Lately, in the wake of the Parkland high school massacre, there’s been a lot of talk in the nation’s capitals about limiting the sale of the killer’s weapon—a modified AR-15 type assault rifle––to buyers 21 and over who can pass background checks. The objective, presumably, is something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on: to minimize the number of innocent Americans murdered by AR-15 wielding gunmen.
According to ABC News, there were 345 mass murders in the US in 2017, or nearly one per day, so it’s nigh on impossible to argue with the objective. (The definition of a mass shooting varies, but in general it means that three or more people were killed or at least two were killed and two were wounded in the same attack.) The general, politically acceptable and supposedly bipartisan proposal is to limit sales of semiautomatic weapons to sane adults who can pass a background check.
We on The Other Side feel safer already, but we’re skeptical about any solution, or rather semi-solution, that gets bandied about in the halls of Congress. We’d rather examine its efficacy through the lens of the most reliable numbers extant.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, somewhere between five and ten million AR-15 type firearms are owned by American citizens. We can’t speak for you, but our confidence doesn’t soar when the range of informed estimates is two to one. Regardless, let’s settle on the midpoint: 7.5 million rifles capable of being converted into semi-automatic weapons. The population of the US is around 323 million, which means that one in 43 Americans owns an AR-15 or similar weapon.
Now that we’re equipped with best-source data, let’s revisit a few massacres where the killers were equipped with AR-15 type firearms:
- The population of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 worshippers were murdered and ten were wounded, is around 600. If the averages hold, then the town’s residents owned 14 AR-15 type weapons at the time of the massacre.
- The population of Parkland, Florida, where 17 high-school students and teachers were murdered and 14 were wounded, is about 31,000. If the averages hold, then the city’s residents owned 738 AR-15’s or equivalents at the time of the massacre.
- The population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area, where 58 concert goers were murdered and 851 were wounded, is approximately 1,950,000. If the averages hold, then area residents owned 45,000 AR-15 type rifles at the time of the massacre.
Banning the sale of AR-15 or similar firearms to Americans under the age of 21, whether they can pass background checks or not, will have zero effect on the millions of guns already in circulation. Moreover, the banning of all future sales of AR-15’s will hardly contain the supply for those bent on murdering scores of innocents.
Notably, civilian ownership of AR-15 type semiautomatic rifles was prohibited until 2004, when the ban was lifted by a Republican-controlled Congress. By the numbers, it’s inescapably clear that nothing less than reinstatement and enforcement of the ban will make a serious dent in the frequency of mass shootings.
We’re well aware that a significant percentage of AR-15’s would not be turned in if the 2004 ban was reinstated. Many would be locked away in gun safes, and some would disappear into black markets. According to John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, however, price increases when supply is constrained, and that means that all but the well-healed crazies would be forced to brandish less lethal weapons.
We on The Other Side have every hope that the movement started by the students of Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School will cause material, life-saving change, but we’re not holding our breath. Given the current political climate, however, we expect that there will many more massacres before some future Congress has the courage to defy the NRA and protect their constituents––if only from this one, extraordinarily dangerous firearm.