, minors, convicted felons and adjudicated mental defectives – the “who” – are prohibited from acquiring guns. But Stephen Paddock didn’t fit into any of these categories. He and his evil counterpart James T. Hodgkinson, who wounded four members of Congress in June, were by all appearances law-abiding citizens who acquired their guns legally, in Paddock’s case through repeat purchases at local gun stores.

     And “what” they legally got is appalling. Lying in ambush at a Virginia baseball field, Hodgkinson unleashed repeated salvos from a 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle, a derivative of the lethally efficient AK-47. Paddock stocked his 32nd. floor Las Vegas hotel room with nearly two dozen assault-style rifles, apparently all in the 5.56 mm caliber made wildly popular by the Colt AR-15.

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     Why did their guns prove so lethal? It’s largely a matter of ballistics. Projectiles fired by civilian versions of the AK-47 and AR-15 travel twice as fast and carry three times the energy of even the more powerful pistol cartridges. When these bullets pierce flesh they create large, undulating cavities many times their diameter, pulverizing organs, shattering nearby bones and rupturing nearby blood vessels. According to the FBI, 454 law enforcement officers were feloniously shot and killed during 2006-2015. Of the nineteen killed by rounds that penetrated their ballistic vests, eighteen fell to rifle fire, with the 7.62 and 5.56 mm. calibers figuring prominently.

     Of course, it’s precisely that killing power that America sought when it commissioned the AR-15 and deployed it in Vietnam, and what its North Vietnamese and Viet Cong opponents sought when they armed their troops with the AK-47. What Uncle Sam may not have expected was that Colt would capitalize on the military AR-15’s devastating reputation by cranking out a civilian version. Differing only in being semi-automatic, meaning that the trigger must be squeezed for each shot, the near-identical twin proved an instant hit.

     Concerns about the increasingly destructive quality of firearms in civilian hands led to the enactment of the 1994 Assault Weapons Act, which banned the wildly popular AR-15 by name. Ignoring the Act’s avowed social purpose, Colt quickly rebranded their highly profitable prodigy the “Sporter,” and as the law required stripped it of external baubles such as a flash suppressor and limited its magazine capacity to ten rounds. With the law (cynically?) silent about ballistics, the gun industry quickly went back to making the powerful and highly profitable weapons that enthusiasts like best. And when the clearly toothless statute ultimately lapsed into the Sunset, hardly anyone noticed.

     “Bump” stocks use recoil to bounce weapons against the user’s trigger finger. This increases the rate of fire to levels approaching that of machineguns, which can fire fully automatically, discharging a barrage with a single pull of the trigger. When the objective is to kill as many persons as possible and pinpoint accuracy is not required, a densely-packed venue such as an outdoor concert offers the ideal setting for their use. Mechanical issues and ammunition capacity preclude prolonged “fully automatic” fire, so Paddock’s decision to deploy multiple bump-stock equipped rifles made (twisted) sense.

     Still, as prior mass shootings demonstrate, semi-automatic assault-type rifles can easily produce deplorable body counts. (Ordinary combat troops generally leave their rifles on semi-automatic mode, whose cyclic rate usually suffices to get the job done.) Bottom line: neither a real machinegun nor a “bump stock” are required to generate a bloodbath. On December 2, 2015 a self-styled terrorist couple used two semi-automatic AR-15 type rifles to kill fourteen and wound twenty-two at a workplace party in San Bernardino, California. Both died in a vicious shootout with local police, who were forced to deploy an armored car.

     Military-style weapons place cops at grave risk every day. On July 7, 2016 a deeply troubled 25-year old reservist opened fire on officers monitoring a protest march. His imported semi-automatic variant of the AK-47 proved highly lethal, and soon five Dallas officers lay dead (seven others were wounded.) Police eventually killed the assailant with an improvised bomb delivered by a robot.

     Three months later two police officers stood outside a residence in easy-going Palm Springs, California. Gunfire from inside the home suddenly pierced the front door, fatally wounding officers Lesley Zerebny and Jose “Gil” Vega, who had arrived in response to a “simple family disturbance.” (Another officer was wounded but recovered). Their assailant, a deeply troubled twenty-six year old ex-con, used a semi-automatic AR-15 type rifle and readily available “armor piercing ammunition,” which can supposedly defeat the armor plate in ballistic vests.

