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Shooting from the Hip: The Media's Inaccurate Gun Reporting

In a recent conversation about gun control it was suggested that Australia could provide a model of what we should do here: Google it, and you'll find scores of articles like this one imploring us to follow Australia's example. The central component of Australia’s program is a prohibition of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns (and pump-action shotguns as well) along with a forced buy-back program that has resulted in the destruction of some 630,000 weapons at a cost of $500 million.

There is dispute, as one might expect, about the effect of this stringent gun control policy. The article linked above refers to studies that laud its effectiveness; this recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Joyce Malcolm, a respected American historian of gun policy, cited other studies and argued that the positive effects of the Australia policy have been greatly exaggerated.

Whatever the effects in Australia (or Great Britain, also described by Malcolm), however, I think the relevance of policy in other countries is severely limited. For every journalist, politician, and other liberal who plaintively asks: "Why can't we be more like [Australia, Great Britain, Japan, wherever]?", there is the predictable (and at least equally reasonable) rejoinder: "Why can't we be more like Switzerland?" Switzerland requires all males between the ages of 20 and 30 with few exceptions to possess a government-issued rifle capable of automatic fire (the Sig 550) and/or the Sig 220 semi-automatic handgun for officers. "Although there is more per capita firepower in Switzerland than any place in the world," Stephen Halbrook has observed, "it is one of the safest places to be."

In terms of the relevance of foreign examples, however, the case of Australia may indeed be instructive. What would its policy look like here? For starters, how many weapons, and of what kinds, are we talking about? Last week, NBC News reported:

According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2009 there were an estimated 310 million firearms in the United States (not including weapons on military bases), of which 114 million were handguns, 110 million were rifles, and 86 million were shotguns.

A separate calculation by the Government Accountability Office estimated that 118 million handguns were available for sale to, or were possessed by, civilians in the United States in 2010.

The NRA has estimated that semi-automatic weapons make up about 15% of privately owned firearms in the U.S. That would be over 45 million weapons, but I suspect that estimate is far too conservative. If there are 118 million handguns in private hands, there are probably almost 45 million semi-automatic handguns alone. Regarding the AR-15, the iconic "assault" rifle used in Sandy Hook and several other mass shootings, the New York Times recently quoted two sources estimating that "3.3 million to 3.5 million" were made in the U.S. and not exported. And that's just one model of one semi-automatic rifle; it does not include the wildly popular Ruger Mini-14 or Mini-30, which are of a design different from the AR-15s. Nor does the NRA estimate include pump shotguns -- which can be fired almost as rapidly as semi-automatics -- as Australia did.

The United States, in short, is awash in semi-automatic and other rapid-fire weapons -- and the high-capacity magazines that feed them. (A 1999 study by criminologist Christopher Koper for the National Institute of Justice found that the 1994 high-capacity ban was of limited effectiveness because of the "'immense stock' of about 30 million such magazines" already in circulation, a number that is no doubt higher now.) Not only does the sheer number of rapid- fire weapons and high-capacity magazines in private hands make the Australia experiment virtually irrelevant here; it also provides the basis for a strong argument beyond the Second Amendment that a new prohibition of them would be unconstitutional.