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Assault Weapons Don’t Kill People.
Handguns Kill People.

| September 15, 2014

On the twentieth anniversary of the assault weapons ban,  politicians and the public continue to support a policy that showed no evidence of saving lives. (David Sleight/ProPublica)

On the twentieth anniversary of the assault weapons ban, politicians and the public continue to support a policy that showed no evidence of saving lives. (David Sleight/ProPublica)

Over the past two decades, the majority of Americans in a country deeply divided over gun control have coalesced behind a single proposition: The sale of assault weapons should be banned.

That idea was one of the pillars of the Obama administration’s plan to curb gun violence, and it remains popular with the public. In a poll last December, 59 percent of likely voters said they favor a ban.

But in the 10 years since the previous ban lapsed, even gun control advocates acknowledge a larger truth: The law that barred the sale of assault weapons from 1994 to 2004 made little difference.

It turns out that big, scary military rifles don’t kill the vast majority of the 11,000 Americans murdered with guns each year. Little handguns do.

In 2012, only 322 people were murdered with any kind of rifle, F.B.I. data shows.

The continuing focus on assault weapons stems from the media’s obsessive focus on mass shootings, which disproportionately involve weapons like the AR–15, a civilian version of the military M16 rifle. This, in turn, obscures some grim truths about who is really dying from gunshots.

Annually, 5,000 to 6,000 black men are murdered with guns. Black men amount to only 6 percent of the population. Yet of the 30 Americans on average shot to death each day, half are black males.

It was much the same in the early 1990s when Democrats created and then banned a category of guns they called “assault weapons.” America was then suffering from a spike in gun crime and it seemed like a problem threatening everyone. Gun murders each year had been climbing: 11,000, then 13,000, then 17,000.

Democrats decided to push for a ban of what seemed like the most dangerous guns in America: assault weapons, which were presented by the media as the gun of choice for drug dealers and criminals, and which many in law enforcement wanted to get off the streets.

Handguns are used in more than 80 percent of murders each year.

This politically defined category of guns — a selection of rifles, shotguns and handguns with “military-style” features — only figured in about 2 percent of gun crimes nationwide before the ban.

Handguns were used in more than 80 percent of murders each year, but gun control advocates had failed to interest enough of the public in a handgun ban. Handguns were the weapons most likely to kill you, but they were associated by the public with self-defense. (In 2008, the Supreme Court said there was a constitutional right to keep a loaded handgun at home for self-defense.)

Banning sales of military-style weapons resonated with both legislators and the public: Civilians did not need to own guns designed for use in war zones.

On Sept. 13, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an assault weapons ban into law. It barred the manufacture and sale of new guns with military features and magazines holding more than 10 rounds. But the law allowed those who already owned these guns — an estimated 1.5 million of them — to keep their weapons.

The policy proved costly. Mr. Clinton blamed the ban for Democratic losses in 1994. Crime fell, but when the ban expired, a detailed study found no proof that it had contributed to the decline.

The ban did reduce the number of assault weapons recovered by local police, to 1 percent from roughly 2 percent.

“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,” a Department of Justice-funded evaluation concluded.

Still, the majority of Americans continued to support a ban on assault weapons.

One reason: The use of these weapons may be rare over all, but they’re used frequently in the gun violence that gets the most media coverage, mass shootings.

The criminologist James Alan Fox at Northeastern University estimates that there have been an average of 100 victims killed each year in mass shootings over the past three decades. That’s less than 1 percent of gun homicide victims.

But these acts of violence in schools and movie theaters have come to define the problem of gun violence in America.

Most Americans do not know that gun homicides have decreased by 49 percent since 1993 as violent crime also fell, though rates of gun homicide in the United States are still much higher than those in other developed nations. A Pew survey conducted after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., found that 56 percent of Americans believed wrongly that the rate of gun crime was higher than it was 20 years ago.

Even as homicide rates have held steady or declined for most Americans over the last decade, for black men the rate has sometimes risen. But it took a handful of mass shootings in 2012 to put gun control back on Congress’s agenda.

After Sandy Hook, President Obama introduced an initiative to reduce gun violence. He laid out a litany of tragedies: the children of Newtown, the moviegoers of Aurora, Colo. But he did not mention gun violence among black men.

To be fair, the president’s first legislative priority after Sandy Hook was universal background checks, a measure that might have shrunk the market for illegal guns used in many urban shootings. But Republicans in Congress killed that effort. The next proposal on his list was reinstating and “strengthening” bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It also went nowhere.

“We spent a whole bunch of time and a whole bunch of political capital yelling and screaming about assault weapons,” Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu of New Orleans said. He called it a “zero sum political fight about a symbolic weapon.”

Mr. Landrieu and Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia are founders of Cities United, a network of mayors trying to prevent the deaths of young black men. “This is not just a gun issue, this is an unemployment issue, it’s a poverty issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a culture of violence issue,” Mr. Landrieu said.

More than 20 years of research funded by the Justice Department has found that programs to target high-risk people or places, rather than targeting certain kinds of guns, can reduce gun violence.