     Decades ago, before citizens were armed with what amounts to weapons of war, few incidents called for anything more than a patrol car or two. But the proliferation of lethal firearms has forced the police to militarize with SWAT teams, armored vehicles and robots that can deliver as well as retrieve bombs. And now we have to worry about “bump” stocks as well.

     What’s to be done? Would banishing these newfangled gadgets, as even Republicans seem ready to do, be enough? Hardly. Any effective response has to address the factors that brought gun lethality to such unthinkable levels. Perhaps a scoring system could be devised that takes key variables such as ballistics, rapid-fire capability, lack of recoil, accuracy and portability into account.

     Then an even greater difficulty becomes apparent. One year after a British subject massacred sixteen persons with a handgun and two semi-automatic rifles, Great Britain enacted the “Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988.” Among other things, it prohibits semi-automatic rifles chambered for ammunition more powerful than .22 rimfire. A decade later Great Britain responded to a school massacre by essentially banning handguns. And yes, people actually gave them up.

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     But we’re not Great Britain, where (at least until Brexit) the social contract has apparently prevailed. In our commercialized, ideologically polarized culture any proposal to effectively reduce gun lethality would provoke a vicious struggle between unyielding interests. And should reason overcome egoism and self-indulgence, and a rule not hopelessly watered down by commercial, enthusiast and ideological interests is actually produced, how would one implement it? Could millions of murderous weapons be peacefully removed from circulation?

     But we’re probably ahead of ourselves. Perhaps the best place to start isn’t with lawmaking but with (as we previously suggested) a national conversation about guns and the meanings we attach to their possession and use. What needs do firearms fulfill? How would massively “thinning the herd” affect everyday life? Our values? Our relationships? Our sense of self? Perhaps once we understand and acknowledge the “why’s,” devising and implementing the “how’s” can come more easily.

     Hopefully it’s not too late to start.

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UPDATE (3/3/20): On March 2 the Supreme Court rejected without comment an appeal of ATF’s December, 2018 decision to classify bump stocks as machineguns. Its ruling, which effectively bans the devices, was protested by gun rights groups that pointed to ATF’s former position allowing their use. In a stinging but unsuccessful dissent, Justice Gorsuch echoed the appellants’ objections.

UPDATE (10/10/19): MGM, the owner of the hotel that was the site of the October 2017 Las Vegas massacre, has agreed to pay up to $800 million to settle lawsuits alleging that it negligently failed to keep the shooter, Stephen Paddock, from stocking his room full of weapons and ammunition.

UPDATE (8/12/19): Police say that, as manufactured, the .223 caliber weapon used in the Dayton massacre lacked a stock and was classified as a handgun. Connor Betts, the gunman, added a “shoulder brace” to help steady the weapon, transforming it into an illegal short-barreled rifle. He had purchased the weapon and brace separately, and legally.

UPDATE (8/4/19): Early this morning an unidentified man wearing body armor and carrying a .223 rifle and multiple magazines opened fire in a Dayton (OH) nightclub area, killing nine and wounding more than two dozen. Police shot him dead. This was reportedly America’s 22nd. mass shooting this year (at least four dead excluding the gunman.)

UPDATE (8/3/19): Forty-six persons were shot in an El Paso (TX) shopping center by a twenty-one year old man wielding an assault-type rifle. Twenty have died. Police arrested the shooter, Patrick Crusius. He was dressed in a black t-shirt and was wearing earmuffs and dark glasses. Crusius’ online posts depicted him with a rifle, praised the New Zealand massacre and criticized America’s “invasion” by Latinos.

UPDATE (3/28/19): The Supreme Court let stay a new Federal regulation that essentially outlaws bump stocks, defining them as mechanisms that convert firearms to fully automatic fire. It supersedes ATF’s prior ruling, which said they did not. Plaintiffs must now pursue relief through Federal courts.

UPDATE (9/30/18): Three years before Stephen Paddock’s rampage, a housekeeper in the same hotel found six guns in the room of Kyle Aaron Dunbar. Among them was a tactical rifle pointed out a window. Dunbar, a convicted felon, was convicted for having guns and got forty months. Plaintiffs in current litigation against the hotel are citing that incident as prior evidence of its lax security.

UPDATE (3/11/18): In the New York Times and Washington Post, illustrated features about the grievous damage inflicted on the human body by ultra high-velocity projectiles such as those fired by AR-15 style rifles.

