The gun debate is understandably emotional. The dialectic is frustratingly repetitive: It flares up in the aftermath of tragedy, dissipates into a state of legislative inertia, and turns dormant until the cycle indubitably — and violently — repeats itself. When the common response to this issue is usually nothing, it’s completely understandable why the public embraces simplistic slogans, such as “do something.”
Though usually short on specifics, this bumper-sticker rhetoric does manage to propose some policy changes. Unfortunately, those reforms don’t stand up to the research.
For example, consider one such proposal that is currently on display via a billboard in Grand Junction: ban assault weapons. Fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight for this specific proposal because we tried it before. In 1994, a ten-year prohibition on the manufacture, possession, and transfer of certain “semiautomatic assault weapons” was signed into law.
And what was the result of this ban? The bill mostly targeted the cosmetic qualities of these weapons — restrictions which manufacturers circumvented by altering production so that the banned elements were excluded. But even without these loopholes, the ban’s impact on violence would have been minimal. A Justice Department report examining the impact of the ban was underwhelming at best. “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,” the report states.
The report goes on to explain that the law’s larger impact on overall gun violence was minimal, because the banned weapons were rarely involved in criminal acts in the first place. According to the FBI, rifles — a broader category that lumps together your grandpappy’s hunting rifle with military-style rifles — constitute an average of 340 homicides per year. Though any loss of life is tragic, these numbers don’t exactly rise to the occasion in solving what is commonly characterized as a national epidemic.
But this debate isn’t about just any old rifle, right? The scope of this debate is often targets one specific style of the rifle: the infamous AR-15.
Again, analysis regarding the AR-15 — the so-called “weapon of choice” of mass shooters — produces less-than-impressive numbers. Between 2007 and 2018, 173 people were killed by mass shooters using an AR-15, according to a New York Times analysis — roughly, 15 per year. (For perspective, 13 people die per year from vending machines falling on them.) The fearmongering regarding this weapon becomes even more apparent when one considers the estimated 8 million AR-15s currently in circulation — the vast majority of which will never be involved in a crime.
This sizable arsenal usually brings up another problematic proposal: mandatory buybacks. Such a program — à la Australia’s National Firearms Agreement (NFA), circa 1996 — could potentially remove these weapons and reduce the risk of them being used to commit future acts of violence.
Yet again, the research suggests otherwise. Scholars increasingly refute any correlation between NFA and declines in violence. Overall violence was already in steady decline before the legislation took effect. One study found that while firearms deaths declined in the 20-year period following NFA’s enactment, there was an even larger drop in “non-firearm” deaths during the same period. The study concludes, “Because of this, it is not possible to determine whether the change in firearm deaths can be attributed to the gun law reforms.”
Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of Freakonomics, is even more dismissive. “Gun buybacks are one of the most ineffectual public policies that have ever been invented in the history of mankind,” he states. Buybacks might be great for optics — politicians making a public spectacle of destroying a big pile of guns — but not so great in reducing gun violence, because 1) most of the people participating didn’t want the guns in the first place and 2) most of the guns were inoperable.
Ironically, those demanding some of the aforementioned policies tend to be the very same cohort who label any moderate skepticism of climate change science as “denialism.” So then why the denial of the data surrounding guns?
Unfortunately, good-faith efforts to quantify the efficacy of gun-control proposals are often dismissed as “tone deaf” or “heartless.” However, if we continue appealing to our emotions on this issue, we will likely end up with the same results that we see in Congress.
Jay Stooksberry is a freelance writer and business owner on Colorado’s Western Slope, and chair of the Libertarian Party of Delta County.