Saturday morning, for the first time since the paper criticized the nomination of Warren G. Harding as the Republican presidential candidate in 1920, the New York Times ran a front page editorial. The editorial is a cry of despair against the epidemic of gun violence in the United States and the “elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.”
“It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency,” the editorial states, before calling for a ban on “certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition.”
This desire to remove assault rifles from civilian hands is understandable. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the alleged terrorists who massacred more than a dozen people in San Bernadino, California, both wielded assault rifles during their killing spree. Robert Lewis Dear, who also appears to be a terrorist motivated by religion, also used an assault weapon during his attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.
As the New York Times writes, “spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.” When a gunman breaks the peaceful routine of American life with mass murder, we often cannot help but fixate on their act. Television cameras descend upon the scene of the crime. Newspapers publish lengthy profiles of the killers. Reporters sometimes embarrass themselves and their profession in an effort to get the next scoop about the killers.
Yet mass killings often obscure another, far more deadly epidemic of gun violence. An average of 30 people are murdered by guns every day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and another 162 are wounded by firearms. Less than one percent of these victims are killed in mass shootings, according to 2010 data from the FBI.
Assault rifles, moreover, are hardly the deadliest firearms in the United States. Far from it, in fact. Between 2001–2005, according to the FBI, approximately 47,500 people in the United States were murdered by guns. Nearly 8 in 10 of these murders were committed with a handgun. The simple fact is that, if lawmakers want to address the deadliest firearms in the United States, they will not target assault rifles. They will target handguns.
One explanation for the deadly role handguns plan for our epidemic of gun violence is that fatal shootings often occur far more spontaneously than the tragedies in California and Colorado. The most common motive for a gun homicide is an argument, often a drunken argument. As one researcher explains, “nearly half of all homicides, committed by men or women, were preceded by some sort of argument or fight, such as a conflict over money or property, anger over one partner cheating on another, severe punishment of a child or abuse of a partner, retaliation for an earlier dispute, or a drunken fight over an insult or other affront.” Handguns are common and easy to conceal. And they allow a fight that otherwise may have only escalated into screaming or punching to become deadly.
Yet, despite the danger handguns present to American lives, lawmakers are, at least for the moment, severely hobbled in their ability to regulate them. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court’s five most conservative members held that handguns enjoy special constitutional status as “the most preferred firearm in the nation to `keep’ and use for protection of one’s home and family.” Until the membership of the Supreme Court changes, much handgun regulation is off-limits.
Heller relied on a somewhat convoluted historical argument to reach this conclusion. Although the Second Amendment explicitly states why a right to bear arms is written into the Constitution — because the framers believed that a “well regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state” — Justice Antonin Scalia argues in his opinion for the Court in Heller that the phrase “bear arms” was originally understood to encompass a “natural right of defense ‘of one’s person or house.’” From there, he reasons that this supposed right was violated by the District of Columbia’s ban on a very popular kind of gun often purchased for self-defense, handguns.
As an empirical matter, however, the claim that handgun ownership is an effective method of self-defense does not hold water. For starters, the likelihood that someone will actually need to defend themselves in their own home is vanishingly small. Indeed, “the annual per capita risk of death during a home invasion is 0.0000002, which, for all intents and purposes, is zero.” Even outside of the home, moreover, guns are rarely used by civilians for self-defense. According to a study by the Violence Policy Center, “there were 8,342 criminal firearm homicides by private citizens (non-law enforcement members) in 2012 — as opposed to 259 justifiable homicides.” That means there were 32 criminal homicides for every one killing that may have been in self-defense.
Yet, while guns will virtually never be used to repel a home invader, they do increase the risk that the gun owner or the owner’s family will be killed. As one study explains, “persons with guns in the home, regardless of the type of gun, number of guns, or storage practice, were at significantly greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide and firearm suicide than those without guns in the home.”
Heller, in other words, held that Americans have a constitutional right to endanger their own family.
This decision does not, it should be noted, render lawmakers completely impotent against the threat posed by handguns. Heller also held, for example, that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.” So background checks and similar methods used to keep guns out of the hands of people who are especially likely to use them illegally are still permissible under Scalia’s framework. Heller, it’s worth noting, also includes language suggesting that assault rifle bans are permissible — language that embraces “the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”
Until the Supreme Court’s membership changes, in other words, an assault rifle ban at least has the virtue of being possible. That does not change the fact, however, that Americans have far more to fear from handguns.