UPDATE (2/12/18): With no Federal action in sight, Massachusetts, New Jersey and a handful of localities have moved to ban bump stocks. Meanwhile the NRA, which opposes an outright Federal ban on bump stocks, has called on ATF to incorporate rules about such devices into firearms regulations.

UPDATE (2/3/18): FBI agents arrested Douglas Haig, an Arizona resident who admitted he makes armor-piercing ammunition and resells it by mail order and at gun shows, for supplying armor-piercing ammo to the Las Vegas shooter. Haig is not licensed, as the law requires, to manufacture ammunition, and the manufacture and sale of armor-piercing rounds are generally prohibited. Criminal complaint

UPDATE (10/26/17): The L.A.P.D. union announced its support for banning bump stocks, silencers and armor-piercing ammunition because they can inflict “devastating” wounds on citizens and cops.

UPDATE (10/10/17): A civil lawsuit filed in Las Vegas accuses Slide Fire Solutions, the bump-stock manufacturer, of knowingly marketing an unreasonably dangerous product.

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Going Ballistic     Again, Kids Die     Ban the Damned Things!     Massacre Control     A Lost Cause

A “Ban” in Name Only     A Matter of Life and Death     Cops Need More Than Body Armor

Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough     Reviving an Illusion

Posted 7/14/17


A proposal to deregulate firearm silencers ignores the hazards of policing

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. America is a nation of laws – and of a myriad of regulations that carry the force of law. But to plagiarize Bob Dylan’s famous aphorism, the times, they are definitely a-changin’. On February 24 President Trump signed an executive order that seeks to bring the fifty-volume Code of Federal Regulations to heel. Every Federal agency has been tasked with searching for and destroying regulations that may impinge on the economy, are “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective,” or “rely in whole or in part on data, information, or methods that are not publicly available or that are insufficiently transparent to meet the standard for reproducibility”:

    We have begun a historic program to reduce the regulations that are crushing our economy -- crushing. And not only our economy, crushing our jobs, because companies can't hire. We're going to put the regulation industry out of work and out of business.

     Of course, what to some may be a clear improvement may to others seem an abomination. Democrats are vigorously complaining about moves to banish or suspend rules that, for example, require investment advisors to act in their clients’ best interests, extend safeguards against pollution to small waterways, and mandate that for-profit colleges be held accountable for their students’ success in finding employment. (To see what’s up in the deregulatory wars visit the Federal portal at

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays

     In this badly polarized land, conflict is to be expected. What we didn’t anticipate, though, was that in its zeal to implement the President’s deregulatory vision a Federal law enforcement agency would suggest doing away with a real, long-standing law that helps cops stay alive.

     On Sunday evening, July 9, New York State trooper Joel Davis responded to a report of gunfire at a rural residence. Trooper Davis parked his cruiser a distance away, radioed that he heard shots being fired and exited the vehicle. Moments later an active-duty Army NCO opened fire with a rifle. One round struck Trooper Davis to the side of the ballistic plate in his armored vest, piercing the garment and inflicting a fatal wound.

     Other officers quickly arrived and subdued the gunman. They found the bodies of trooper Davis and of Walters’ wife and also rendered aid to a woman who had suffered a non-life threatening gunshot wound.

     Trooper Joel Davis, 36, is survived by a wife and three children.

     Individuals with military training have been using rifles to kill cops with some regularity. On July 7, 2016 a 25-year old Army veteran ensconced himself in a Dallas office building and opened fire with an AK-style rifle on police monitoring a protest. By the time it was over five officers were shot dead and nine others and a civilian lay wounded. Two weeks later, on July 17, 2016 two Baton Rouge police officers and a sheriff’s deputy were gunned down by a Marine Corps veteran armed with an AR-type rifle.

     Actually, rifles can extend anyone’s lethal reach. On October 8, 2016 a 26-year old ex-con fired an AR-15 rifle through his home’s front door, killing two Palm Springs, California police officers and wounding a third. They were there because of a “simple family disturbance.” More recently, in “A Lost Cause” (see below) we discussed the recent notorious episode when a middle-aged madman with a rifle wounded four members of the House at a Congressional baseball practice.

     That post, and the others linked below, remarked on the devastating wounding potential of long-gun ammunition and, as well, its ability to defeat ballistic garments commonly worn by police. Making things worse, rifles also enable skilled and not-so-skilled marksmen (so far, they’ve all been men) to do their dirty deeds from a distance.

