It isn’t about assault weapons, it’s about access to guns in the first place

Yet another shooting has America having another conversation about gun violence.

An absurd number of people are killed by guns every year, and the Republican Party and the NRA are blocking sensible regulations to help reduce gun violence — they won’t even let the CDC research the problem, fearful that it will lead to unconscionable, unconstitutional restrictions on gun access. This is strange to hear coming from the same folks who insist that regulations on voting such as voter IDs, manual voter registration and cutbacks on early voting don’t restrict ballot access.


Even stranger is the continued insistence that gun control doesn’t work. It does. However, the extent to which it works varies greatly from policy to policy.

Take the assault weapons ban, for instance. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an assault weapons ban in an attempt to reduce gun deaths. Following the implementation of this ban, we are told, gun violence plummeted, so many want to see the ban re-implemented in the hopes that gun violence will plummet again.

The chances are it won’t, because it didn’t really work the first time. The spike in gun violence that led to the implementation of the assault weapons ban was almost entirely due to a spike in handgun violence. The number of deaths in America at the end of guns other than handguns had been flat since 1980. What’s more, the spike in handgun violence was already on the way down when the assault weapons ban was implemented. It is bad that people are killed by rifles with high capacity magazines, but knives kill almost as many people per year. Furthermore, the definition of what actually constitutes an assault weapon is shaky, at best. This is partially the gun industry’s fault — they coined the phrase to make regular rifles sound cooler — but it speaks to the difficulty in trying to legislate

If we want to reduce gun violence we cannot focus exclusively on an extreme minority of cases just because they look scarier in the media; mass shootings create headlines, but the vast majority of gun deaths happen outside of the news cycle. To center gun safety rhetoric around assault weapons and high capacity magazines instead of ordinary handguns is like saying you’re afraid of flying while speeding on the highway.

Man with gun via Shutterstock

Man with a not-assault weapon via Shutterstock

Rather than focusing on which specific types of guns should be banned, we should instead focus on making it harder for people who shouldn’t have access to guns in the first place to, well, have access to guns. That means universal background checks, gun safety classes and other across-the-board regulations that screen for competence and responsible ownership. That means closing loopholes and cracking down on straw purchases. That means ending the war on drugs and bringing those industries into the light so that there isn’t as much drug-related violence. That means de-stigmatizing mental health care and ensuring that everyone has easy access to it — not because mass shooters are probably mentally ill, but because most gun deaths are suicides. Perhaps most importantly, that means expanding economic opportunity, in part by structuring and funding our schools better, with something less stupid than local property taxes.

Other countries (notably, Canada) have proven more than capable of doing this. We can, too.

Regulating gun access, as opposed to specific types of guns, means that the proverbial “good guys with guns” won’t be affected at all. What’s more, responsible gun owners should be part of the conversation about how to regulate guns responsibly. If they come to the table and use their knowledge about guns to help us create reality-based legislation, we can work on implementing that legislation that keeps all types of guns out of the hands of people who we don’t trust to use them, without restricting access for people who don’t pose a threat.

At the end of the day, the talk of banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines is well-intentioned, but misguided. There are better, more comprehensive steps we can take to reduce the number of gun deaths. Conversations about new gun regulations should start there.

Max Mills is a 26 year old Texan with a degree in Computer Science. Although he writes about a variety of things, his main focuses are education and political accountability. You can follow him on Twitter at @MaxFMills

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