Over the last few months two events have dominated the news cycle: Donald Trump’s candidacy and domestic terrorist attacks. Politicians in the United States have picked up on this pattern and responded by demanding that people suspected of being terrorists have their 2nd Amendment rights revoked, pointing to the “easy access to weapons of war” as something which needs to be changed in order to reduce the effectiveness of the attacks. But is that a realistic assumption?
My degree is in security and risk analysis. My first job out of college: taking information from subject matter experts regarding terrorism and transforming it into a probabilistic model which identified how well the different branches of the Department of Homeland Security could reduce the risk of death to American citizens.
One of the very first steps on that path: figuring out what kinds of weapons terrorists and other bad actors prefer to use. While you’d think that terrorists would want to select the weapon that would cause the most damage, the reality is that other factors such as availability and cost are much more important to them.
Here in the United States that means the AR-15 is the weapon of choice, primarily because it’s ubiquitous and relatively cheap to purchase. In other countries, that isn’t the case. Guns are much more tightly controlled overseas. That often that leads the bad guys to select weapons that are much more potent.
Bombs are one of the most common tools of terrorism, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorists have used the car bomb, or vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in goverment-ese, to great effect. One such attack on July 4th of this year killed 200 people and wounded hundreds more. Wikipedia lists seven such attacks in 2012 in Iraq, but that list is out of date and infrequently updated. And that’s in a country where weapons aren’t terribly difficult to acquire.
There are some significant differences between attacks using a VBIED’s and those using “assault weapons.” VBIED’s have some significant advantages.
Firearms such as the AR-15, in most cases, fire one round at a time, meaning an attacker needs to individually target each specific victim. (At this point, terrorists do not appear to utilize AR-15-style rifles that have been converted to fully-automatic fire.) Attackers need to identify each target, aim, fire the weapon, and repeat as quickly as possible.
For those attacks to be “successful” they need to take place in locations where the victims are contained in an area with limited exit points: schools, night clubs and the like. It takes time for the attack to successfully accumulate a body count, and quick intervention by law enforcement can bring an end to the carnage before it gets very high.
VBIED attacks, though, are instantaneous and can be remotely detonated. The carnage takes place in a split second; law enforcement is powerless to stop it once it has begun. Attacks can take place anywhere a large crowd has gathered such as parks and shopping areas, locations which are nearly impossible to secure and cannot be effectively defended. Victims are targeted simultaneously and indiscriminately with no means of escape or evasion.
Mass shootings also require a certain level of skill to pull off. Terrorists using firearms require at least some training in order to operate them properly, and malfunctions in the weapon system can slow down the attack and allow victims to escape. It’s also extremely important to be able to aim the firearm accurately, but this can be mitigated with the choice of location (keeping victims close to reduce the distance and the chance of missing).
VBIED attacks, on the other hand, require a certain level of skill to fabricate, but once complete, the weapon is easily detonated by the push of a single button. They require virtually no skill to target victims.
There are some significant hurdles when it comes to fabricating such a weapon. While the chemicals are readily available, getting the chemistry just right is a challenge. The bomb which blew off a tourist’s foot in Central Park this past 4th of July was created using household chemicals. Other substances like fireworks have been used domestically for terrorist attacks (like the Boston Marathon bombings).
The ability to create highly explosive devices in the United States certainly exists, but actual instances where terrorists have tried to use such devices are few and far between. The question: why?
It all comes back to weapon selection. Specifically, the availability and cost side of the equation. Even though a bomb can instantly kill hundreds of people (and even the use of a big truck with no explosives can kill more people than the biggest mass shooting in American history) the availability of “assault weapons” seems to have captured the attention of terrorists here in the America. Rather than trying to concoct bombs, terrorists here seem content to carry out mass shootings.
That’s both a positive and a negative. Attacks using “assault weapons” might have a significantly lower capacity to accumulate the same body counts compared to VBIED’s or other explosive devices, but the ease with which they can be obtained means that more of these attacks are possible. The unknown quantity in this case is whether there’s an increase in “competent initiations” (attacks, again that’s government-ese) due to the availability of these guns, and whether the lower body counts offsets any possible increase in initiations.
There’s no doubt that the end goal should be to prevent terrorist attacks, keep Americans safe. Eliminating the ability for known terrorists to acquire weapons of any kind should be the basis of that effort. (Incarceration is a particularly effective option.) But in a free society, that will always be a difficult proposition.
In the end, however, from a weapons selection perspective, the availability of “assault weapons” might actually be doing more good than harm. Yes, that very idea will no doubt make our gun-grabbing friends’ heads spin. But the ready availability of weapons that are desirable to attackers but ultimately incapable of producing large scale carnage as superior weapons could be working to your ultimate advantage.
More analysis is definitely needed to get to an answer, but there’s no doubt that the situation is a little more complicated than one might expect from watching the learned analysts on MSNBC, CNN and Fox.