     Considering all this, why on Earth would my beloved ATF, which I proudly called “home” for twenty-three years, suggest that the Federal law that constrains the possession and transfer of silencers ought to be repealed?

     According to a reveal by the Washington Post that’s exactly what the agency’s number two official, Associate Deputy Director Ronald B. Turk suggested in January. Here’s an extract from his “not for public distribution” memo:

    On average in the past 10 years, ATF has only recommended 44 defendants a year for prosecution on silencer-related violations; of those, only approximately 6 of the defendants had prior felony convictions. Moreover, consistent with this low number of prosecution referrals, silencers are very rarely used in criminal shootings. Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety necessitating NFA classification, and should be considered for reclassification under the [law].

     Agent Turk’s “White Paper” goes well beyond silencers. Among other things, it recommends that the Feds remove restrictions on the manufacture and retail sale of (believe it or not) armor-piercing rifle ammunition, which he also declares is “not associated with criminal use.”

     Of course, the reason why silencers and AP ammo seldom turn up in crimes may be precisely because legal restrictions have discouraged their use. Unlike AP ammo, silencers are in fact not “banned” but may be purchased from specialist dealers upon paying a $200 transfer tax and submitting to a fingerprint check. (Incidentally, forget about the myth of building a silencer from instructions on the Internet. To be safe and effective firearms suppressors must be precisely designed and accurately machined from reliable stock. That’s hardly a trivial task.)

     Why would ordinary, law-abiding citizens bother with silencers in the first place? According to the NRA, which wrote approvingly of agent Turk’s memo, it all boils down to noise. Reducing a gun’s sonic footprint greatly lessens the chance of damaging one’s hearing and supposedly leads to “happier neighbors.” Reducing recoil and flinching also promises greater first-shot accuracy, enhancing one’s ability to defend against violent criminals and making hunting more “humane.”

     Naturally, silencers don’t get to choose who’s at the trigger. So their benefits should also accrue to bad boys and girls. Just imagine the dilemma that cops would face when fired on by a silencer-equipped sniper, and particularly in an urban setting, where the ambient din easily drowns out whatever sounds might escape suppression. How many officers would have to die before the threat could be located and neutralized?

     It’s not just about long guns. Until bodies start visibly piling up, how would anyone know that a shooter wielding a suppressed pistol is on the loose? Would you dial 9-1-1 if you heard “thuds” next door? How about from across the street? At what point would officers responding to a “routine” call realize that bullets were flying? When a windshield shattered? And forget about reaping the benefits of increasingly popular gunfire-detection technology, such as what alerted Fresno police to a mass shooting on April 18.

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     But please don’t judge an agency by one memo. This admittedly biased retiree fondly remembers a well-spent career chasing gun traffickers and has always taken pride in ATF’s work. To avoid compromising former colleagues he avoided sharing this post in advance. But unless the times have indeed changed remarkably, he knows exactly what street-level agents think of that appalling “White Paper.”

     It’s not flattering.

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UPDATE (10/26/17): The L.A.P.D. union has announced its support for banning bump stocks, silencers and armor-piercing ammunition because of their potential to inflict “devastating” wounds on citizens and cops.

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Again, Kids Die     Ban the Damned Things!     Massacre Control     A Lost Cause

A “Ban” in Name Only     A Matter of Life and Death     Is it Always About Race?

Cops Need More Than Body Armor     Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough

Posted 6/24/17


Legislators are ambushed. And a gun-numbed land shrugs and moves on.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “It’s going to be in my pocket from this day forward. It’s got all the punch you need.” House member Chris Collins (R-Ala.) was of course referring to a gun, specifically the 9mm. pistol that he occasionally carries in the glovebox. But the Congressman’s resolved to ramp up his game. His decision to “pack” 24-7 was prompted by the June 14 shooting at a Congressional baseball practice in Alexandria that wounded four, most seriously fellow Republican legislator Steve Scalise, the Majority Whip.

      Congressman Collins isn’t the only one looking to guns as a solution for…well, guns. Reacting to the same tragedy, his Alabama GOP colleague, Rep. Mo Brooks asked that D.C. exempt legislators from laws restricting concealed carry (applicants are presently required to demonstrate a “good reason”):

    Right now, when we’re in Washington, D.C., once we’re off the Capitol Hill Grounds complex, we’re still congressmen, senators — we’re still high-profile targets — but we have absolutely no way to defend ourselves because of Washington, D.C.’s rather restrictive gun laws.

