Why Should Public Opinion About Gun Control Change After a Shooting Rampage?

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As Radley Balko noted
this morning, a new CNN poll
no shift in public opinion regarding gun control
following the recent mass shooting in Tucson. The lack of change is
similar to what was seen in the wake of other high-profile gun
crimes, and it makes sense. If you do not think gun control is a
good way to prevent violence—if you believe that it mainly serves
to disarm potential victims, rather than deter armed lunatics or
run-of-the-mill criminals—dramatic evidence that firearms can be
used for evil purposes is not likely to change your mind.
Furthermore, the specific policy proposals covered by these polls
generally have little or nothing to do with the event that put gun
control in the news.

The CNN survey
(PDF), for instance, asked respondents whether they support "a ban
on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault
guns, such as the AK-47." Neither assault gun nor the more
commonly used term assault weapon has any fixed meaning;
it is whatever legislators say it is, and typically they focus on
scary, militaristic appearances, as opposed to features that make a
practical difference in the hands of criminals. It's not clear what
people have in mind when they tell pollsters (as 61 percent of the
respondents in this poll did) that they support a ban on "assault
weapons," a term that was adopted by the gun control lobby to
foster confusion between fully automatic military firearms (assault
rifles) and semi-automatic civilian models. But it's a fair bet
that many of them are thinking of machine guns. Note that CNN cited
the AK-47, an assault rifle that can fire continuously as well as
one round at a time, as an example of a "semi-automatic assault

In any case, the gun used to kill six people in Tucson, a Glock
19 pistol, is a popular self-defense choice that has never been
classified as an "assault weapon." Seung-Hui Cho used the same
handgun, along with a Walther P22, in the 2007 Virginia Tech
shooting rampage, which killed 32 people. Likewise, George Joe
Hennard used two ordinary handguns, a Glock 17 and a Ruger P89, in
his 1991 attack on a Luby's restaurant in Killeen, Texas, which
killed 23 people. Although neither of those guns was covered by the
federal "assault weapon" ban, Sarah Brady still cited the Killeen
massacre as a reason for Congress to approve the law.

Another specific proposal mentioned in the CNN survey—a ban on
magazines holding more than 10 rounds—does at least have some
connection to the Tucson massacre, since Jared Lee Loughner
reportedly used such magazines in his attack. According to the
New York Timesaccount,
Loughner emptied one 30-round magazine, loaded a second one that
jammed, and was trying to load a third when he was tackled and
disarmed. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who
to introduce legislation next week that would limit
magazines to 10 rounds, argues that Loughner might have killed and
injured fewer people if he had to reload sooner. She made a similar
argument after Colin Ferguson used a Ruger P89 with 15-round
magazines in his  1993 attack on the Long Island Rail Road,
which killed six people, including her husband (an incident that
motivated her to run for office).

McCarthy's counterfactual may be correct. But it's important to
note that her legislation, like a similar provision that was
included in the now-expired federal "assault weapon" ban, would
have no impact on magazines already in circulation. Hence a
determined mass murderer could still obtain 30-round magazines.
Alternatively, he might compensate for smaller magazines by
bringing multiple weapons or by taping magazines together to
facilitate reloading. And if it's true, as commenters here have
argued, that 30-round magazines are especially prone to the sort of
misloading that Loughner experienced right before he was tackled,
the upshot of smaller magazines would not necessarily have been
fewer casualties. For what it's worth, magazine size does not seem
to have made any difference in the Virginia Tech and Killeen
attacks, both of which killed far more people than died in

The possibility that legislation like McCarthy's could make a
difference in rare events like the Tucson massacre has to be
weighed against the legitimate interests of gun owners who prefer
large-capacity magazines for range shooting or envision
self-defense scenarios in  which the extra rounds would be
useful. (Having lived in L.A. during the 1992 riots, I don't
consider those scenarios wildly far-fetched.) As is generally the
case with gun control, the cost is borne mainly by law-abiding
citizens, while the public safety payoff is dubious at best.

Robert Farago
high-capacity magazines at The Truth About

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