Opinion | Democratic calls for rifle bans are misinformed


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Some worry that Beto O’Rourke’s firm stance on guns endangers future efforts of gun control legislation.

By Michael Clifford, Staff Columnist

A firestorm of applause in an otherwise sputtering campaign was, perhaps, one thing Beto O’Rourke had going well on the debate stage earlier this month. Posted to Twitter as a T-shirt graphic shortly thereafter, a single comment of the former Texas congressman turned heads on both the left and right toward Democratic solutions to the issue of gun violence.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said, gesturing emotionally toward the debate crowd and the American public, likewise sensitive himself towards the issue after a major shooting killed 22 in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, in August. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

Conservatives have expressed outrage at follow-up comments from O’Rourke clarifying his stance. Even some liberals think it could damage, if not doom entirely, the prospect for additional gun control. For the sake of competent policy, Americans should hope that proposed gun legislation like this is not put into action.

In an election fraught with internal fights between left-wing Democrats and more moderate candidates, gun control has been a less divisive topic when it comes to different proposals targeting the issue. Already 15 years expired, the bill that has brought perhaps the broadest support among candidates is the return of the 1994 assault weapons ban, passed by a fully Democratic Congress and written by leading candidate Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware. Contrary to most evidence, some people, like O’Rourke, believe that such a policy would be an effectual counter to crime.

While concern for people who have lost loved ones or have been injured in shootings is a rational response, it makes it easy to understand why many support immediate gun takeback, as O’Rourke suggests. Media coverage of shootings is inundated with misleading claims, such as that there have been more mass shootings than days in America in 2019 — which have the effect of exaggerating the exact scale of the problem in the call for action. However, the definition of “mass shooting” in this methodology is deceptively broad, admission courtesy of the sources that purvey them, as it includes all incidents that resulted in four or more people shot and/or killed. Incidents of domestic violence, gang violence and others are not analyzed.

Rather than “mass shootings,” the appropriate term for the type of situation most often described is “active shooter incident,” which the FBI defines as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. At least an order of magnitude removed from the hundreds of shootings said to occur on an annual basis, 27 such incidents were identified for 2018, and even then, just 10 met the actual federal definition of a “mass killing” — the end result being three or more deaths. This interpretation of what constitutes mass gun violence describes incidents such as the El Paso shooting in August, the Parkland high school shooting and the Sandy Hook massacre. While each life lost matters, the claimed “crisis of public health” requiring immediate action — usually additional restrictions on gun rights — is nowhere to be found here.

Next, and more importantly, nearly all of the Democratic proposals on gun violence involve banning or stringently regulating rifles, not handguns or shotguns. The former are used in crimes far less frequently than O’Rourke’s account suggests.

The FBI’s descriptions of each of the 27 active shooter incidents in 2018 indicate that a rifle — which encompasses the much narrower category of AR-15s and AK-47s so condemned — was confirmed as the weapon of choice only 6 times. The 34 people who were killed in those incidents are not unimportant, but they also fall far short of accounting for a significant share of the nearly 16,000 homicides in the United States in 2017. O’Rourke thusly reveals his viewpoint as an absurdly one-dimensional interpretation of the much more nuanced issue of civilian firearm ownership.

The total number of rifles Americans own is unknown, but it is certainly in the millions. Having said that, even if guns in general weren’t any more than a recreational device, use of a right has never required justification. The burden of proof is on the advocates to prove how a significant abatement of gun homicides — where all rifles compose just 5.1% of the total — would ever be achieved by the revival of the ban on “assault weapons,” and making that case convincingly remains troublesome. Gun control advocates shouldn’t, in any case, expect to find confirmation from a comprehensive search of the evidence. A review by the RAND Corporation in 2018 found neither sufficient reason to expect nor conclusive evidence to support the idea that such bans would have a large effect on either homicide or suicide.

The limited or missing potential for desirability in banning rifles pales in comparison to the practical issues encountered where it has been tried before. If a registration rate for assault weapons hardly higher than 4% to New York State’s 2013 SAFE Act called the possibility for national registration into question, the roughly 10% success rate of New Zealand’s mandatory gun buyback program should settle the question, at least for now. Discounting its egregious empirical and Constitutional basis, the viability of a buyback or confiscation program, especially on a mandatory basis, requires more than a suspension of disbelief.

In the spectacle of organized political debate, bypassing opportunities to cash in on popular programs is a difficult one, even if those programs wouldn’t help the nation or its citizens in any measurable or conceivable way. The most important takeaway from the latest episode of the tumultuous election season is that statements like Beto O’Rourke’s should not be taken as a serious step towards efficient policy. Instead of discussing ways to prevent violence, the failed Senate candidate, with a hammer perpetually in search of a nail, is quite possibly dooming any chance Democrats have of gaining ground in Texas in the 2020 election — which might just be the best for America.