Fellow GOP stalwart Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), who hit the ground to avoid the assailant’s fusillade, heartily agrees:

    Put it this way: If we had had more weapons there, we’d be able to subdue the shooter more quickly. Thank God that the Capitol Police were there and were armed, because otherwise we'd have had a situation where there'd be a lot more damage.

     Naturally, the Dem’s don’t see it that way. But let’s not get trapped into parsing ideological disputes. Considering what actually happened, it seems unlikely that a passel of armed citizens would have helped. James T. Hodgkinson, the assailant, was in a more-or-less secluded position about two to three house-lengths away from his victims when he began firing salvos from an SKS 7.62 cal. semi-automatic rifle. Consider whether a group of startled, frightened lawmakers could have even organized an effective response. Then imagine how many would have perished or accidentally plugged one another while trying.

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays

     Six and one-half years earlier Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was fighting for her life after being shot in the head during an Arizona political event. Her assailant, Jared Loughner, a 22-year old recluse was standing in a crowd when he suddenly pulled a Glock 9mm. pistol and opened fire, killing six and wounding thirteen. It could have been much worse had several citizens not tackled the gunman when he paused to reload. None of these heroes was armed. A Johnny-come-lately who was described what nearly happened when he stumbled on the scene:

    As I approached the people wrestling with him [Loughner] one of the other gentlemen actually had gotten the gun away from him. And that’s what I saw first was him holding the gun. And, you know, I had my hand on my pistol and I saw that the gun he was holding was locked back, and so it was empty. And I decided that instead of pulling my gun, I would try and get that gun from him. So, I ran up to him and grabbed his wrist and pushed him up against the wall. At that point, everybody around me says no, no, it’s this guy, you got that wrong guy.

     It’s possible to conceive of circumstances that would benefit from the presence of armed citizens. Still, if everyone that wished to be armed was, what might the unintended consequences be? For a hint, read our prior gun control posts. Here’s an extract from “Don’t Blame the NRA”:

    We’ve become so accustomed to gun violence that we seldom think about the gang members, “ordinary” criminals and otherwise law-abiding heads of household who commit countless mini-massacres year-in and year-out with weapons whose unthinkable lethality would have horrified the framers of the Second Amendment. That’s what’s really insane.

    It’s not simply a question of “who” carries. “What” they possess is equally crucial. Indeed, the lethality of guns commonly in use has reached levels that would have been unimaginable to the Founders. Once more, let’s self-plagiarize:

    In December 1791, when the Second Amendment went into effect, a “handgun” wasn’t a .40 caliber Glock with a fifteen-round magazine. It was a bulky, muzzle-loading single-shot flintlock that could take nearly a minute to prepare for a second round.

So what about the late Mr. Hodgkinson’s SKS? Lacking a handgrip and other external baubles, the Eastern-block military surplus rifle was never deemed an “assault weapon” under (now-expired) Federal law. Imported in large quantities, it’s widely available at moderate cost. (Four-hundred bucks can get you a nice one. We assume that’s about what Hodgkinson paid when he legally bought his at a gun store.) “Assault weapon” or not, SKS rifles are extremely effective killing machines, boasting projectiles that travel nearly twice as fast and carry more than three times the energy of the 9mm. pistol ammo that supposedly now lines Rep. Collins’ pockets. (See Di Maio, “Gunshot Wounds,” 2nd. ed., p. 168.) And even when its bullets don’t kill they inflict devastating wounds:

    According to Di Maio…as these projectiles traverse tissue they create a temporary, undulating cavity that can be as much as 12.5 times the bullet diameter. “Organs struck by these bullets may undergo partial or complete disintegration. The pressures generated are sufficient to fracture bone and rupture vessels adjacent to the permanent wound track but not directly struck by the bullet.” (p. 171)

This “cavitation” is exactly what happened to Rep. Scalise, who nearly perished from an SKS-inflicted wound to the hip. (Click here for a recent New York Times op-ed on point.) Incidentally, this lethal threat is a risk that cops face whenever they don the badge:

    Nye County (Nev.) sheriff’s deputies responded to a call about a domestic argument with shots fired. Diverting to a nearby casino where the woman supposedly went to take refuge, they encountered her male partner in the parking lot. Without warning the man retrieved an SKS semi-automatic rifle from his vehicle and opened fire. Deputy Ian Deutch, 27, was struck and killed by a round that penetrated his body armor. A member of the National Guard, the deputy had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan.

