During last night’s Democratic debate – which aired, for once, on a day when people might watch – gun control came up early. While much attention went to the comparison of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ records, the remarks of the unknown man who wandered into the building and stood, begging for attention, to Clinton’s right for the entire evening were the most illustrative of the current state of gun-control advocacy.
The stranger, who sources tell me is former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, and is still a presidential aspirant despite his chances of winning the nomination being slimmer than a high-school freshman’s Movember contribution, finished his monologue with the witticism, “I’ve never met a self-respecting deer hunter that needed an AR-15 to down a deer.” The implication here is that the AR-15 is an inordinately powerful weapon that is irrelevant for practical use, and banning it would result in no real infringement on the lives of law-abiding American gun owners.
This notion – that weapons like the AR-15 are weapons of war that cannot reasonably be used in civilian life – is pervasive in gun-control rhetoric, especially in support of “assault weapons” bans. It was a main thrust of the hysterical front-page editorial the New York Times published in reaction to the recent tragedies in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino.
The reason “assault weapons” appears in quotes above is that there is no one in the gun-control lobby who can offer a coherent, consistent, sensible definition of what, exactly, an assault weapon is. This is because it is not a real category of weaponry, but rather a made-up designation that exists for use in dishonest scaremongering.
The AR-15 is not a uniquely lethal weapon. It fires a small-caliber round (.223/5.56x45mm), and in some states is actually illegal for deer hunting because it is not powerful enough to consistently down game – meaning the reason deer hunters often eschew it in favor of other rifles is the exact opposite of what O’Malley implied. While it is possible to modify it to fire a larger caliber, this still requires that it be modified up in order to reach hunting standards, making it hardly unreasonable for use in hunting.
The AR-15 is not, as some have bizarrely claimed, an automatic or military-grade weapon. What makes it different from other civilian rifles has nothing to do with lethality and everything to do with cosmetics: it bears a significant resemblance to the M16 and M4, the rifles of choice for the United States military, even though it is considerably less dangerous. AR-15s, as well as all the “assault weapons” outlawed by the 1994-2004 ban, are not used by any contemporary military force precisely because they are laughably ineffectual in combat.
Of the approximately 11,000 Americans who are killed in gun homicides every year, an extremely low number – 322 in 2012 – are killed with any kind of rifle, let alone the AR-15. Any restriction on the liberty of citizens in a free society – particularly the exercise of a constitutional right – must have, at minimum, a purpose. Banning “assault weapons” serves no purpose. It would do almost nothing to reduce gun violence even if it were 100% effective. Yet it remains an article of faith in the gun-control lobby that restoring the previous federal assault weapons ban, whose expiration in 2004 yielded a drop in gun violence, is a moral imperative. The basis for this policy is not rationality but fear, often combined with disdain toward gun owners and the culture that produces them.
The AR-15 is not alone in receiving this treatment. Consider the New York Times’ fantastical warning about the presence of the “super destructive” (because the Times‘ editorial board is apparently composed of 13-year-olds) .50 caliber sniper rifle on the civilian market in the United States. .50 caliber rifles are, indeed, “super destructive”. They are also super expensive, super heavy and super difficult to conceal, which is probably why they are super uncommon in violent crimes, having never been used in a mass shooting. Not even once. Practically speaking, the usefulness of banning them ranges somewhere between “heart-removing human sacrifice” and “tossing virgins into a volcano.”
Why are these weapons, despite being largely irrelevant to the question of violent crime, presented as the face of America’s gun problem? Because they look scary, which allows craven, dishonest political opportunists to use them to scare uninformed politicians into voting for “solutions” that do nothing to solve the problem. It is an argument based on fear and a refusal to understand guns and gun owners – not facts. As a result, the people who most want to be in charge of regulating guns know next to nothing about them. This is a recipe for bad policy and no progress, not least because it exists in emissaries of far greater consequence than Martin O’Malley.