David M. Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues that the issue of gun violence can seem enormous and intractable without first addressing poverty or drugs. A closer look at the social networks of neighborhoods most afflicted, he says, often shows that only a small number of men drive most of the violence. Identify them and change their behavior, and it’s possible to have an immediate impact.

Working with Professor Kennedy, and building on successes in other cities, New Orleans is now identifying the young men most at risk and intervening to help them get jobs. How well this strategy will work in the long term remains to be seen.

But it’s an approach based on an honest assessment of the real numbers.

–Lois Beckett, ProPublica, with The New York Times

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27 Responses for “Assault Weapons Don’t Kill People.
Handguns Kill People.”

  1. Outsider says:

    Finally, an article that dispenses with the hysteria and paranoia about guns and actually discusses facts.

  2. PC LOVER says:

    Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

  3. Emile says:

    But guns with large magazines can kill more people at once. And I’ll bet that this type of gun kills more law enforcement officers, too.

    • just saying says:

      The west was tamed with six shot revolvers, single shot and 5 shot rifles. Tell the Indian’s that were massacred that high cap mags make a difference.

  4. Anonymous says:

    OK . . . Everyone, and I mean everyone go get a gun. Load it up and carry it wherever you go.

    Years from now gather up the statistics. Have the hospitals count the bodies and personal injuries. Then let’s see what conclusions we can make. Nothing like a real scientific experiment.

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    Not to confuse anyone with actual FACTS. . . . The Australians have had a great reduction in gun deaths by reducing the number of guns in their country. This from Reuters:

    in 1996, Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, used semi-automatic rifles to kill 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

    Fischer, a Vietnam war veteran, farmer and gun owner, said the politics of gun control in Australia were brutal.

    “It was a battle royal, and John Howard laid down a template that was worth defending and taking to the public square, taking to the people, and shifting the tectonic plates in the process. And the result … 200 less coffins a year on a conservative estimate,” Fischer told Reuters.

    “It was the right thing to do, but people had to be persuaded of it. And this is why our friends in the United States … should now consider seriously taking it in a big way to the public square.”

    In Australia, gun owners were compensated when they handed in previously legal weapons. Almost 700,000 guns were destroyed, halving the number of homes with a gun. That would be equal to taking 40 million guns out of action in the United States.

    But the reforms angered many constituents of Fischer’s rural-based National Party, who vented their anger two years later at the ballot box. The pro-gun One Nation party won almost one million votes and the government narrowly avoided defeat.

    Australia had 13 gun massacres in the 18 years before the 1996 gun reforms, but has not suffered any mass shootings since.

    Studies found a marked drop in gun-related homicides, down 59 percent, and a dramatic 65 percent drop in the rate of gun-related suicides, in the 10 years after the weapons crackdown.

  6. ignorance says:

    Guns never kill people, never have, it’s always been humans and humans alone.

  7. m&m says:

    Guns don’t kill people, husband that come home early do.

  8. karma says:

    Anonymous- You may be surprised how many LAW ABIDING citizens carry a gun everyday on them. Some people choose to be a victim and some choose to have a better chance of not being a victim. That’s what makes this country great. Choice

  9. Freddy says:

    If we cannot stop illegal immigration in our borders it is foolish to think that banning guns would stop them from illegally entering our country. Israel has many more civilians with guns per capita than the US but their deaths from gun violence except their Arab neighbors is less than the US. The gun is only an instrument that is used in this violence but the culture of gang violence is one that needs to be addressed. Just ask Rahm Emmanuel.

  10. Leonidas says:

    I will fight every law that tries to take my 2nd Amendment rights away from me. The time IS coming when America will collapse just like the Roman Empire did. I will not be left to protect my family with pitch forks and plow blades. This time draws near , anarchy, chaos, violence will be in every major city. It will soon spread out to rural areas after all the food is gone from the stores and warehouses. Electricity grid will no longer exist so no cell phones, internet, lights, gas for cars,etc…….No, no one is EVERY going to confiscate my firearms or ammo…….MOLAN LABE !!

  11. Sherry Epley says:

    Dear Freddy and all,

    Your point about Israel is full of holes! Here are the gun safety regulations for the entire nation of Israel. . . where the ones in Florida are relatively ZERO:

    A firearms license is required to own firearms and air pistols and rifles. Soldiers are allowed to carry their personal weapons and ammunition together while on furlough during active service, uniformed or in civilian clothing. Self-defense firearms may be carried in public, concealed or openly, together with ammunition, without needing any additional permits. Israel is notable for being a country with few places where firearms are off limits to licensed individuals (private premises, some government offices and institutions, courts).

    To obtain a gun license, an applicant must be a resident of Israel for at least three consecutive years, have no criminal record, be in good health, have no history of mental illness, pass a weapons-training course, and be over a certain age:

    20 for women who completed military service or civil service equivalent
    21 for men who completed military service or civil service equivalent
    27 for those who did not complete military service or civil service equivalent
    45 for residents of East Jerusalem.
    Gun licenses must be renewed every three years and permits are given only for personal use, not for business in the firearms sale while holders for self-defense purposes may own only one handgun, and may purchase a maximum of fifty rounds a year, except for those shot at firing ranges.