     Table 38 of the UCR’s latest “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” report quantifies the threat in stark terms. Nineteen of the 454 officers gunned down during the decade ending in 2015 were slain by projectiles that penetrated their body armor. All but one of these deaths was caused by rifle rounds. Due no doubt to their lethality and ubiquity, 7.62 X 39 caliber bullets were the most frequently responsible. Of course, cops well know that the body armor they normally wear cannot protect them from high-powered rifle rounds (armor that can is far too heavy and clumsy for daily wear.) It makes perfect sense that police have increasingly turned to armored cars. They’ve “militarized” because so has everyone else. And now there’s a proposal to relax the ban on silencers. Meaning that shooters will be more comfortable, while cops will have even less cues about the location of a lethal threat.

     What could be done? In “A Ban in Name Only” we discussed the 1987 massacre in Hungerford, England, where sixteen persons were gunned down by a man wielding a handgun and two rifles. In response, Great Britain promptly enacted laws banning all semi-automatic rifles beyond .22 rimfire. Nine years later, when a handgun-toting British subject murdered sixteen children and a teacher, our (for now, European) cousins virtually banned handguns. Not that we’re suggesting cause-and-effect, but forgive us for pointing out that in 2015 murder in Great Britain was less than one-quarter the U.S. rate. As for what their cops and ours face, consider that in 2015 the gunfire death rate for U.S. law enforcement officers was four per thousand, while the U.K. rate was their typical zero.

     Of course, in Great Britain firearms restrictions enjoy widespread public support. But as my dear father pointed out when our ferry docked in Miami, we’re in America now! So forget “could.” What can be done? Apparently, nothing. Our highly polarized political atmosphere has shelved all thoughts of tightening gun controls. Even Bloomberg news (you know, the outfit owned by that gun-phobic gazillionaire) considers further restrictions a lost cause. Here’s a snippet from their interview with Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the baseball catcher who represents the liberal side of the aisle:

    “I think we’re beyond the place in which Washington responds to mass shootings…After Orlando and Sandy Hook, that’s clearly not how people’s minds change here.”

What might actually propel change seems too horrific to contemplate. In the meantime, life isn’t a baseball game, and it will most likely be ordinary citizens and street cops who’ll continue to bear the costs of doing nothing.

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p.s. Hodgkinson reportedly purchased both guns legally. Still, he had several past gun-related run-ins with the law, including a 2016 arrest for striking a person with the butt of a shotgun and firing a round. But the victim didn’t show up in court so charges were dropped. Although Hodgkinson retained his gun rights he was certainly a dangerous man and ripe for an intervention (click here.)

UPDATE (7/6/18): LAPD and ATF arrest ten L.A.-area gang members who were assembling assault-type rifles from parts and selling them to criminals. Forty-five of these untraceable, unserialized “ghost guns” were seized, along with silencers and drugs. The suspects were charged with state violations including illegally manufacturing assault rifles, possessing silencers, and conspiracy.

UPDATE (3/11/18): In the New York Times and Washington Post, illustrated features about the grievous damage inflicted on the human body by ultra high-velocity projectiles such as those fired by AR-15 style rifles.

UPDATE (1/13/18): Gravely wounded at the Congressional shooting, Matt Mika, the team’s baseball coach, barely survived. Serious physical disabilities and questions to which there is no answer cloud his future.

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Ban the Damned Things!     Massacre Control     Bump Stocks     Silence Isn’t Always Golden

Is Crime Up or Down?     A Matter of Life and Death     A Ban in Name Only     A Stitch in Time

Cops Need More Than Body Armor     The Elephant in the Room     Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough

Reviving an Illusion     Don’t Blame the NRA     DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?

Disturbed Person     Safe at Home…Not!


Gun Control: Facts and Myths

Posted 1/11/17


Are they doing any good? We crunch the numbers to find out.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Once again, California is number one! No, we’re not talking about smog or traffic jams. In December the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (LCPGV) released its annual Gun Law Scorecard, honoring California, as has become customary, as the State with the strongest gun laws. States are graded according to the quantity and quality of their efforts. For example, extending background checks to all gun transfers, including private party and gun-show sales – something that California and eighteen other top-ranked States do – earns lots of points. Allowing concealed carry without a permit – the law in Alaska (44/50, Grade = F), Arizona (47/50, Grade = F) and six other States – draws a major spanking.

