No public policy debate in the U.S. today involves more simple ignorance than the discussion of gun control, a fact presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke sadly underlined Thursday during the Democrat presidential debate.
Unless you’re living in a cave, you’ve surely read or heard his proclamation that “we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”
Then, having ignored the problem in getting past the U.S.Constitution’s Second Amendment view on the right to bear arms, O’Rourke turned his back on the First Amendment and labeled as “a death threat” a Tweet from a Republican legislator in his home state of Texas saying this: “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.”
You’d have to be delusional to actually believe that O’Rourke feared that comment by state Rep. Briscoe Cain meant Cain planned to go hunting for a Democrat presidential candidate. But accusing Cain of being a potential assassin was a brilliant move by O’Rourke to sidetrack the discussion from the substance of his earlier comments focused on a number of erroneous ideas including the claim that the two, semi-automatic rifles he mentioned fire a unique “high-impact, high-velocity round (that) when it hits your body, shreds everything inside of your body.”
The shredder claim was the sort of big-city, liberal fear-mongering destined to be met by equal and opposite fear-mongering from rural and rural-aligned conservatives who painted O’Rourke’s comments as the beginning of a national, no-knock, smash-your-doors down War on Guns in the image of the War on Drugs.
And we all know how well the War on Drugs has worked out. But let’s ignore that and simply talk guns.
Rightly or wrongly, too, let’s accept that O’Rourke’s intentions here are good, that he isn’t just engaged in political pandering, that he really wants to save lives and stop body-shredding bullets, and let’s proceed from there with the understanding that in any discussion facts matter.
The AR-15 fires a .22 caliber bullet from either the 5.56mm NATO or .223 Remington cartridge. The classic AK-47 fires a .30-caliber cartridge (the 7.62X39mm aka .30 Russian short) or, in newer versions, a .22-caliber Russian round, the 5.45 X 39mm.
The military in both countries adopted .22-caliber rounds not for their killing power but for their weight savings. The 5.56mm NATO cartridge weighs about half of its predecessor, the 7.62mm NATO. A soldier could thus carry twice as much ammo.
When the 5.56 was introduced, it’s killing capacity was questioned, and it has been questioned even more since. The U.S. military is now experimenting with a larger, more powerful 6.8mm round because the 5.56mm doesn’t, as Popular Mechanics reported, “cut it against modern body armor, particularly that worn by Russian Army troops.”
A former military medic writing at the firearm website “The Truth About Guns” says this about the 5.56 mm.
“In my experience, the standard NATO combat round pokes 5.56mm holes in both bones and flesh, shattering nothing. It creates minimal bleeding. I know people say it tumbles and yaws, but that isn’t my experience at all. I saw it poke tiny holes in humans and rarely induced hemorrhaging sufficient to cause unconsciousness or uncompensated shock, which is the only result that matters.
“On the flip side, having a patient who was shot by a 7.62X51 NATO or larger round was a rarity. Dead people aren’t patients….For me, what I learned is, when it comes to combat, shoot the heaviest rifle round I can, shoot at what I can hit, and then shoot it again if I can.”
Combat medics who’ve treated bullet wounds know much more about how bullets perform than a former Texas congressman who grew up in comfort before being sent away to a prep school in Virginia and then attending the Ivy League’s Columbia University. There is nothing in O’Rourke’s biography to indicate he knows a buttstock from muzzle brake.
Thus he would not know that for maximum killing power at range, a Remington 750 Woodmaster or Browning BAR Mark III in .308-caliber is deadlier than any 5.56 mm. Both of those rifles are standard sporting arms that can be easily fitted with quick-change, 10-round magazines.
Likewise, he wouldn’t understand that if someone really wanted to do damage in close quarters, the venerable Remington 870 pump shotgun now comes in a “tactical,” clip-fed version with quick-change, six-round clips. The U.S. military still favors shotguns for close-range combat.
If O’Rourke’s idea is to end mass shootings, as he suggested it is, simply getting rid of AR-15s and the AK-47s, doesn’t do much. They’re less deadly than other weapons and, even more importantly, they are not very often used for homicides.
Fifty-five rifles of all types, some fraction of them semi-automatics of which AR-15s and AK-47s are an even smaller fraction, were used in U.S. mass shootings from 1982 to 2019, according to Statista.
Over the same period, more than three times as many handguns and shotguns were used in such shootings. Handguns alone were involved in two and half times as many mass shootings as rifle of all types.
If a politician really wants to do something about not just mass shootings but firearm deaths in the U.S. in general, the data clearly says the attention-grabbing statement should be “we’re going to take your revolver, your semi-automatic handgun. We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”
Because as B.J. Campbell, a data analyst who regularly crunches numbers before writing about firearms, has observed, “if your goal is to murder, the handgun is the obvious choice, and that’s born out in the homicide numbers.”
Handguns were used in 7,032 homicides in 2017, according to the latest statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Handguns accounted for about 70 percent of all firearms deaths and probably more, given that the second-largest category of deaths was for “other guns or types not stated.”
There have been no, high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. involving so-called assault rifles where the type of weapon remained unknown. And mass shootings are but a subset of the 403 homicides involving rifles in general.
So to boil this down: Handguns are known to have accounted for 7,032 violent deaths in 2017, and rifles of all types – not just the two rifles mentioned by Beto – accounted for 403 deaths.
