As Students 'March for Our Lives,' What Are the Feasible Aims for Gun Control?

Bob Strong / Reuters

The gun massacre in Parkland, Florida, was nearly six weeks ago. In those weeks, thousands more Americans have died from gun violence. (The average rate is around 90 per day, more than half of them suicides and the rest homicides or accidents.) Today hundreds of thousands of students and others have joined the “March for Our Lives” to demand a solution to what seems America’s most insoluble problem.

As I return to the country (and the online realm) after several weeks away from both, I’d like to resume the discussion that ran in this space in the three weeks after the Parkland killings. Starting with the most recent, the previous entries in the series are:

and before that:

Now, a sampling of messages that have come in, responding to arguments in the preceding rounds.

Seriously, why stop with the AR-15? A previous installment was from a reader who said it was unfair to single out the AR-15 for attention, even though it is a weapon originally intended for military use, now present by the millions in civilian households in America, and very commonly used in recent massacres. After all, that reader said, many other kinds of guns can have roughly the same effect. Another reader takes similar reasoning in a different direction:

Given that the text of the Second Amendment refers to the right to keep or bear Arms, not Rifles, it should matter not whether the particular implement of destruction is:

  •     an AR-15
  •     an improvised explosive device
  •     a Stinger missile
  •     an M-1 main battle tank
  •     a B-52 heavy bomber
  •     or USS Iowa

Five of the six above are heavily regulated, suggesting that regulating assault weapons is within the scope of the Amendment. The argument is over where the line is to drawn not whether assault rifles as a thing alone should be regulated.

I also suspect that the reason we're not arguing over TOW missiles or the M-40 recoilless rifle is because they are beyond the budget of the typical gun enthusiast.

***

In fact, the AR-15 as unique, and the reason is the speed of reloading. This is the argument of a reader in South Dakota:

While I think there is a definite problem with the AR-15, I do take issue with you… that the AR-15 is not functionally unique [JF note: that was another reader’s contention, rather than mine].  I disagree with that premise.  

It is in fact unique and it all has to do with the magazine.  When Armalite designed the weapon it was clearly for a military purpose, and one purpose was for a rifleman to maximize the number of bullets that could be sent towards and enemy.   

The time to change a magazine is an essential element in the functional number of rounds that can be fired per minute.  For a rifleman to release an empty magazine from an AR-15 is exceptionally easy as compared to other common rifles and therefore it is unique.

All the rifleman has to do is press the release and gravity does the rest.  With a bit of practice, (there are numerous YOUTUBE videos on this), an empty magazine can be exchanged with a loaded magazine in 1 second or less.  The Russian AK design, as well as the Ruger Mini design, are a hook and latch system that takes far longer.  (There are actually comparison videos on YOUTUBE showing the difference.)

I don't own an AR or an AK, but I do own a Ruger Mini and while I know it can be done faster, it would take me a good 15+ seconds to change magazines if it was essential for me to do so, but since I've never been in much of a hurry, I probably take 20-30 seconds.

Why is this important, and why does it make the AR-15 unique?  In magazine capacity, it is argued that while a shooter, (pardon me, the killer), is changing magazines, there is a pause that would let the victims react and "swarm" the shooter.  With one caveat, I would agree that smaller magazine size for the AK and the Mini would allow for just that.   The caveat is that school children are most unlike to "swarm" a shooter under any circumstances; maybe college students would, but then many of them are adults and some with military training..

With the AR-15, a shooter can change magazines faster than the reaction time of victims.  Not so with the AK or the Mini.  Therefore, with the AR-15, magazine capacity is mostly irrelevant; I know you will probably disagree.   But 10 round magazines will maintain a very close rate of fire as from larger magazines.  A little less, sure, but the difference may not be material because they can be changed so rapidly.

I am suggesting here that restrictions on semi auto rifles need to consider time to change magazines.  Semi auto rifles are NOT all the same.

***

Another reader, who is a physicist, argues that in fact it’s the speed of the bullets. He writes:

What I get from Guy #1 in "Why Stop with the AR-15" is that he is arguing starting from the purpose of the weapon. E.g., an M1 Garand was an assault rifle too; will you ban it?

