The United States bore witness to yet another high profile mass shooting this week in Jacksonville, Florida. Shooter David Katz killed two and injured eleven others before turning his weapon on himself. Whilst it remains unclear which guns exactly Katz utilized, at time of writing it is being reported he used at least one semi-automatic weapon. Although there is still much to be revealed about this particular incident much will inevitably be made of the weapons used to perpetrate the shooting. Katz’s use of semi-automatic weaponry is sure to reignite the calls for the tighter regulation and banning of particular firearms. Such a reaction has become routine, but there comes a challenge in delineating between which firearms to subject to a ban and which to permit. A term that often appears in such discussions is ‘assault weapon’. But for the purposes of gun control, this is not a useful classification. Assault rifles, like all automatic rifles, are already heavily regulated and extremely difficult to obtain in the United States. You may protest, people use ‘assault weapon’ as a colloquialism referring to a tacit class of weaponry rather than a formal designation.
Fair enough, this is true. Under this less formal designation usually comes the AR-15 a weapon now infamous for its roles in the Sandy Hook and most recently Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings. The AR-15 represents the archetypal enemy of gun control advocates. It is for many the first on the ban list. But what makes it so effective? The rate of fire is often cited as a prime reason for its popularity with mass shooters. The AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle. We know David Katz used at least one semi-automatic, as did the Stoneman Douglas shooter, as did the Sandy Hook and Aurora shooters in 2012. In fact, semi-automatics were involved in every notable mass shooting in the last decade; they indeed greatly multiply the killing potential of a weapon. Nevertheless, this is not a practical criterion for a ban. Semi-automatics are the common denominator in these shootings not because they are a specially selected class of weapon but because the vast majority of firearms are semi-automatics. Semi-automatic means one trigger pull will send one bullet out the end of the barrel. Pistols are semi-automatics. Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho used two such pistols to kill thirty-three in the third deadliest mass shooting in US history. If rate of fire is what makes weapons such as the AR-15 so deadly, in banning semi-automatics you ban the vast majority of weapons in America. It’s not a workable solution.
We also seem to suffer from something of an observer bias on gun violence. Incidents such as the one in Jacksonville this week are horrific in their own right, but the vast majority of gun murders come in a steady stream of smaller incidents. Most of these involve handguns yet collectively are rarely subject to equal concern. If we weighted all gun murders identically and were not vulnerable to this bias it would follow that handguns be the subject of our joint attention. But how could one justify a ban on handguns but not their ostensibly more deadly long-barreled counterparts? There is no justifiable rationale for this distinction. And so we end up with the same unworkable solution. A ban on all firearms. Whilst prohibiting some weapons may be the answer to the perpetual cycle of violence we see in the United States, problems come in identifying the particular features around which to tighten the net, without clumsily catching all firearms in the process. Identifying a single variable to effectively isolate the most dangerous weapons and act as the basis for a ban is extremely difficult. That’s ultimately why a gun ban, political considerations aside, is still is not as easy to execute as it seems.