President Biden’s ideas on guns need to evolve

We all have that one friend whose hairstyle or clothes are stuck in the past. President Biden is our friend whose views on gun control are stuck in the past. Thirty years ago, he latched on to the idea that America’s epidemic of gun violence is caused by a particularly deadly class of “assault weapons,” and no matter how hard the facts pull in the other direction, he won’t let go. As with that friend who still sports a perm, it’s time for an intervention.

Although rifles of any kind are used in just over 4% of U.S. gun murders (fewer than 500 homicides a year), the myth that America is awash in deadly “military-style” rifles has become an unkillable moral panic akin to perennial fears about poisoned Halloween candy.

In reality, so-called “assault weapons” are not used by any military, are not exceptionally powerful and do not have exceptionally high rates of fire. Despite the president’s oft-repeated quip that nobody needs an AR-15 because “deer aren’t wearing Kevlar vests,” the .223 Remington ammunition fired by a typical AR-15 is smaller and less powerful than common hunting rounds like the .308 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield, both of which can easily penetrate a Kevlar vest.

States like Colorado don’t allow .223 ammunition to be used to hunt large game, not because it’s too powerful but because it’s considered too small to reliably kill an animal with a single shot. And even the fastest .223 round travels almost 500 feet per second slower than the fastest .22-250 Remington “varmint” round.

No semiautomatic firearm has a faster rate of fire than any other semiautomatic firearm. The maximum rate of fire of a semiautomatic “assault weapon” is the same as that of a semiautomatic handgun or semiautomatic hunting rifle: one round per pull of the trigger.

Contrary to popular belief, “assault weapons” are not the preferred weapons of mass shooters. From 2018 through 2022, America averaged 8.4 mass-casualty active-shooter attacks per year. Fewer than half were carried out with “assault-style” rifles.

Handguns are used in approximately 90% of U.S. gun murders and most mass shootings. According to a 2018 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a gunshot wound from a handgun is just as deadly as a gunshot wound from a semiautomatic rifle in a mass shooting. That fact is evidenced by America’s two deadliest school shootings.

America’s deadliest school shooting — Virginia Tech — was carried out with a Glock pistol. America’s second-deadliest school shooting — Sandy Hook — was carried out with an AR-15. Both shooters fired a round approximately every two to four seconds and killed one person for approximately every six rounds fired.

For years it was generally accepted by all sides that America’s “Federal Assault Weapons Ban” (1994 – 2004) was a toothless piece of legislation. Mr. Biden’s insistence that the ban was somehow effective fails to account for the fact that under the ban, a person could still walk into any gun store and buy either a grandfathered AR-15 or an unbanned XM-15 (a rebranded AR-15), a stack of grandfathered thirty-round magazines, and a case of ammunition, at the same price point as before the ban. There was no mechanism by which the ban could have prevented shootings or saved lives.

Both the deadliest mass shooting in the ten years preceding the ban and the deadliest mass shooting in the ten years following the ban’s expiration were committed with typical handguns, not “assault weapons.” The deadliest shooting during the ban involved both an “assault-style” pistol and an “assault-style” rifle.

When activists point to Australia as an example of the type of ban America should implement, they fail to mention that studies have found that Australia’s ban had a negligible effect on gun deaths — which were already low and trending downward — and no readily identifiable effect on the nation’s overall homicide and suicide rates.

According to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, “The rate of firearm homicides in Australia is dramatically lower than that in the United States not because Australia banned semiautomatic rifles and implemented a buy-back program but because there was a greater degree of control of who had access to firearms even before passage of the [ban].”

That quote should point the way for America. Real solutions exist, but they’re found not in efforts to regulate the types of weapons people can have but in more carefully regulating who can get a gun.

Proposals such as red-flag laws and changes to age limits, which focus on the “who” rather than the “what,” should be on the table. Instead of Australia, America should look to Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which allow citizens to own any style of semiautomatic firearm but require prospective gun owners to undergo training, testing and expanded background checks. Both countries have lower homicide rates than Australia, and neither experiences regular mass shootings.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions has conducted multiple studies that have concluded that mandatory licensing/training of gun owners, not gun bans or gun registration, is the most effective measure for reducing all forms of gun violence.

Mr. Biden’s heart is in the right place, but his ideas about gun control are stuck in the past. It’s time for his administration to stop looking for a quick fix and start looking to strategies that have a proven record of success.

  • W. Scott Lewis was a founding board member of Students for Concealed Carry. Between 2007 and 2017 he served SCC in various capacities, including national media coordinator, Texas legislative director and senior advisor.

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