The AR-15 is getting its fifteen minutes of fame. Whole articles in major newspapers are devoted to the rifle that Adam Lanza used in the Newtown shooting, as the nation begins to debate restoring the ban on "assault weapons."
But the assault weapons issue is a red herring.
First of all, there's no clear and simple definition of an assault weapon, and this fact has in the past led to incoherent regulation. The defunct 1994 assault weapons ban, according to the Wall Street Journal, outlawed "semiautomatic rifles that accepted detachable magazines and possessed at least two other characteristics, including a protruding pistol grip, flash suppressor or threaded barrel or a folding or telescoping stock." Um, how important was it whether the gun Lanza used had a "flash suppressor"? And, by sacrificing that and a few other such features ("protruding pistol grip," etc.), a mass killer gets to keep his detachable magazine, for rapid reloading?
Second, focusing on assault weapons--or even rifles in general--distracts from the important issue of magazine capacity in pistols. It's true that if you had taken away Lanza's AR-15, he wouldn't have had a rifle that could fire 30 rounds without reloading. However, he was also carrying two pistols--a Glock 20 and a Sig Sauer P226--each of which can fire 15 rounds without reloading. And, actually, since two pistols are less conspicuous than a rifle, they're a more effective way to get 30 rounds of continuous fire into lots of public settings.
Imagine the following world, which it's within our power to create: It's illegal to sell or possess a firearm--rifle or pistol--that can hold more than six bullets. And it's illegal to sell or possess a firearm with a detachable magazine. In other words, once a shooter exhausted the six rounds, he couldn't just snap in another six-round magazine; he'd have to put six more bullets in the gun one by one.
In this world, a significant number of those 20 Newtown first graders would almost certainly be alive. Lanza reportedly fired six bullets from his AR-15 just to get inside the locked school. So, in the alternative universe I just described, he would then have to more or less exhaust one of his two pistols to kill the principal and school psychologist he encountered after entering. At that point, as he headed for the classrooms, he'd have six more rapid-fire bullets left, after which he'd have to reload his guns bullet by bullet.
Is there a single legitimate use of firearms that requires more than six rounds of continuous fire? Certainly not hunting. And not any sort of self-defense that's realistically imaginable, unless you've recently antagonized a Mexican drug cartel.
As the gun lobby gears up to battle proposals such as this one, you'll hear a lot about the fact that mass killings are actually a drop in the bucket of total homicides. True. But mass killings take a disproportionate toll on the nation psychologically and spiritually. Thirty individual people dying in isolated assaults in various cities is a horrible thing, but it doesn't terrify our children, and it doesn't turn our schools into bunkers.
The sort of law I'm describing would make lots of current guns illegal. (I actually own one.) So you'd have to phase the law in over a couple of years, and, to overcome political resistance, you might have to compensate gun owners for surrendering newly illegal guns--or for having them altered to comply with the law. And, even then, the resistance would be very, very strong. It might even turn out to be insurmountable. But if the question is "What could we do that would greatly reduce the scale of mass killings while preserving the right of Americans to use firearms for legitimate purposes," this, it seems to me, is a real answer.
[Update, 12/17 4:25 p.m.: More than one commenter has noted that most handguns currently manufactured would be illegal under my proposal. True. (As I noted in the final paragraph, I own such a gun.) And on Twitter, @drgitlin has noted something I didn't realize: A revolver, which would be clearly legal under my proposal, can be loaded fairly quickly with a "speedloader." Well, if speedloaders are indeed so speedy that they're the functional equivalent of detachable magazines, they could be banned. And as for the fact that most or all non-revolver pistols would be illegal under my proposal: You'd be surprised how fast gun manufacturers would fill this void by designing semi-automatics that could hold a maximum of six bullets and could only be loaded one bullet at a time. I'm not saying this makes my proposal politically feasible; the number of existing owners of conventional semi-automatic pistols (i.e. semi-automatics with detachable magazines) might create insurmountable resistance to it, as I noted in the final paragraph. Still, governments do have the power to ban things that exist, and in this case creating substitutes that complied with the new law would be very doable. And, even if banning detachable magazines in pistols does prove politically infeasible, that doesn't mean we can't make real progress by doing the politically easier thing of banning all magazines, for both rifles and handguns, that hold more than six bullets. And it's a trivial matter for manufacturers to create magazines that would fit existing guns and comply with that law. In any event, we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that another ban on "assault weapons" is by itself significant progress.]