    The list of below personnel are eligible for licenses allowing them to possess firearms:

    Israel Defense Forces officers honorably discharged with the rank of non-commissioned officer
    Reservists honorably discharged with the rank of regimental commander
    Ex–special forces enlisted men
    Retired police officers with the rank of sergeant
    Retired prison guards with the rank of squadron commander
    Licensed public transportation drivers transporting a minimum of five people
    Full-time dealers of jewellery or large sums of cash or valuables
    Civil Guard volunteers
    Residents of militarily strategic buffer zones considered essential to state security
    Such personnel are allowed to possess one handgun.
    Reservists honorably discharged with the rank of regimental commander are also eligible for licences allowing them to possess one rifle.
    Licensed hunters may possess one shotgun
    Licensed animal-control officers are allowed to possess two rifles
    Civil Guard snipers may possess one rifle.

    • Anonymous says:

      Wow! Almost everyone is allowed to own a firearm in Israel according to your list. So, is their gun violence more or less than the US?

  12. Bill says:

    Of the some 11K per year and 30 per day who are “murdered” how many are from legal gun owners? I would bet that the % of legal gun owners is less now then in the days of the so called wild west. Its not that more people legally own guns its that something id wrong in our National culture that has so many involved in violence towards others.

  13. Seminole Pride says:

    I have had guns and rifles for over 50 years, first one when I was 11 years old, and they have never harmed me or anyone. Strictly used for hunting and target shooting. We need to require everyone to take mandatory education classes before they can purchase a gun. I was taught by my parents who were avid hunters. The best lesson I ever had. I taught my children, and now I am teaching my Grandchildren. Can’t wait for my first hunting trip with them.

  14. Sheila Zinkerman says:

    The article’s factual statistics makes for a good argument for the repeal of the Second Amendment and for a hand gun ban in America.

    However, currently the goals of gun sense advocates such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety do not include the repeal of the Second Amendment or a ban on hand guns.

    The organizations advocate for closing the deadly loopholes in background check systems; they support reasonable limits on where, when and how loaded guns are carried and used in public; and they advocate for laws that address gun trafficking and fraudulent purchasing, to name a few.

    Renewing the ban on assault weapons is another goal of Moms Demand Action. According to F.B.I. data quoted by author Lois Beckett, “only 322 people were murdered with any kind of rifle.” That makes the victims ones of which there are “no more.”

    Not One More. Renew the ban on assault weapons and help reduce that 322 statistical number to zero. Support gun sense legislation. Become a Gun Sense Voter.

    Sheila Zinkerman
    Moms Demand Action
    Everytown for Gun Safety

  15. A.S.F. says:

    True, guns themselves don’t kill people. Stupid, careless, crazy and mean-tempered people DO. once their itchy fingers get wrapped around a trigger. The more guns they can get their itchy fingers on, the greater the chances that tragedy will ensue. That’s why we need regulation, to make that possibility is reduced. Duh.

  16. Seminole Pride says:

    These 6 things kill more People than guns.
    1. Cars
    2. Alcohol
    3. Obesity
    4. Medical Malpractice
    6. Government

    So what’s the point ? We fix the other problems and society will take care of itself..

  17. Sherry Epley says:

    @Seminole Pride, your examples are ludicrous!

    1. Legally driving a car requires training, a license and insurance
    2. Obtaining alcohol requires proof of age. Those drinking too much in a bar, can be denied another drink. In some states bartenders are legally required to stop pouring drinks for those who are drunk.
    3. Obesity is essentially a victim-less situation
    4. Medical Malpractice has HUGE consequences and is usually not intentional (except in the movies)
    5. Tobacco use is very highly restricted in public because it is a health hazard
    6. Government? What in the world do you mean by that?
    Like is said Ludicrous!

    • just saying says:

      1. Legally possesing a firearm requires being of a certain age, not adjudicated of a felony and not declared mentally unfit.
      2. Legally obtaining a firearm requires being over 16 for long guns and 21 for hand guns. A background check must be obtained when purchasing a firearm from a dealer.
      3. A gun in a safe has no victims.
      4. Discharging a firearm has HUGE consequences when not in a controlled environment.
      5. Firearm carrying is restricted. To legally carry a firearm in public, you have to be going to or from hunting/camping/fishing or obtain a concealed weapons permit which requires training and government approval.
      6. You failed to give a point to counter.

  18. boomer says:

    those 11,000 people killed each year by guns stats are false…like most government numbers they are skewed to get people riled up…show me official reports and all the supporting facts around these gun killings and then i will begin to see we have a problem…until then these are false numbers FACT. if that many people were killed by guns each year in this country we would have a huge problem….your MUCKRACKING statements are not true just like everyone in D.C…..i cannot believe that most of you are that nieve to really trust those inflated numbers….good luck to you and i carry every day because the people in this country have gone basically insane.

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