The AR-15 and other assault rifles are bad; high-capacity magazines are worse.

To Limit Mass Shooting Carnage, Start by Banning High-Capacity Magazines

To Limit Mass Shooting Carnage, Start by Banning High-Capacity Magazines

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
June 14 2016 10:17 AM

A Better Way to Limit Mass Shooting Carnage

It’s not about the type of gun. It’s how many rounds it can fire without reloading.

Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Police and fire trucks gather outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday after the deadly shooting. The shooter used 30-round magazines, according to the ATF.

Orlando Police Department/Handout via Reuters

This article was first published by the Trace, a nonprofit news organization that covers gun violence in America. You can sign up for its newsletter here, or follow its reporting on Facebook or Twitter.

The day after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton addressed the fears the massacre evoked. Speaking at an event in Cleveland, Clinton highlighted what she saw as crucial steps for stopping such terrorist attacks in the future. Along with more aggressive intelligence gathering and better resources for local law enforcement, Clinton focused on one of the weapons used by the shooter in Orlando, Florida: a military-style rifle similar to the AR-15.

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“It’s essential we stop terrorists from getting the tools they need to carry out attacks,” Clinton said, receiving the speech’s loudest applause when she made clear that was referring to “assault weapons” like the AR-15. Calling them “weapons of war,” she argued that “they have no place on our streets.”

Clinton’s broad condemnation suggests she might push to revive the federal ban on assault weapons, a law her husband signed in 1994. The ban was among the most controversial gun reform policies of the past 20 years and calls to reinstitute it have come after many high-profile shootings.

But many experts doubt the ban had any significant impact before it expired in 2004.

Today, many experts instead believe the most effective means to lessen the carnage in attacks like the one in Orlando is to ban high-capacity magazines. These devices feed semi-automatic firearms, including handguns, large amounts of ammunition, allowing shooters to fire for longer before reloading. While assault-style rifles like the AR-15 could increase the lethality of an attack in some situations, they say, it is high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire dozens of shots without stopping. 

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Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives said the Orlando shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle, which fires as quickly as its user can pull the trigger and can be equipped with detachable magazines that hold any number of rounds. The Orlando shooter used 30-round magazines, according to the ATF, which are illegal in a handful of states but not in Florida. That almost certainly contributed to the high body count, since the shooter did not have to pause to reload as frequently as he would have with a smaller magazine.

The semi-automatic rifle used in the Orlando massacre resembles those used in past mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; Roseburg, Oregon; and San Bernardino, California.

Though assault weapons have become a potent symbol of mass shootings, bans of that style of gun are a “distraction,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and the author of Gunfight. For starters, he says, it didn’t actually stop manufacturers from selling assault rifles. Because the 1994 ban defined weapons based on “cosmetic” features like pistol grips or collapsible stocks, gun-makers evaded these restrictions by removing just enough design features so as to not trigger the ban. Meanwhile, the weapons remained semi-automatic and could still accept magazines of any size.

Winkler says he believes a ban on magazines that hold lots of ammunition would be a more effective strategy in limiting the carnage from a mass shooting. “It makes far more sense to focus on high-capacity magazines than assault rifles,” he says. Winkler notes that it’s not the style of a gun but “the size of a magazine [that’s] associated with the amount of damage a weapon can cause.” (The 1994 law included such a ban, but there was no restriction on the sale or possession of high-capacity magazines, and millions remained in circulation.)

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This thinking has guided policies in eight states, which ban in some form high-capacity magazines. New York’s SAFE Act, signed into law weeks after the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, included bans on possession of any magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Later in 2013, Colorado banned the sale of magazines that carry more than 15 rounds.

In California, some local and state lawmakers have called for new restrictions on high-capacity magazines. The state already outlaws sale of the magazines but not possession. After the state was rocked by the San Bernardino shootings in December, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom began campaigning to expand a Los Angeles law banning possession statewide.

Restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are supported by a small majority of Americans. A poll conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in March 2015 found that 63 percent of all Americans favored assault weapon bans, and 60 percent favored banning the sale of high-capacity magazines.

Californians support restrictions on assault weapons and magazine capacities at similar levels to the rest of the country. A poll conducted soon after the San Bernardino shooting by the Field Research Corp., a San Francisco–based public opinion research firm, found that 58 percent of the state’s voters supported banning possession of large magazines and 56 percent supported a broad assault weapons ban that included all semi-automatic rifles that can accept detachable magazines.

Florida voters have not been polled on assault weapon or magazine capacity restrictions since March 2013, when the most recent high-profile mass shooting had occurred about 1,000 miles away in Connecticut. Quinnipiac University pollsters found that Florida voters were slightly in favor of the laws: 56 percent favored a national assault weapons ban, and 53 percent favored a ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

At least one expert suspects those views might change in the wake of the nation’s worst mass shooting. Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida who conducts the Sunshine State poll on political issues, says of assault weapon and magazine capacity restrictions, “I am sure that support levels would be higher after yesterday’s shooting.”