The 403 rifle deaths – some portion of which were committed with AR-15s or AK-47s – trail 467 homicides by blunt object (hammer, club,etc.), 696 by fists and feet, and 1,591 by knife and cutting weapon as Campbell notes at his website, Handwaving Freakoutery, where he has observed that “magically evaporating all the rifles would likely just push most of these numbers into the ‘handgun’ umbrella, saving very few lives. Presuming magical gun evaporation were possible of course, which it isn’t.”
Campbell also takes on those doctors who have suggested semi-automatic rifles are somehow deadlier than other firearms and points out that in the real world the opposite has proven true. The Virginia Tech shooter murdered 30 people and wounded 17 using a pair of handguns.
“Using pistols, the VT shooter killed almost twice as many people as at Parkland. He killed half again as many people as Sandy Hook, and the Sandy Hook victims were literally children. Little kids. This idea doctors have that AR-15s make mass shooting incidents magically more deadly than pistols is fundamentally, scientifically, and self-evidently wrong. It is a lie,” he wrote.
“I understand why they think it. They think it because they see one patient on a gurney, and not a building full of wounded and dying people laying there for tens of minutes waiting for emergency response to arrive. They think it because the 30 dead ones at Virginia Tech didn’t even make it into ER. They think it because they’ve never loaded up a backpack full of mags.”
The essence of Campbell’s argument is that the number of people a mass shooter can kill is limited mainly by how much ammunition can be carried. It is the same reason why the U.S. and Russian militaries switched to lighter, less powerful cartridges. See the discussion of military cartridges above.
Ignorance or fear-mongering?
O’Rourke is either unaware of the data or he was dog-whistling suburban women and others who live in fear of a random shooter. A poll conducted for the Thomson Reuters news service in August found 59 percent of Americans believe “random acts of violence such as mass shootings (committed by Americans on American soil)” pose the greatest threat to the citizenry.
The emotion is all out of whack with reality. The homicide rate in the U.S. t5.
oday – approximately 5.3 per 100,000 – is about half of what it was at its peak of 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980. And mass shootings are a tiny, tiny part of homicides.
Healthline.com calculated the “lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting is around 1 in 110,154 — about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution.”
You are approximately 307 times more likely to be killed by a firearm in a non-mass shooting, and that figure is skewed by the firearm death rate among African Americans, primarily in the country’s urban ghettoes.
White Americans die in homicides at a rate of 2.67 per 100,000. Unfortunately, the story is not the same for all U.S. citizens. The national rate for black Americans is 18.67 per 100,000 and in some states, such as Missouri, it has climbed as high as 46.24 per 100,000.
“A brawl inside a St. Louis home reportedly led to a gun battle where five victims in their 20s and 30s were shot, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” ABC reported of one.
“Of those, three victims were found dead at the scene and the fourth died later as a result of their injuries, the newspaper reported.
“Initial reports suggested that the four deceased men were related.”
The shooting made the news in few places outside of the immediate St. Louis area. The Associated Press circulated a five-paragraph story after the men were identified. St. Louis police described a “gun battle” between people who knew each other – something far from a random, mass shooting.
The other shooting was much the same, only that time five people died. These were the country’s “normal” mass shootings. Not the kind of mass shootings that throw the country into panic.
Healthline noted that today’s omnipresent media with its worldwide reach inflates dangers, but “even without the influence of the media, we are not always very good at knowing what is most dangerous in our environment.”
That might be an understatement given the data. Here’s one simple reality to consider:
If you want to do something dangerous, sit on your ass. An American Cancer Society study found that sitting for more than six hours per day increases your risk of death by 19 percent over sitting for less than three hours per day.
If that isn’t enough, consider what Shawn Radcliffe wrote at Healthline:
“There are many more likely ways to die than in a mass shooting.
“Heart disease and cancer are at the top – the risk of dying is 1 in 7. And even dying in a motor vehicle crash is higher – 1 in 113.”
Thus your chances of dying in that motor-vehicle crash are about 975 times greater than your chances of dying in a mass shooting involving any weapon and grow to somewhere around 2000 times greater in a mass shooting involving an AR-15, AK-47 or any copy of those weapons given how few are involved in mass shootings.
Motor vehicles are the country’s most underrated danger. The chances are you will fall victim to your bad driving or someone will kill you with a car or truck are real, and the chances you will be killed in a mass shooting are, well, about as great as the chances you will be charged with murder, judged guilty by a U.S. jury, sentenced to death by a judge, and eventually executed.
So what are the odds an attention-seeking politician will declare “we’re going to take away your F-150, your Toyota RAV4. We’re not going to allow it to be used against you or a fellow American anymore.”
And what are the chances of a random group of Americans – Democrat or Republican -cheering and clapping that remark.
The people who cheered O’Rourke’s gun grab are no doubt well-intentioned whether O’Rourke is or not. But good intentions have a horrible history of leading public policy into bad outcomes.
Prohibition was built on good intentions. The Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War were born of good intentions. Good intentions led to the overuse of DDT which damaged ecosystems across North America.
One can make a long list of good intentions that made a mess of things. Data and well-thought-out ideas should lead this country’s discussion of how to lower the firearm death rate, not good intentions.
And the first focus should be on doing something about those economically depressed areas, whether black or white, where homicide rates are in the triple digits.