Plausible, or Propaganda? The ‘High-Capacity Magazine’ Argument
What appears to be the gun-control crowd's most winnable argument is as irrational as the rest.
April 7, 2013 - 12:02 am
The Hartford Courant reports that on April 1, Connecticut legislators reached bipartisan agreement on what they say could be the “nation’s strongest gun-control bill,” and that easy passage is expected.
One of the bills provisions: scary-looking semi-automatic rifles (“assault weapons”) will now need only one frightening feature (such as a pistol grip or flash suppressor) instead of the current two to make the banned list. A second: future sales of “high-capacity magazines” of over 10 rounds will be banned. This is the one element of the pending legislation that has divided its supporters. The bill does not impose an outright ban on the newly illicit magazines, allowing current owners to keep them:
… if they make an official declaration by January 1 of how many they own and submit to restrictions on their use. The magazines could only be loaded with 10 or fewer rounds, except in their owners’ homes or at a shooting range, where they can be fully loaded.
Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy supported those — including many Sandy Hook parents — who had called for an outright ban:
Simply banning [the magazines'] sale moving forward would not be an effective solution.
One Sandy Hook parent — whose son was murdered — said:
I think it’s useless to register the magazines. How are you going to register them? I think it’s stupid. There’s no way to register them, there’s no serial numbers. … It’s just another law or regulation that’s not going to be enforceable.
According to Nicole Hockley, the mother of a six-year-old son who was murdered:
We learned, the way that no other parents should learn, that the most dangerous, dangerous part of an assault weapon is the magazine.
Vice President Joe Biden agrees with this statement. Hockley also claimed to have learned something else, an argument that has since become a staple of the gun-control argument:
The shooter carried 10 30-round large-capacity magazines. … We have learned that in the time it took him to reload in one of the classrooms, 11 children were able to escape. We ask ourselves every day — every minute — if those magazines had held 10 rounds, forcing the shooter to reload at least six more times, would our children be alive today?
The argument that restricting magazine size will save lives by allowing intended victims to escape or onlookers to attack the shooter while he pauses to reload has become the most plausible in the gun controllers’ arsenal.
Unlike using cosmetics such as pistol grips or bayonet lugs to define “assault rifles,” outlawing what has been called “assault magazines” has an arguably rational relationship to the goal of reducing violence. Even some conservatives who are normally skeptical of knee-jerk “just do something!” responses to shocking events have expressed agreement. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan:
[I want] a quick, short, simple bill that would ban the use of big ugly monstrous high-capacity magazines [that would force shooters to] reload after seven or eight shots. It won’t hurt hunters, it won’t leave your house less safe, and in the cases of crazy people attacking children and mallgoers it will force them to reload, in which time someone might be able to knock them down or get the gun from their hands.
This argument seems plausible, supported as it seems to be by evidence from Sandy Hook and the attack on Gabby Giffords and others. Per Howard Kurtz:
Should Jared Loughner have been able to obtain 30 rounds of ammunition to kill six people and wound Gabby Giffords, or should there be limits on high-magazine clips?
The argument has moved beyond plausible to become an article of faith among the acolytes of gun control. However, there is good reason to doubt that it is persuasive per the actual events. Here is what is actually known or suspected on the magazine issue from Sandy Hook:
As many as a half-dozen first graders may have survived Adam Lanza’s deadly shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School because he stopped firing briefly, perhaps either to reload his rifle or because it jammed, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the events.
Based on initial statements from surviving children and the fact that unfired bullets from Lanza’s rifle were found on the ground, detectives suspect that some students were able to run to safety when Lanza stopped firing, probably for a short period of time, the officials said.
It is possible that Lanza, who reloaded the rifle frequently, mishandled or dropped a magazine and unfired bullets fell to the floor, they said.
But it also is possible, they said, that the mechanism that fed bullets into the rifle jammed, causing Lanza to remove the magazine and clear the weapon. Unfired bullets could have fallen to the classroom floor during that process as well, law enforcement officials said.
Based on his experience and his analysis of Sandy Hook, Marshall K. Robinson, the forensic scientist for the Bridgeport Police Department who also works at the state police forensic lab in Meriden, believes that banning “high-capacity” magazines would have no effect on gun violence. He testified:
High-capacity magazines have been “banned” before. … It proved nothing and the ban was lifted a few years ago.
Regarding the Gabby Giffords shooting, CNN misrepresented the events in a manner that supported the burgeoning magazine argument:
Authorities said the suspect, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, was tackled by two men when he tried to reload his pistol — while a woman in the crowd, Patricia Maisch, took away the fresh magazine Loughner had dropped.
That version of what happened was widely repeated:
• New York Times: “Onlookers tackled and restrained him when he paused to reload.”
• NBC News: “‘He had emptied the first magazine and was trying to reload when he was tackled,’ said one law enforcement official.”
• Time: “As Loughner fumbled to load a second clip, one of the 20 victims wounded by gunfire — a woman whose name has not been released — approached the assailant and was able to wrest the clip away. Loughner subsequently loaded a second clip, but its spring jammed. He was then tackled by two ‘brave, quick-thinking individuals’ who pinned him until authorities arrived.”
