The tragic mass shooting that happened at a gay nightclub in Orlando a little over a week ago has caused considerable pain and suffering to many throughout the country, myself included. 49 innocent lives taken and even more critically injured. It's enough to make you sick. Even with a nation that is mourning over this tragedy, I was unsurprised to see the tragedy politicized. The Right turned made it about Radical Islam and immigration. The Left turned it into a debate about gun control. One of the gun control ideas I saw out there in response to the massacre was a high-capacity magazine ban. High-capacity is a difficult concept to define.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which has since expired in 2004, defined high-capacity as exceeding 10 rounds. This might be a bit low, considering that the most popular rifle (AR-15) has 30 rounds and the most popular handgun (Glock 17) has 17 rounds. 47 percent of magazines sold in the past quarter century have had more than 10 rounds, so it's not as if high-capacity magazines are uncommon. In this case, the shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX, which is similar to the AR-15, a military semi-automatic primarily used for military applications. The murderer was able to carry out this despicable act with 30-round magazines. While the semi-automatics still require the trigger pulled for each separate shot (as opposed to automatic firearms, which merely requires holding down the trigger), it was still enough to do considerable damage. And while 30-round magazines are banned in some states, they are not banned in Florida. The argument goes that if the shooter had magazines with fewer rounds, at least some of the carnage could have been prevented. Does the intuition withstand scrutiny?
Before getting into high-capacity magazine bans themselves, we need to have a talk about the prevalence of mass shootings first. Why? Because if we're going to talk about solving a problem, we need to know how often, frequent, and prevalent mass shootings are. Getting into the definition of mass shooting can be difficult (also see here). Looking at most recent CDC data, firearm homicides counted for 11,208 deaths in 2013, which isn't even one of the top fifteen causes of death in this country. Less than half of 1 percent of gun deaths are mass shootings. Also, most homicides are committed with handguns, not rifles (FBI Crime Data). More to the point, the homicide rate in this country, according to FBI homicide data, is at a 51-year low. In spite of media hysteria, mass shootings are nowhere as near as prevalent as portrayed. Unfortunate? Absolutely! Prevalent? While it would be nice to see them as low as they are in other countries, they are still not as prevalent as we believe.
Then there's an issue of why anyone would need a high-capacity magazine in the first place. Guns are used for more than just recreational shooting, but also self-defense. Some think that ten bullets is more than plenty in a self-defense scenario. Anything else seems excessive. But is it? While it normally takes no more than a few seconds to typically reload a magazine, someone who is under attack is under more stress, which, in all probability, impedes motor skills to reload the magazine. Even experienced shooters miss from time to time. Police officers, who are trained professionals, only hit their target 30 percent of the time. And that is just for able-bodied individuals. If you're elderly or an individual with disabilities, the last thing you want to be doing in a self-defense scenario is have to worry about reloading a magazine. The criminal attacking has the element of surprise, so a criminal is better prepared and less likely to be stressed. And what if there are multiple assailants? 15 percent of homicides from 1990-2008 (most recent data) were homicides involving single victims and multiple offenders (Bureau of Justice Statistics, p. 24). Depending on the year, at least a quarter of hate crimes are committed by multiple offenders (BJS, 2014). Using a gun with higher capacity for self-defense has a basis in reality.
The other major question is to ask whether a high-capacity magazine ban actually works. In 1994, the Clinton Administration passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (FAWB), which included a magazine ban that limited magazines to 10 rounds. The Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released a 2004 study shortly the FAWB expired in 2004. What they found was the the FAWB did not have a discernible impact on the violent crime rate because it did not reduce the usage of large-capacity magazines in crimes (NIJ, p. 2). Part of that had to do with the already-existing supply of large-capacity magazines, and part of that had to do with criminals who will illegally acquire large-capacity magazines, regardless of what the law has to say. The Economics Department of the College of William and Mary also found that high-capacity magazine bans are ineffective (Moody, 2015).
Another thing to consider is that when these mass shootings take place, these assailants target victims that are most probably going to run away from the attacker and take cover. The assailant also tends to position themselves in a strategic position to carry out the heinous act. Combined with how little time it takes to reload or switch guns, an assailant can carry out their attack with little difficulty. As an example, the Virginia Tech shooter changed magazines 17 times, even though he had two handguns, a Walther P22 pistol and a Glock, with low capacities of 10 and 15 rounds, respectively. Even the shooter of the Newton shooting fired 154 rounds (from 30-round magazines) in less than five minutes, which implies he had to change magazines at least five times. With other mass shootings, the assailants brought multiple weapons. This was evident with the Columbine shooting, where the assailants simply brought multiple, low-round firearms. It's not easy to subdue an assailant in a gun-free zone, but even so, there is not a single instance in which a victim was able to ultimately subdue an assailant due to a magazine change. Gun control proponents cite what happened in Tucson (2011), Aurora (2012), and Newton (2013), but those were ultimately stopped because of gun jams, not because of magazine changes.
A magazine ban is a minor inconvenience to the assailant, at best. It will much more likely impact those using guns for self-defense than it would criminals who use guns for mass shootings. If we want to find common sense gun policy that stops gun violence while minimizing its effects on the Second Amendment, we should try something of a higher caliber.