In the aftermath of the Safeway Massacre, gun control advocates are making sure that they’re not wasting a good crisis. That’s assuming (as I don’t) that Jared Lee Loughner’s spree killing represents a systemic failure of American or Arizona gun laws. While the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence was first out of the gate—being the mainstream media’s go-to gun control group—Carolyn McCarthy is on the case. According to Politico, the New York Democratic Congresswoman has promised to introduce legislation targeting “high-capacity ammunition.” Uh, that would be “high-capacity magazines,” which hold ammunition. Let’s clear some of this up right now . . .
What is a magazine?
A magazine is a device that holds firearms cartridges (each of which contains a bullet, primer and powder). Semi-automatic firearms (one bullet per finger squeeze) and fully-automatic guns (continuous fire while the trigger is depressed) use magazines.
Revolvers don’t have magazines; the bullets fit into slots in a revolving cylinder called chambers. All semi-automatic handguns use magazines.
The number of bullets in a magazine depends on three factors: the size of the bullet, the design of the gun and the design of the magazine.
What is a high-capacity magazine?
Firearms enthusiasts use the term “high-capacity magazine” or “high-cap mag” as they see fit. Generally, they’re referring to magazines that hold more than 10 cartridges/bullets, or magazines that hold more than the magazine originally supplied by the manufacturer with the gun. Some states and municipalities have established a legal definition for the term. See below.
What are the current laws regarding high-capacity magazines?
Eight states have laws regarding high-capacity magazines. Either the state or municipal governments within the state prohibit the sale of magazines that hold more than a specified number of cartridges/bullets. There are a few caveats; some states allow older high-capacity magazines and some of the laws are gun and caliber (bullet size) specific. Here’s the basic breakdown [via handgunlaw.us]:
California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Oak Park, Illinois – 10 cartridge limit
Chicago, Illinois – 12
New Jersey, Aurora, Illinois; – 15
Franklin Park, Illinois – 16
Maryland – 20
Denver, Colorado: – 21
Riverdale, Illinois – 35
What magazines did Jared Lee Loughner Use?
Jared Lee Loughner used a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun that fires 9 mm bullets. It comes equipped with a 15-round magazine—what the company calls a “standard” magazine. Glock sells what they describe as “optional” magazines for the Glock 19 that hold 17, 19 or 33 bullets. Other manufactures offer extensions to existing magazines or large magazines that hold other amounts of bullets.
Loughner’s gun was equipped with a non-Glock magazine that held 30 bullets. He had another 30-round magazine ready to go and two more 15-round magazines on his person. As above, none of them were illegal.
Would there have been fewer casualties if Loughner had used a lower-capacity magazine?
Loughner shot 31 bullets (the “extra” bullet was stored in the gun’s chamber). He hit 18 people at least once.
It takes around seven seconds to empty a Glock 19’s magazine, firing as quickly as possible. Reports say that Loughner was shooting for around 15 seconds. That sounds about right for someone shooting more or less “indiscriminately” (i.e. not taking the time to carefully aim each shot).
If he’d started shooting with a 15-round magazine, Loughner would have been forced to reload to fire 31 shots. To do that, he would have had to drop the empty magazine (using a release button on the side of the gun) and insert a new magazine.
The amount of time it takes to replace an empty magazine with a full magazine depends on the availability and placement of spare magazines, and the shooter’s skill, training and “grace” under pressure. A well-trained, well-prepared shooter can swap magazines in one to two seconds.
That said, changing magazines is not a sure thing; shooters can make mistakes during this seemingly simple process. Swapping magazines also creates a pause—however momentary—that allows a counterattack. As it did in Loughner’s case.
In short, in all likelihood Loughner would have shot fewer people had he attacked the crowd with a Glock equipped with a standard-capacity (15-round) magazine.
Would banning high-capacity magazines reduce lethality, generally?
There’s no way to tell. There’s no data showing that shootings in states that ban high-capacity magazines are any more or less deadly than shootings in states that allow high-capacity magazines.
There’s also no statistical information on the availability of prohibited high-capacity magazines in states or municipalities that ban them. Except for Hawaii, all of the states and towns where the magazines are not allowed border on states or towns that allow high-capacity magazines (e.g. Massachusetts and Rhode Island).
Why not ban high-capacity magazines?
Most [legal] gun owners don’t carry spare ammunition. With a high-capacity magazine, they can carry more bullets in their gun that they would otherwise. A high-capacity magazine also lets a [legal] gun owner shoot more bullets before reloading.
The same characteristics that made Loughner’s gun more lethal to his victims would aid a lawful owner defending his or her life.