• Associated Press: “[Loughner] was reloading when a woman in the crowd, already wounded, attempted to grab the gun from him. He finally changed the magazine and tried to fire, authorities said, but the gun jammed. Meanwhile, two men from the crowd grabbed him and subdued him, according to officials.”
As with Sandy Hook, however, it seems that “what we learned” is incorrect. The picture of what happened, per those who actually painted it, is subtly but significantly different. An ABC News headline — “Woman Wrestled Fresh Ammo Clip From Tucson Shooter as He Tried to Reload” — reflected the magazine argument, yet the reporting did not:
[Patricia] Maisch, 61, effectively disarmed the shooter as several men pounced on him and threw him to ground.
She considered trying to run away, she said, but thought that would make her more of a target, so she laid down on the ground. But then something unexpected happened.
“Then he was next to me on the ground,” she said. “The gentleman knocked him down.
“I kneeled over him. He was pulling a magazine [to reload] and I grabbed the magazine and secured that. I think the men got the gun, and I was able to get the magazine,” she said.
[Bill] Badger, a 74-year-old retired army colonel living in Tucson, told Pottsville, Pa.’s Republican-Herald: “I turned and saw him running down the line of people on the chairs. He ran between me and the store. Someone hit him with a chair and he flinched a little. That’s when I grabbed his left arm. Someone grabbed his right arm and we got him to the ground.”
“The other guy put his knee into the back of his neck and I grabbed him around the throat. We held him until police got there.”
So: according to the actual participants, there was no “pause to reload.”
Whatever combination of gun jamming or reloading happened in Tucson or at Sandy Hook, the time and risk to the shooter of reloading magazines has been absurdly overstated by gun-control advocates and compliant media. In reality, it takes no more than a second or two to replace an empty magazine in a semi-automatic weapon.
Dave Kopel points this out in his “Rational Basis of ‘Assault Weapon’ Prohibition”:
In one firearms demonstration, a police shooter emptied a thirty round magazine attached to a banned Colt rifle in 5.9 seconds. The officer then fired a fifteen round magazine attached to an unbanned Glock pistol, changed magazines (2.25 seconds), and then fired another 15 rounds. The same thirty rounds were fired by the Glock in 8.92 seconds.
Using 10-round magazines, requiring two reloads, would add about two seconds, bringing the time to fire 30 rounds to about 11 seconds. But if the shooter had more than one handgun, there would have been no practical difference between rate of fire of the Glock (or any other semi-automatic handgun) and the 30-round rifle.
In addition to the fact that limiting the capacity of magazines would have little if any practical impact on the lethality of mass gun violence, there are many other reasons why such a legal ban would be impractical, bad policy, and arguably unconstitutional.
The millions of magazines currently in existence infer that any new legal restriction would restrict only the law-abiding. This is bad policy, because civilians need high-capacity magazines as much as — and for the same reasons — as the police. Legal scholar Randy Barnett pointed this out in a letter to Senator Ted Cruz:
Will some citizens — such as current or retired members of law enforcement or government officials — be privileged in the means by which they can protect themselves over others?
If an American citizen who is employed to protect the safety of others, or an active or retired police officer, requires a certain type of weapon, with a certain rate of fire or capacity, to protect him or herself or others, why does not a law abiding citizen of the United States require the same sort of weapon for the same lawful purpose?
A commenter on the Arms and the Law site pointed out:
These restrictions would have marginal effect on a determined would-be mass shooter, since he could prepare in advance by carrying multiple smaller magazines on his belt, in sports vest pockets, etc. and train himself to exchange them quickly. The civilian defender against an attack, on the other hand, is not going to be so attired and likely will have only what ammo is with his defensive firearm when he grabs it. Magazine size restrictions, therefore, would disproportionately hinder defense relative to attack, shifting the balance of power towards the criminal.
And then there is the Constitution, which can get in the way of ill-considered schemes. Some measures, such as New York’s hastily passed restriction of magazine capacity to seven rounds, are almost certainly unconstitutional. Since there are no seven-round magazines produced for most of the 9mm and .40 caliber Glocks, Springfields, Smith & Wessons, Heckler & Kochs, etc. widely owned by civilians, the New York law would turn those perfectly legal weapons into expensive paperweights. This runs afoul of the Heller v. District of Columbia prohibition of banning firearms and magazines that are “typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”
An added reason to be highly skeptical of restricting magazine capacity: the lead sponsor of legislation in the House, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), the Democrats’ chief deputy whip, quite literally doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
At a forum this week, the Denver Post revealed, “the senior congresswoman from Denver appeared not to understand how guns work”:
Asked how a ban on magazines holding more than 15 rounds would be effective in reducing gun violence, DeGette said:
“I will tell you these are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those now they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available.”
What she didn’t appear to understand is that a magazine can be reloaded with more bullets.
She is the lead sponsor. You can’t make this stuff up.
Other than perhaps violating the Constitution and depriving millions of gun owners of something they believe is desirable and necessary, the primary, and just about the only, effect of passing restrictions on magazine capacity would be to make the restrictors feel as if they had accomplished something.