     Each year the LCPGV compares its rankings to State gun death rates published by the Centers for Disease Control. According to its website, this process reveals “a significant correlation between high gun law scores and low death rates and vice versa.”

     Everyone who follows this blog’s gun control section knows that its author, a retired ATF agent, favors strictly regulating the gun marketplace. Yet as we’ve often pointed out, so many firearms are already in circulation that the real-world effects of gun laws must be inevitably muted (see, for example, “A Ban in Name Only”). We decided to gather existing data and check things out. Do the numbers really support the notion that stronger gun laws lead to fewer gun deaths? Data was collected for eight variables: four are possible “causes”, and four are possible “effects”:

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays

     Causal factors

  • Law score: Strength of State gun laws, 1 (weakest) to 50 (strongest). For clarity of analysis we inverted LCPGV’s 2016 scorecard, which ranked State with strongest laws as #1, and the weakest as #50.
  • Poverty rate: 2015 poverty rates, by State. From the U.S. Census.
  • Urbanization: 2010 urban percentage of population, by State. From U.S. Census (via Iowa State University).
  • Gun ownership: Proportion of households with guns, 2002. From Pediatrics. (While dated, this is the only national study we found where householders were specifically asked whether they kept guns. More recent attempts tend to rely on proxy measures of gun ownership, such as the number of Federally-registered “NFA” weapons per State).

     Effect factors (consequences)

  • Homicides: 2015 homicide rates, gun and non-gun, by State. From the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.
  • Gun homicides: 2015 firearms homicide rates, by State. From the CDC.
  • Gun deaths, all causes: 2015 firearms death rates, all causes (accidents, suicides, homicides), by State. From the CDC.
  • Gun suicides: 2015 firearms suicide rates, by State. From the CDC.

     Below is a matrix that displays the correlations between all pairs of variables.

    Dull stuff: Correlation is measured on a scale of -1 to +1. Zero means no association. +1 is a perfect “positive” correlation, meaning that the variables rise and fall together in lockstep. -1 is a perfect “negative” correlation, meaning that the variables rise and fall in opposite directions in lockstep. Intermediate values signify less-than-perfect associations. Asterisks denote statistical significance, meaning that a relationship exceeds what would be expected by chance alone. One asterisk (*) places the likelihood that a relationship is due to chance at less than .05 (five in one-hundred); two asterisks (**) at less than .01 (one in one-hundred.) More asterisks are better; relationships that get at least one are considered “statistically significant.”

     Is there “a significant correlation between high gun law scores and low death rates”? Moving across the top row, law score, to the effect variables, we find that law scores and homicides from all causes are negatively correlated (-.248), meaning that as law scores go up, homicides go down. This is consistent with LCPGV’s claim. However, the correlation is relatively weak and there is no asterisk, so one cannot rule out that the association is caused by chance. However, law scores demonstrate a moderate, statistically significant negative relationship with gun homicides (-.366*), and a strong, statistically significant negative relationship with gun deaths (-.737**) and gun suicides (-.780**).

     So can we conclude that stronger gun laws reduce gun deaths? Not yet. Simple bivariate (two variable) analyses never suffice. It often happens that our variable of interest – here, law score – is strongly associated with a third variable that is the real “cause”. Poverty has the reputation of going hand-in-hand with violence. Its role as a “cause” is borne out by the table, which shows a strong, statistically significant positive relationship between poverty and gun homicides (.437**), meaning they go up and down together. Poverty is also significantly correlated with law scores (-.397**). Their relationship is negative, meaning that as poverty increases, gun laws get weaker. Could it be that when we measure law scores we’re actually mostly measuring poverty? Could poverty be the real culprit?

     In the table below we test the effect of law scores on gun homicides, “controlling” for poverty (meaning, removing its influence).

That’s right – when poverty is taken out, the relationship between law score and gun homicides (-.366*) becomes non-significant (-.196). Now let’s do the opposite, testing the relationship between poverty and gun homicides, controlling for law score.

Removing the effects of law score reduces the relationship between poverty and gun homicides only slightly. Poverty is by far the most important influencer. Law scores, by their lonesome, have at best only a mild effect on gun homicides.