I think this is irrelevant. The important point is not the original purpose of the weapon nor what it can be used for. The important point is how much damage it can inflict on the human body, and that depends solely and completely on the kinetic energy of the round.

Kinetic energy depends linearly on the mass of the bullet and quadratically on its velocity. That power of two makes a big difference that outweighs mass differences.

The mass of an M1 round is 150 grains. The mass of an AR-15 is a little hard to pin down but according to Google the vast majority of .223 rounds are 55 grains. That means the AR-15 round is about 1/3 the mass of the M1 Garand round.

But the muzzle velocity is way higher. [Update: The original version of this note offered muzzle-velocity data for the M1 that appeared to confuse meters per second with feet per second, with the effect of magnifying the difference between the two weapons. There is a difference, but not as large as originally suggested. I’ve removed the original numbers. Thanks to reader JE and others who quickly spotted this error.] That means the AR-15 round's kinetic energy is [much higher] than the M1’s.

This makes a difference, and indeed is the reason the military switched (I think you wrote an article on this way back when) [Yes] . I believe Atlantic had an article a while back from a physician who treated some of these wounds that describes the catastrophic difference in damage made by that difference in kinetic energy. [Yes]

But it also maybe points the way toward a reasonable regulation that is clear cut and doesn't get wrapped up in all the debates over which gun does what and what does assault rifle really mean.

Just regulate the kinetic energy of the round. Let the gun be whatever it is so long as it does not exceed a certain value for kinetic energy at the muzzle. Set that value to the point at which, as the Atlantic doctor put it, the bullet makes a clean, straight line path through tissue with a bullet sized exit hole as opposed to a mass of destroyed tissue for several inches in every direction all the way along the path and an exit hole the size of a large orange.

Seems to me this solves the entire debate. You can buy a gun that makes you look as manly as you feel you need to, so long as we know it is going to fire a wimpy round.

Oh, and while we're at it, no Teflon bullets either.

***

The road we’ve traveled from muskets to semi-automatic rifles. Many, many readers have written in about the Second Amendment’s famous reference to “a well regulated militia.” A previous note quoted an unnamed novelist who said that the Second Amendment’s provisions made all discussion of gun controls “utterly irrelevant.” A reader who is familiar with the weaponry in use when the Amendment was written disagrees:

I did want to briefly respond to the letter from the novelist who asserted that:

Hence the "well-regulated" militia just meant "well-armed local citizens who meet to drill now and then". It didn't mean "obedient, disciplined servants of the State".

First let me stipulate that I am a Revolutionary War re-enactor, so my reproduction Brown Bess musket gets so much use.

In reaction to this assertion , I would say it is true that there was considerable suspicion about the notion of a permanent standing army.

A number of leaders at the time placed a great deal of early (and utterly mistaken) confidence in the virtue of a citizen soldier standing up to the hired, professional, uniformed engines of despotism otherwise known as regular soldiers (virtue was a particularly important point, since they believed that free and virtuous citizens would always overcome a corrupt, hired soldiery and that virtue was inherent to free republican citizens or else they simply would not be free in the first place).

THAT optimism was dead dead dead by 1778 when the rage militaire of 1775 and 1776 had faded and it was painfully obvious that the affair would be decided by the Continental Army and not the part time citizen soldiers. Militia still had a necessary place however...and THEY ANSWERED TO THE COLONY!!!! Their officers were often appointed by the colonial government! They could be called up or forcible disbanded by the colony!    

Yes, charismatic commanders often formed their own small militias, but they were still answerable to the colony and to the colonial commander of militia. This was not at all dissimilar to the situation during the 100 years war where English commanders were empowered to hire such men as he find to take across the Channel as part of the King's army fighting in France, and those men were paid out of loot provided by that commander. They were part of the chain of command and answerable to the King.

The situation was the same with militias. They were raised and authorized by the colonial government and could also be disbanded by orders from that same government. They were specifically empowered to carry out tasks and their officers had to obey orders from above and function in a chain of command.

The buffoonish caricature of " well-armed local citizens who meet to drill now and then" does not reflect the reality of militia duty nor the men who served in militias. Ownership of firearms carried an expectation of civic engagement and duty. Indeed, many of the leaders of the period would find it incomprehensibly odd that we no longer expect firearms owners to perform civic duties as part of the responsibility of owning a weapon.

