Biologists, psychologists and risk analysts tell us that human beings are hard wired to make decisions based on inadequate information and even subjective opinions. At one time this characteristic was a survival trait; it did our ancestors no good to wait until they had incontrovertible evidence that a large carnivore was attacking before climbing the nearest tree. When it comes to the modern world and making decisions on complex processes and policy issues this same trait can be extremely problematic. This is why most people lose when they buy insurance, invest in the stock market or go to a casino.
Take the current drive to place greater controls over access to guns in response to the horrific event in Newtown, Connecticut and recent mass murders elsewhere. The desire to take immediate action is understandable. There are lots of calls for “common sense” gun controls as if good sense was ever a common commodity. The most obvious step is to reinstitute the federal assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994-2005. Articulate advocates of such a measure assert that it is prudent to take such a step. The use of the word prudence implies that the action is based on consideration of a cause and effect relationship, i.e., the facts. Unfortunately, the facts do not support many current proposed solutions. They do not even pass the common sense test.
Fact #1: Assault rifles are an insignificant contributor to the U.S. rate of violent death, both murders and suicides. In 2010, there were a total of some 16,000 murders in the U.S. of which 576 were committed with long guns. Not just assault rifles, but all rifles and even shotguns. More people were killed with handguns, bladed weapons and even fists and feet. This figure includes deaths in mass homicide events. There were some 38,000 suicides in the same year, more than half of which were committed with guns of all types. The number committed with long guns of all types was less than 3,000. Guns in general cause a lot of deaths; assault guns very few. A related fact is that the overwhelming majority of the 62 mass shootings that have occurred since 1982 were committed by individuals using semiautomatic handguns.
Fact #2: A renewed ban on assault rifles will do very little to save lives. During the decade when the ban on assault rifles was in effect, the number of annual mass shootings remained unchanged compared to the prior decade at 1.5 per year and the average number of casualties declined by only 4 people per incident (from 25 to 21). Since the ban lapsed, the number of incidents more than doubled to 3.4 per year and the average casualties increased to 56. Assuming that a reinstatement of the ban will reduce the frequency of incident and the casualty rate to what it was prior to 2005, the math would suggest a savings of 160 lives a year. All lives are precious but that is a very small number. If the more determinative causes of the rise in the number of mass killings since 2005 are societal in nature, e.g., our treatment of the mentally challenged, then an assault gun ban may have no palliative effect at all.
Fact #3: Americans own a very large number of so-called assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons. There are some 300 million legally owned guns in America. There are about 45 million semi-automatic rifles, which are assault guns by a different name. Of these, 1.5 million are military-style assault guns as defined by the 1994-2005 ban. In addition, the number of legally-owned ammunition clips able to hold more than 10 rounds is estimated to be in the tens of millions. So a new ban, just like the old ban, would not even address the enormous existing, legal base of guns and clips.
Fact #4: Short of confiscating virtually all firearms, there is nothing that the U.S. government can do to significantly reduce deaths by guns. FBI statistics show that there has been no correlation between limits on assault guns and murder rates. The overall rate of gun homicides has declined since the end of the assault weapons ban (in fairness it was declining during that decade as well). In fact, the states that have the tightest controls on assault weapons saw their murder rates decline by less than those that had no bans. Even more interesting, multiple studies of the effect of Australia’s 1996 ban on so-called long guns and its mandatory buyback of some 600,000 weapons cannot demonstrate a clear correlation between this act and reduced gun homicides. The same is true for other countries that have essentially banned private ownership of most guns. Conversely, countries such as New Zealand and Switzerland that have retained private access to guns show an equally low rate of homicides and virtually no mass killing incidents. Simply put, countries that generally have low levels of societal violence or have always restricted access to guns tend to have always had low levels of gun related violence. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the only way to significantly reduce overall gun violence and the incidence of mass murders in the U.S. is to confiscate virtually all firearms.
Fact #5: We would save more lives by banning foods than assault rifles. Around one-third of all Americans (110 million) are considered to be obese and another one-third are overweight. The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that some 300,000 Americans die of obesity every year. This is in addition to the millions that suffer from obesity-related illnesses. The so-called epidemic of gun violence is nothing compared to that of obesity. The commissioner of New York City’s health department estimated that reducing obesity in his city by just 10 percent could save hundreds of lives annually. There is a direct relationship between caloric intake, that is food consumed, and weight (yes, I know that exercise matters, too but let’s keep this simple). This suggests that a ban on certain types of foods and beverages (NYC’s ban on large sodas comes to mind) could reduce obesity and save lives. Even if the correlation between banning foods and reduced deaths from obesity is no greater than one tenth of one percent, this would save nearly twice the number of lives annually than have been lost from mass murder incidents since 2005.
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