Here we go again. Another assault weapons ban rears its knee-jerk head. The Assault Weapons Ban of 2018 is the feel-good, we-have-to-do-something move. I’m all for it if it will make a positive difference. But it won’t. We already know that it won’t because of the 1994 assault weapons ban.
Remember how excited your mother was in 1994? “Honey,” she said, “finally we’re doing something about crime.” She did have a point since crime had been rising steadily through the eighties and early nineties. The ban seemed like a good idea at the time, and darn it if FBI crime statistics didn’t prove her right. (You hate it when that happens.) From 1994 to 2004, the violent crime rate dropped 35 percent.
When the Department of Justice released statistics about firearms homicides specifically, your mother was even more sure of herself. In 1993, the year before the ban took effect, there were 18,253 firearm homicides. The ban took effect, and the number of firearm homicides dropped every year for the next seven years. They began to rise again in 2001, but in 2004, there were 11,624 firearm homicides, an overall reduction of 36 percent.
“See?” your mother crowed, “Told ya!” (*sigh*)
Then you got to thinking. There was that statistics course you took in college, and something is niggling in the back of your mind. Hey, you realized, those numbers don’t mean much unless you know how many guns were on the street while all of this was happening. A crude measure of gun sales is criminal background checks, and the FBI began collecting data in 1998, four years into the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. You can’t study the entire ban period, but you can study the last six years. And then you can study the first six years after the ban.
For the six years from 1999 to 2004 when the ban was lifted, 52,214,932 background checks were conducted. For the first six years after the ban was lifted (2005 to 2010), 71,319,676 background checks were conducted. If each background check represents one gun, 19 million more guns were purchased in the six years after the ban than during the last six years of the ban. This makes intuitive sense: when guns are banned, fewer guns are sold; when the ban is lifted more guns are sold. But is it the number of guns we care about or what people are doing with those guns?
You compare the data on background checks - your reference point for gun sales - to the FBI’s data on what people were doing with those guns for 1997 to 2001, 2002 to 2006, and 2007 to 2011. While you’re at it, you look at what the FBI says people were doing with rifles specifically since there were a principal target of the ban.
The FBI says that during the last six years of the ban, firearms were used to kill 54,468 people, 2,483 of whom were killed with a rifle.
During the first six years after the ban - with 19 million more guns on the street - the FBI says firearms were used to kill 58,065 people, 2,432 of whom were killed with a rifle.
What? More people were killed with a rifle during the ban than after the ban? Could it be the assault ban made no difference to homicide by rifle? Why, yes, yes it could. And with 19 million more guns on the street after the ban, there were only 3,597 additional firearms homicides? Could it be that limiting guns had very little impact on limiting total firearms homicides? Why, yes, yes it could.
You realize that during the last six years of the ban, there was one gun murder for every 959 guns whereas during the first six years after the ban, there was one gun murder for every 1,228 guns. Well, you’re right to wonder, if there were more guns but fewer firearms homicides per gun, what was everybody doing with all those extra guns? They certainly weren’t using them to murder more people. Could this help to explain the steady drop in violent crime rates that has continued since 2004? Could it be that people are using those extra guns to defend themselves and to deter and prevent all kinds of violent crime? Why, yes, yes it could.
You need to tell your mother.
Especially if she looks like Dianne Feinstein.