So yesterday, Harry Reid hinted that he'll be introducing a gun-control measure that doesn't include a new ban on assault weapons. If we assume for a moment that other proposed measures eventually pass, but an assault-weapons ban doesn't, how bad an outcome would it be?
Let's start by stipulating that it is utterly insane that in this country, anybody can walk into a gun shop and walk out a few minutes later with a military-style rifle whose sole purpose is to enable its user to kill human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible. They're not for hunting, and they're not for defending your home, unless you're Tony Montana. The fact that a lot of people find shooting them fun shouldn't carry any weight as a policy argument. And as we know all too well, they turn mass shootings more deadly.
On the other hand, one of the arguments gun advocates make is that the kind of weapons that would be outlawed (for future sales, anyway) under an assault-weapons ban don't kill all that many people so there's no point in banning them, and they're half right about that. They kill relatively few people, because our rates of gun murder are so spectacularly high to begin with and most gun murders are carried out with the most ubiquitous weapons, handguns. Here's a chart of the 68,720 gun murders that happened in the five years ending in 2011 by type of gun, taken from FBI crime statistics:
Fully 88 percent of the gun murders for which the kind of gun is identifiable in the records were committed with handguns. Which isn't surprising at all, given that there are so many of them and that the typical gun murder isn't a mass shooting committed by a deranged killer, it's an argument that gets out of hand, a grudge that gets impulsively settled, or a robbery gone wrong. And we don't know how many of the 300 to 400 murders every year classified as "rifles" are with hunting rifles, or what would be considered assault weapons. So if you're going to argue that an assault-weapons ban won't solve our gun problem, you'd be right. That doesn't mean it isn't worth doing, just that it isn't the be-all and end-all.
Which is why many people have pointed out that despite the greater amount of attention given the assault weapons ban, it isn't the most significant proposal currently on offer; that would be universal background checks. And dropping the assault-weapons ban may end up being the price of getting other proposals through Congress. If the ban gets killed along the way, pro-gun members of Congress can tell their constituents they fought against the most visible restriction on guns being debated, and only signed on to more modest, common-sense (to use everyone's new favorite expression) reforms that everyone but the most extreme gun nuts can agree on. And that wouldn't be too terrible an outcome, provided the other measures pass.