Plausible, or Propaganda? The 'High-Capacity Magazine' Argument

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.