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Thursday, October 27, 2016

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

The morning after the Sandy Hook shootings, Shannon Watts, a mother of five and a former public relations executive, started a Facebook page called “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” It proved wildly popular and members quickly focused on renewing the federal ban on military-style assault weapons.

“We all were outraged about the fact that this man could use an AR-15, which seemed like a military-grade weapon, and go into an elementary school and wipe out 26 human beings in less than five minutes,” Watts said.

Nearly two years later, Watts works full-time as the head of the group, now named Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is a significant player in a coalition financed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. But while polls suggest a majority of Americans still support an assault weapons ban, it is no longer one of Watts’ top priorities.

“We’ve very much changed our strategy to focus on public safety measures that will save the most lives,” she told ProPublica.

It’s not just that the ban proved to be what Watts calls a “nonstarter” politically, gaining fewer votes in the Senate post-Sandy Hook than background check legislation. It was also that as Watts spoke to experts and learned more about gun violence in the United States, she realized that pushing for a ban isn’t the best way to prevent gun deaths.

A 2004 Justice Department-funded evaluation found no clear evidence that the decade-long ban saved any lives. The guns categorized as “assault weapons” had only been used in about 2 percent of gun crimes before the ban. “Should it be renewed,” the report concluded, “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

With more information, Watts decided that focusing on access to guns, not types of guns, was a smarter approach. She came to the same conclusion that other gun control groups had reached even before the Sandy Hook shootings: “Ultimately,” she said, “what’s going to save the most lives are background checks.”

While many gun control groups still officially support the assault weapons ban — “we haven’t abandoned the issue,” as Watts said — they’re no longer actively fighting for it.

“There’s certainly a lot of public sentiment around high-capacity magazines and assault weapons,” Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview this summer. “It’s easy to understand why people feel so passionate about it.”

But, he said, “when you look at this issue in terms of the greatest opportunity to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and prevent gun violence, background checks are a bigger opportunity to do that.”

Bloomberg’s umbrella group, Everytown for Gun Safety, has also de-emphasized an assault weapons ban. A 10-question survey the group gave to federal candidates to measure their stances on gun policy did not even ask about a ban.

“We acknowledge that assault weapons put the ‘mass’ in mass shootings,” Erika Soto Lamb, the group’s communications director, said. But “we feel like it’s a more productive use of our time, effort, money, voices, and votes [to focus] on the policies that are going to save the most lives.”

The most common criticism of the weapons ban — which was signed into law on Sept. 13, 1994 — was that it focused too much on the cosmetic “military-style” features of guns, like pistol grips or folding rifle stocks, which made it easy for manufacturers to turn banned guns into legal guns by tweaking a few features. During the ban, some manufacturers added “PCR” to the name of these redesigned guns, for “politically correct rifle.”

But the more profound criticism of the ban is that “assault weapons,” a politically charged and imprecise term, have never been the weapons that contribute the most to American gun violence. Gun rights groups have pointed out for years that the campaign against assault weapons ignores the data. (The National Rifle Association did not respond to our requests for comment.)

While assault weapons do appear to be used more frequently in mass shootings, like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, such shootings are themselves rare events that are only responsible for a tiny fraction of gun homicides each year. The category of guns that are used in the majority of gun murders are handguns.

Despite this data — and perhaps because many Americans do not have an accurate understanding of gun violence statistics — an assault weapons ban has continued to have broad public and political support.

In January 2014, a Rassmussen poll found that 59 percent of likely voters still favored an assault weapons ban, even after the measure failed in the Senate in April 2013, along with the rest of the White House’s push for tougher gun laws.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the author of the original ban, has repeatedly re-introduced it, most recently in 2013, after the Sandy Hook shootings. Obama made the policy part of his post-Sandy Hook platform for gun violence prevention, though the White House’s central focus was on passing universal background checks.