    On the other hand, the associations between law scores and gun deaths, and law scores and gun suicides, seem far more robust from the very start. Controlling for poverty only reduces the correlation between law scores and gun deaths from -.737** to -.687**, and between law scores and gun suicides from -.780** to -.772**. Controlling for gun ownership, another variable strongly associated with law scores (-.799**) has a greater impact, reducing the correlation between law scores and gun deaths to -.346*, and between law scores and suicides to -.333*. Still, for each of these relationships the effects of law scores, by their lonesome, remains significant.

     Multiple regression analysis was used to assess the cumulative effect of the four causal variables. All together, they explained 28.1 percent of the fluctuation in gun homicides, a modest amount that suggests other important forces are likely at work. However, they did explain a full 75.6 percent of the fluctuation in gun suicides, an impressive result. (We’ll leave further number crunching to our intrepid readers. To download the dataset, click here.)

     According to the CDC, 63.5 percent of all gun deaths in 2014 (33,599) were from suicide (21,334) and 32.6 percent (10,945) were from from homicide. Our number-crunching confirmed statistically significant associations between gun laws, overall gun deaths and gun suicides, but not between gun laws and gun homicides. While our efforts are admittedly limited, they suggest that gun laws as implemented in the U.S. are far more apt at reducing gun deaths from non-criminal rather than criminal causes.

     Still, laws have deterrent value, at least for those who would be deterred. If no laws prohibited, say, gun possession by felons, many more would likely acquire guns, and gun mayhem could get much worse. In the messy, real world, even statistically non-significant effects can prove useful. When your blogger and his ATF colleagues took down gun traffickers, many guns were prospectively kept from flowing to the streets. Were some lives saved? Probably. Yet given the limits of enforcement, the impact on the illicit gun marketplace was limited. Did ATF’s Long Beach trafficking group have a statistically significant effect on gun homicide in Southern California? Hardly.

     Excuses and explanations aside, the failure of tougher gun laws to demonstrate a statistically significant impact on gun homicide inevitably disappoints. Here are a couple suggestions for making things better:

  • Tighten the right screws. As we’ve repeatedly pointed out (see, for example, “A Ban in Name Only”), assault weapons prohibitions consistently overlook the one factor that’s most closely tied to lethality: ballistics. Address that, and you’ll have many fewer deaths.
  • Laws can’t work unless they’re vigorously enforced, or if the opportunity to enforce them is lost. In California all gun transfers must go through a licensed firearms dealer where they are subject to a background check. State law also limits handgun purchases to one a month. However, these rules are much less effective if corrupt dealers are left to peddle guns out the back door, or if neighboring States with weak laws (Arizona doesn’t limit purchase quantity or frequency) become go-to places for interstate traffickers. (For more about such schemes check out “Where Do They Come From?” and the blogger’s journal article about gun sources).

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     Ideological quarrels have long kept the Federal Government from undertaking and funding gun violence prevention research. Perhaps the last effort of its kind, a meta-analysis published by the CDC in November 2002, concluded that there was insufficient evidence to assess the effectiveness of gun laws in preventing gun violence. With pitifully few scientists tackling the issue, our ignorance about such things is likely to continue. As for fighting gun diversion on the ground, that requires political will and plenty of resources. Why neither is likely to be forthcoming, at least from the Feds, should be readily apparent.

UPDATE (8/24/19): Guns recovered by police in California often come from Nevada, whose gun laws are far looser. California legislators are planning to ask their Nevada counterparts to prohibit assault weapons and high-capacity magazines such as used by Santino Legan, the 19-year old Nevada man who legally bought an AK-47 type weapon at a Nevada gun store on July 9, then used it to kill three and wound a dozen at the Gilroy (CA) Garlic Festival on July 28.

UPDATE (7/23/19): A national study that compared levels of household firearms ownership with gun homicide reveals a significant relationship between more ownership and more domestic homicides but none between ownership level and non-domestic homicides. The recently released 2016 BJS survey of prison inmates reports that ninety percent of those who used a gun in their crime did not buy it at retail. Forty-three percent got it from a street source; six percent stole it.

UPDATE (2/21/19): California is the only state that actively tries to confiscate guns from buyers who were convicted of a felony post-purchase. California, Connecticut and Nevada are the only states that require felons prove they have surrendered guns previously bought.

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Ban the Damned Things!     Massacre Control     A Ban in Name Only     Half-Hearted Measures

Turn off the Spigot     The Elephant in the Room     Where Do They Come From?     Reviving an Illusion

Long Live Gun Control


Sources of Crime Guns in Los Angeles, California     Washington Post     Boston public radio


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