Freedomnomics

Article published Sunday, June 19, 2016, at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Commentary: After Orlando, disarming would not make public safer

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Are we really going to respond to the threat of Islamic terrorism by disarming Americans? On Monday, Hillary Clinton announced that "weapons of war have no place on our streets," and she specifically focused on the AR-15.

While the Orlando killer used a Sig Sauer MCX carbine, since last weekend's shooting, it has been another roughly similar rifle, the AR-15, that has been the focus of so much anger. Possibly this is because it is the most popular rifle in America. Possibly it is because the media jumped to the conclusion that this was the weapon used before they had confirmation.

The AR-15 looks like the M-16, which has been in use by the U.S. military since the Vietnam War. While the M-16 is a machine gun, the AR-15 is semiautomatic, meaning that it fires only one bullet at a time. Yet the AR-15 was covered by the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban (which expired in 2004).

But people continue to ask: Why do people need a semiautomatic AR-15 to go out and kill deer? The answer is simple: Because it is a hunting rifle. It has just been made to look like a military weapon.

The AR-15 uses essentially the same bullets as small-game hunting rifles, fires at the same rapidity, and does the same damage.

The .223-inch rounds used by the AR-15 are actually small compared with what is usually used to hunt deer. Indeed, many states prohibit using bullets of that size for deer hunting. The concern is that the animal will suffer from its wounds rather than experiencing a quick death.

But hunting isn't the issue here. Semiautomatic weapons also protect people and save lives. Single-shot rifles that require manual reloading after every round may not do people a lot of good when their first shot misses or when they are faced by multiple attackers.

During her talk Monday, Clinton gave the false impression that the "assault weapons" used in Orlando and San Bernardino are commonly used in mass public shootings. But such weapons were used exclusively in only 12 percent of the mass public shootings from President Obama's 2009 inauguration through the end of 2015. In another 12 percent of shootings, a rifle was used in conjunction with a handgun and/or a shotgun.

Since the federal ban expired in September 2004, murder and overall violent-crime rates have actually fallen. In 2003, the last full year before the law expired, the U.S. murder rate was 5.7 per 100,000 people. By 2014, the murder rate had fallen to 4.5 per 100,000 people. In none of the years since the ban ended has the murder rate been higher than it was in 2003. The average murder rate during the 10 years of the ban was 6.7 per 100,000 people and in the 10 years after it was 5.1.

In fact, murder rates fell immediately after September 2004, especially in the states that did not have their own assault-weapons bans. My published academic research accounts for other factors and confirms the apparent benefits of the federal ban's expiration.

There is also a misunderstanding about the large-capacity ammunition magazines used by some of these killers. The common perception is that so-called assault weapons can hold larger magazines than hunting rifles. Any gun that can hold a magazine can hold one of any size. That is true of handguns as well as rifles. A magazine, which is basically a metal box with a spring, is trivially easy to make and virtually impossible to stop criminals from obtaining. The 1994 assault-weapons law banned larger magazines and yet had no benefit on crime rates.

If we finally want to deal seriously with multiple-victim public shootings, it is about time that we acknowledge a common feature of these attacks. Since at least as far back as 1950, all but three U.S. mass public shootings (with more than three fatalities) have occurred in places where citizens are not allowed to carry their own firearms.

Let licensed citizens carry guns in the sorts of places that keep getting attacked. They will sometimes be able to stop these killings before police can get to the scene. In the Orlando attack, it took three hours before police entered the nightclub and engaged the killer.

The AR-15 is a dangerous weapon, but it is not a weapon of war. It doesn't make sense to ban certain semiautomatic guns just because of how they look. And no, banning all semiautomatic guns is not the answer either. Despite the immediate emotional appeal of doing so, it will actually make Americans less safe.

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Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper