“Feinstein to Introduce Updated Assault Weapons Bill in New Congress”

So reports a press release from last week; note these details:

A Justice Department study found the Assault Weapons Ban was responsible for a 6.7 percent decline in total gun murders. However, since the 2004 expiration of the bill, assault weapons have been used in at least 459 incidents, resulting in 385 deaths and 455 injuries.

Three thoughts:

1. The study that Sen. Feinstein is apparently referring to did seem to find that states in which an assault weapon ban was first introduced (but that lacked certain other confounding factors) “were 6.7 percent below the projection” of what the gun murder rate would be without the assault weapons ban. But in the very next sentence, the study says, “Random, year-to-year fluctuations could not be ruled out as an explanation of the 6.7-percent drop,” and later says, “The public safety benefits of the 1994 ban have not yet been demonstrated.”

2. A follow-up study covering 1994-2003 rather than just 1994-96, conducted by one of the coauthors of the first study, concluded that “we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.” Note that the author of the study continues to think that some broader regulations on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines might be helpful, but he doesn’t claim any findings that the assault weapons ban actually was responsible for any decline in total gun murders or other crimes.

3. But beyond this, consider the second sentence quoted above from Sen. Feinstein’s press release. The 385 assault weapon deaths that Feinstein claims translate into a bit under 50 deaths/year, or a death rate of 0.016/100,000, which is to say less than 0.5% of the gun homicide rate. I realize that she says “at least,” but I assume that she’s gotten the highest count that she — presumably with the help of pro-assault-weapons-ban sources — could find. So unless so-called “assault weapons” constitute less than 0.5% of all the weapons out there, the numbers she cited don’t even support the notion that assault weapons are disproportionately likely to be used in gun homicides. Perhaps there is some data supporting that notion out there; but I don’t know of it, and Senator Feinstein’s statement doesn’t provide it.

My view remains as before — so-called “assault weapons” are not materially more deadly than other weapons, so assault weapons bans will at best cause criminals to switch to other weapons that are similarly deadly. Even some of the supporters of the laws see them as means to try to institute much broader bans in the future. For more supporting that view, see (as I noted before) Prof. Gary Kleck’s Targeting Guns (pp. 110-118). Kleck is a very serious gun policy scholar; though he has generally come to be skeptical of gun control, he is highly respected, and the book on which Targeting Guns is based — Kleck’s earlier Point Blank — won the American Society of Criminology’s Hindelang Award in 1993 for being the “book, published within three (3) calendar years preceding the year in which the award is made, that makes the most outstanding contribution to research in criminology.” But here I just want to point out the unsoundness of Senator Feinstein’s particular claims.

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