Next weekend, in [an annual re-enactment of a Revolutionary war battle] will take place. I will be there with my unit. Militia played a vital role in the battle and comprised the first two lines of defense and did an extraordinary amount of damage to the British troops under Lord Cornwallis. We owe it to their memory and sacrifice to accurately and responsibly tell their stories and not misuse their deeds in the gun debates of today.

***

Can partial improvements matter? Several readers I’ve quoted previously said that, with millions of AR-15s already in circulation, plus hundreds of millions of other guns, it was fanciful to think that the landscape of gun safety could ever really change. The students marching today are of course challenging that fatalism. So does this reader:

Avid firearms enthusiasts’ arguments that this weapon is so readily available and already in the civilian population it will be impossible to ban is precisely why we are having this discussion in the first place.

Here’s my argument:

1.       People with guns kill people (without the gun, most people find it a lot harder to kill someone with their bare hands.)

2.       My car can (potentially) kill people. To own and operate it, I have to take a test, get a license (which puts me in a database accessible by law enforcement in the state in which I reside and shareable with other states and law enforcement agencies at different national and international levels), and insurance, including insurance to cover someone I may injure in an accident.

3.       Other than diseases, fires and falls, the two main cases of death are firearms and vehicles, both of which necessitate an operator (see #1.)

4.       Therefore, the requirements to own and operate vehicles and firearms should be the same, notwithstanding any additional requirements already in place for firearms (such as background checks.)


***

Similarly about the need for action, from another reader:

If the argument is that we can't push more than cosmetic solutions - well, I can no longer accept that. Too many people are dying, too many lives are being destroyed. And the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the 2nd amendment.

So perhaps it's time to start thinking inside the box. The key phrase is 'shall not be infringed' - the gun rights absolutists have driven our interpretation of this phrase to mean 'shall never be managed or regulated in ANY way by any community'. And that's problematic.

If we could shift the discussion to some kind of rational definition of infringement - short of a ban, short of confiscation, short of Australia - that permits effective community regulation of ownership and possession of firearms, we could solve 80% of the problem. And since we've already got some pretty strong federal regulation (1934 and 1986), the absolutists would have trouble arguing against local legislation that regulates [but  does not constitute]  ‘infringement'.

***

Actually, alcohol is a good example. Some previous readers have argued that the overall public-health toll from alcohol is even greater than from guns. So, they ask, why aren’t we having any-drinking marches? And why haven’t we learned from the 1920s that Prohibition-style solutions to widespread vices don’t work?

A reader uses the alcohol comparison in a different way:

The comments on alcohol-related deaths might warrant a bit of discussion.

First, the assessment that Prohibition was a "failure" depends on interpretation. Prohibition did dramatically reduce alcohol consumption; after Prohibition adult per capital alcohol consumption did not reach pre-Prohibition levels until 1985. That doesn't make Prohibition a good idea (or a bad idea), and there were certainly other issues (including corruption), but it's quite clear that Prohibition significantly reduced alcohol use.

Then there's the assessment of "alcohol-related deaths" (of which there are numerous estimates) with no mention of alcohol-related health improvements (which are only grudgingly admitted, if at all).

People who drink (using self-reported data) have lower general mortality than people who don't. There is very little research to explore a mechanism for the health benefits of ethanol, or to discover an explanation that's unrelated to alcohol use. As a gun-discussion parallel, there is a lot of discussion of the dangers of alcohol.

But, most impressively for this discussion, alcohol is very highly regulated, with constant discussion of ways to reduce the adverse impacts (both to individual health and in broader society) of alcohol use and abuse.

The alcohol industry, of course, pretends to support efforts to reduce excessive drinking, but at least the pretend. (A small proportion of the population, perhaps 10%, accounts for over half of all alcohol consumed. This group self-reports drinking 10 or more drinks per day. The alcohol industry isn't really interested in seeing the volume reduction that would come from these people cutting their use by half.)

It would be nice if there were an open discussion of measures to reduce gun deaths in the US, and if gun manufacturers at least pretended to be interested in reducing gun deaths.

That is all for today. Godspeed to the marchers, and thanks to readers for approaching this issue so seriously and creatively.