Why an Assault Weapons Ban Won’t Make a Difference

By Duwain Whitis

I was sickened by what happened in Newtown, Connecticut and the only way I can make sense of it is to put it into perspective. Events like this are tragic, but they are a statistical blip and don’t make for good public policy decisions. A 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control is an instructive place to start. It lists the causes of deaths in the US in 2009, when a total of 2,437,163 were recorded. From Table 10, some specific causes of death for 2009 included . . .

  • Motor vehicle accidents 36,216
  • Falls 24,792
  • “Accidental” discharge of firearms 554 (the quotes are mine)
  • Accidental drowning 3,517
  • Fire/smoke 2,756
  • Poisoning/toxicity 31,758
  • Unspecified accidents 15,613
  • Suicide by firearm 18,735
  • Other suicides 18,174
  • Homicide by firearm 11,493
  • Other homicides 5,306
  • Legal intervention 395
  • Undetermined firearms deaths 232

Parsing this, firearms accounted for approximately 31,000 deaths in 2009, of which just over 60% were suicides. Table 11 of the CDC report shows an overall suicide rate of 12.0/100,000. Canada reported a suicide rate of 11.5/100,000 for 2009. Britain reported a rate of 17.0/100,000 for men and 5.3/100,000 for women in 2010 with rates relatively consistent from 2006 to 2010, the study period of their report. According to a Huffington Post article, Japan’s rate was 24.4/100,000 in 2009.

Western countries with varying firearms restrictions have similar or higher suicide rates, suggesting that suicide rates are independent of the means available. So if guns weren’t available here in the US, the suicide rate wouldn’t be materially affected. That’ means we can remove suicides by firearm in the total number of firearms deaths since they would likely have happened anyway. That leaves about 12,000 firearms deaths, with most being homicides.

According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s press release on December 17,

A Justice Department study found the Assault Weapons Ban was responsible for a 6.7 percent decline in total gun murders. However, since the 2004 expiration of the bill, assault weapons have been used in at least 459 incidents, resulting in 385 deaths and 455 injuries.

This is blatant cherry-picking of the stats and her press release doesn’t bother to cite the actual study. For the sake of discussion, let’s take the numbers (but not her claims) at face value.

In eight years, that averages to about 48 deaths per year due to “assault weapons.” That’s only 0.4% of firearms homicides using the 2009 CDC data. If these numbers are correct, then a reinstituted “assault weapon” ban can have only the smallest effect on firearm homicides.

What about her claim that the 1994 AWB was responsible for a 6.7 percent decline in gun murders? The 2011 Department of Justice Report I looked at doesn’t seem to support this and makes no reference at all to “assault weapons.” Homicide rates climbed from between 4 to 5/100,000 in the late 1950’s to just over 10/100,000 in 1980. Quoting from the report:

In the last decade (since 2000) the homicide rate declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960s:

  • The homicide rate doubled from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, increasing from 4.6 per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1962 to 9.7 per 100,000 by 1979.
  • In 1980 the rate peaked at 10.2 per 100,000 and subsequently fell to 7.9 per 100,000 in 1984.
  • The rate rose again in the late 1980s and early 1990s to another peak in 1991 of 9.8 per 100,000.
  • The homicide rate declined sharply from 9.3 homicides per 100,000 in 1992 to 4.8 homicides per 100,000 in 2010.

The report shows no increase in homicide rates after expiration of the AWB in 2004. The Bureau of Justice Statisics shows the sharp decline in non-fatal firearms-related crime since 1993. Note that there is no lasting increase after 2004 when the AWB expired.


How do these falling homicide and firearms-related crime rates relate to the number of firearms in public hands? It seems they don’t. According to the FBI’s National Instant Check System (NICS) statistics, the number of background checks for firearms purchases from Federal Firearms Licensees went from just over 9,000,000 in 1999 to almost 17,000,000 for 2012 (as of November 31) with a total of almost 158 million since December of 1998 when the system went into operation. The vast majority of these checks probably resulted in the sale of new firearms.

The actual numbers are uncertain, but it is probably safe to assume that at least 100 million firearms entered civilian ownership in the past ten years. Current estimates are that Americans own 270-300 million firearms (there are numerous sources for these estimates). That means there are likely 50% more firearms today than there were just ten years ago — yet firearms crime hasn’t risen. There seems to be no connection between gun ownership and gun violence, in spite of many writers’ efforts to compare US ownership rates to those of violent third world countries.

Even if we assume that gun control would be an effective way to reduce homicides, how effective is it? CNN had a bubbly, optimistic story on December 16 about Australia’s gun control initiative after a mass shooting there in 1996 that killed 35. The story reports that the firearms homicide rate declined by 50% down under following implementation of strict gun control laws. That may be the case, but according to Australian Government data, homicides peaked in 1999 at 344 and declined to 229 in 2010, a reduction of 34% in actual numbers.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics, the number of homicides in the US also fell during the same period, from 19,645 in 1996 to 12,996 in 2010. That’s a decline of… (wait for it…) 34%, the same decline as seen in Australia — with now AWB here. Oh, and knives are now the leading murder weapon of choice (39%) in Oz according to the same Australian report.

The ugly truth is that homicide rates vary greatly by social and economic class according to the UCR data. But that’s a topic for an entirely different conversation about guns. There’s a reason the citizens of Newtown felt safe. Unfortunately, mass murder by deranged persons is a fact of life, even in supposedly safe locations. The most deadly mass killing at a US school occurred in 1927 in Bath Township, Michigan when a begrudged individual set off bombs, killing 38 at an elementary school. While he used a rifle to set off the last blast, he did shot no one.

Our media fixate on sensational stories and our politicians react to the resulting public agitation. As I said at the beginning, events like this are tragic and sickening, but they don’t make for good public policy decisions. Think 9/11 and the hastily-passed Patriot Act which gave us TSA security theater and a growing surveillance state. More restrictive firearms laws enacted after a horrific crime will only serve to restrict the rights of law abiding citizens without any a meaningful effect on actual crime rates.

It’s easy to be willing to restrict the rights of others that we don’t exercise ourselves. If someone has no interest in firearms, and many urban dwellers do not, it’s easy for that person to say the Second Amendment doesn’t matter and guns should be restricted to law enforcement and the military. But selectively trampling on rights is a dangerous road, particularly with virtually no demonstrated public benefit.