Experts say that a smarter way to approach the assault weapons ban might be to focus on the ammunition, not the design of the guns themselves. The 1994 gun ban included a ban on magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Unlike “assault weapons,” high-capacity magazines were used in as much as 26 percent of gun crimes before the ban. Limiting magazines to a smaller number of rounds might mean shooters, particularly in mass shooting situations, could not hit as many victims as quickly.

But even this focus on banning high-capacity magazines, rather than guns, suffers from a lack of data. “It is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than 10 shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading,” the 2004 evaluation concluded.

There is some evidence that the ban was preventing violence outside the U.S.: Mexican politicians have long blamed the end of the assault weapons ban for contributing to drug-related violence in Mexico. In a 2013 study, three American academics found that the end of the ban brought about “at least 238 additional deaths annually” in areas of Mexico near the U.S. border.

Meanwhile, as gun control groups have moved their focus away from gun bans, Americans are buying fewer assault weapons than they did when a ban seemed imminent, Bloomberg News reported last month.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Stuart

    Wait uh miniiiiiiiiiittt! Don’t you think if everyone in Ferguson, MO had an AR-15, there wouldn’t be any problems there? Which is more cost effective: an AR-15 or a police officer? Doo the math!

    • bobnstuff

      If everyone in Ferguson had a AR-15 the body count would have been outrages. Guns don’t kill people it’s people with guns that kill people.

  • howa4x

    Basically do you want responsible gun owners or unstable people owning them? This is the core of the debate, and it is borne out by the fact that all of the mass shooters since the year 2000 suffered from some sort of mental issue. I don’t see why responsible people who own a weapon don’t force the NRA to stop blocking sensible background checks. I keep seeing stats that gun owners want background checks but why can’t their voices be herd at NRA HQ?

  • bikejedi

    Between Friday night, and Sunday evening, 20 people had been shot in Rahm Emanuel’s gun control utopia (Chicago). Which, unbelievably, shows an improvement over the previous weekend, which tacked on more than 35 gunshot victims to the city’s climbing statistics. And, heck, with the CPD’s recent scandal surrounding how they classify various crimes, it almost makes you wonder if these numbers are more “ballpark” figures than actual stats.
    It would be easy to begin writing an article aimed at the abject failure of gun control. But, truthfully, Chicago’s failure goes far deeper than misguided (Bloomberg approved) regulation schemes. Since the days of Bill Thompson came to an end (nearly 80 years ago) the Democrats have had a monopoly on efforts to fix violence, gang activity, and inequality in the Windy City. And if you’re thinking, “It doesn’t seem to be working”… Well, you’d be right.
    Even Chicago’s Police Superintendent seems to understand this (to an extent). Of course, being the good progressive that he is, he glossed right over the primary culprits for Chicago’s woes and instead focused on disarming the law-abiding citizens he has sworn to protect. Via WGN radio:
    It’s going to take a while to fix poverty and the breakup of the family unit, and education and jobs. But we can do something about gun laws today and we’re just not doing it.
    Right… Because that’s the problem with Chicago: Too little gun control. I mean, heck, it hasn’t exactly worked out that well so far, but why not double down? Right? The fact is, the failure of Liberalism has brought the city to its current state of deterioration. The Chicago model of unconstitutional restrictions on keeping and bearing arms has done little more than add fuel to the fire. Politicians, meanwhile, have been more than happy to ignore the easily identifiable, but politically tricky, origins of gang violence, and criminal activity.
    Despite embracing the union-lead concept of public education, nearly 80 percent of the city’s 8th graders aren’t proficient in reading and writing. And while schools are going without heat, electricity, or (in some cases) adequate security, teachers make a salary that is more than $10,000 higher than the median Chicago household’s income. Being one of the best funded education systems in America, it borders on audacious absurdity when the unions start crying about not having enough resources. Especially when you consider the way Democrats are on course to spend the city into being the next Detroit.
    Of course, all that tax revenue and debt was being used for a good cause, right? Wasn’t that deficit spending, borrowing, and begging from the State and Federal Government (as well as the general public) supposed to help fund anti-poverty programs, and create “shovel ready” jobs? Because, if that was the case, it seems kinda curious that Chicago has some uncomfortably high poverty rates when compared to other large US Cities. This almost seems like a silly thing to ask, but: Hey Democrats, maybe we could try something new?
    With an education system that has utterly failed inner city youth, and anti-poverty programs that have done little more than spur an exodus of private capital, it’s unsurprising to see violence sweep areas of Chicago like an epidemic… Especially when the “progressives” downtown have managed to disarm most of the remaining law-abiding citizens.
    The lesson of Chicago is rather simple: Progressivism can’t provide for the poor. Progressivism can’t provide the masses with quality education, healthcare, or housing. And, Progressivism can’t keep its people safe. While Democrats have taxed, spent, and regulated with relative impunity, Chicago continues to suffer misery and inequality on scales rarely matched by other US cities.
    Chicago Democrat politicians continue to repackage, and resell, to the city’s voters the very policy proposals that helped create their current plight. I often say that Progressives haven’t had a new idea in roughly 100 years (seriously: Healthcare, tax hikes, deficit spending… it’s all been tried), and Chicago is a prime example of progressive monopoly in government. Each new administration promised its citizens the same policies as the previous administration, with “new and improved” projected results.
    The only thing closer to Einstein’s definition of insanity, was America’s decision to elect a politician from that city to be President of the United States… Twice.

    • schiamachy

      Gun control via licencing and a crackdown on unlicensed weapons works everywhere else on the planet what can be the reason it doesn’t work in the USA!!!
      Could it be that American men are more violent than men in other countries or is it that obsolete clause in the constitution that was written before you had an army?
      Personally I think that it is because you are all scared of your armed neighbors. I suggest you throw away your guns and get to know your neighbors. The other solution is to move overseas to a safe country – without your guns.

      • neeceoooo

        I really like that, throw your guns away and get to know the neighbors, maybe throw a block party, shake hands and let the kids play.

        • bikejedi

          In Chicago the law abiding didnt have the option of throwing away their guns because as law abiding citizens they couldnt own one until recently … So yeah feel free to go into the ghetto and throw a block party and shake hands with your neighbor … They are not and never have given up their guns and why should they … Even if they get caught with them and actually convicted the average time spent behind bars for that in Illinois is 6 mos … google it .. We have plenty of block party’s here …we created that sheet and for most neighborhoods they are fun … Not so much in the ghetto

      • bikejedi

        Really is that why Switzerland where almost everyone owns a gun has almost no crime ? Or why World wide stats show that Country’s with total gun ban have much higher murder per capita rates ? .Who writes your material ? Liberal Professors ? As Ex Law Enforcement I can assure you that your talking points are 180 degrees from the truth .. But dont let that stop you from ranting against your own Country

        And who are you referring to as being scared ? I sure am not . I live in Chicago and own a gun or I might be scared . Tell you what , why dont you move here and walk through the West side without a gun and try to preach your nonsense ??? See how far that goes with the brothers or the gang bangers … You wouldnt last a second in any city with these restrictive gun laws with your perspectives . I know my neighbors thank you and most are great people . The problem is in the ghetto’s EVERYONE has a gun and most of them are bad guys … But who cares about them right ??? Just a bunch of black guys murdering black guys … Where’s Jesse and Al ???

        It is very simple . It isnt a matter of creating more gun laws because the only people who follow them are LAW ABIDING citizens .. You can keep passing gun control laws and Chicago Detroit and Wash DC are all proof of one truth . Criminals are unimpressed as they dont follow your laws .This is why all a gun ban or a new gun law does is take away rights and freedoms from law abiding citizens.. Chicago proves it also takes away their ability to defend themselves from criminals . A better tactic would be on the sentencing side but our Dems are loathe to pass mandatory sentencing laws for gun offenders .. You want the violence to stop it is very simple enact laws that give a mandatory 10 year sentence to any criminal with a gun .. When the bangers start going away for a decade at a time then word will get out that is just isnt worth it to walk around with a gun ILLEGALLY…Until then feel free to move overseas with your misinformed opinion