The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

You Know Nothing About Guns

Mr. Blumen, I really think you need to learn more about guns. Like many people, you keep referring this imaginary category of weapons "semiautomatics" that are just a hair's breadth different from their fully automatic brothers. I'm afraid the reality is quite different.

You define semiautomatics as weapons which can "fire rounds very rapidly with multiple squeezes of the trigger". How rapid is that? One a second? Three? I'm afraid that all pistols sold today qualify as "semiautomatic" under your definition. Heck, every pistol sold since the late 1800's has met that definition! What kind of gun doesn't? Revolvers? Not really, they have a smaller "clip" but speed-loaders take care of that. What else is there? The only thing I can think of are those little concealed derringers that women and gamblers are always using in Hollywood movies - and even those can fire off their two shots quite quickly.

As for rifles, anything more complicated than an old-fashioned bolt action qualifies as "semiautomatic". I can easily squeeze of two or three rounds a second with any old squirrel gun, if I'm not interested in actually hitting my target. And I can easily fire every few seconds with a bolt action.

You really have to understand that when the press describes a weapon as "semiautomatic" you really still don't know anything about it at all, except that it was probably built during the twentieth century. Was it a .22 caliber? Larger? 9mm? Was the weapon small enough to be concealed or was it a full length rifle? (Believe me, a ban on concealable weapons would be far more useful than bans on high rate-of-fire.)

As for your blowing off the comparison between shotguns and semi-auto rifles, you completely and utterly missed the point. In any close environment, a shotgun will kill three or four people with each pull of the trigger, more than compensating for the slower rate of fire. You don't even have to aim it, just point it in the general direction of your enemy. Why don't people use shotguns for committing mass murders? They do, the press just doesn't give it the same coverage. Just as people kill each other with pistols so often that even the local news doesn't cover it anymore.

In conclusion, while I certainly agree that there are classes of weapons which are unsuitable for the public (as opposed to the military), I continue to assert that both you and the mainstream press have completely failed to understand the problem. How do we prevent unbalanced people from committing mass murder? What about those widely touted 5 day waits? What about mandatory safety courses (which would also help limit another major problem- many gun fatalities are accidental). What about "how do you decide if he's imbalanced"? If he's that imbalanced, should he be allowed to drive? I want to respond to your idea that even though semi-autos kill relatively few people, they should still be banned.

I find this illogical, simply because there are many more things that kill many more people in this country, yet you have not taken a stand against them.

The biggest, of course, is the automobile. We won't let people vote till their 21, but we let them operate heavy machinery at high speeds, with minimal training, from age 16 on. Tens of thousands of people are maimed or killed every year by automobile users; when will you make a stand advocating forced mass transit?

But, I hear you argue, automobiles have a decided benefit to society which offsets the lamentable fatality rate. All right, what about knives? At least as many people are murdered each year with knives as with automatic weapons. Where is the 5 day cooling off period for switch blade purchases?

Heck, what about passive smoke?

Face it, semi-auto bans are not based on any kind of well-reasoned ethical position, but on the fact that people unfamiliar with them find them scary.

Anybody with any experience with guns realizes that any old duck-hunting weapon can kill far more people far more quickly than an AR-15 - but that 50 year old shot gun doesn't look nearly as scary as the AR-15, so no one gets hysterical about them.

That's why crafting semi-auto bans is so hard on Congress. Any law banning scary looking weapons based on performance characteristics would automatically also ban most hunting rifles and shot guns in the USA. So, Congress tries, instead, to ban scary looking features - pistol grips, large clips, etc..

The last time Congress did that (banning long guns with pistol grips) they managed to accidentally ban the guns used in Olympic target shooting. In any case, the ban was only effective for about a year, by which time the gun manufacturers either simply dropped the grips or developed weird looking stocks where the pistol grip was blended with the rifle stock.

Banning large clips simply spurred sales of lots and lots of 5 round clips. (It only takes a second to pull an empty clip and insert a new one.)

So, now Congress tries banning specific models. But how long before the manufacturers relabel the guns with different model numbers and different cosmetic features?

You state that there are a class of weapons that are only good for mass-murder. That's true. They are called "full automatic" weapons and you can't buy one without a federal license. The performance characteristics of modern semi-automatic weapons are barely different from the squirrel gun I grew up with - they don't even use large caliber bullets! Believe me, if I was about to be shot, I'd rather be shot by an AR-15 than by someone with a .357 magnum; I'm much more likely to survive the smaller AR-15 bullet.

You state that there is a pattern of lone gunmen with no criminal record picking up semi-auto weapons and shooting up schools, McDonald's, etc.. This is certainly true. Yet these incidents only number, what, one a year? Compare that to the number of hunters who safely use semi-auto weapons for hunting, and the number of target shooters who use them for sport. Now, compare that ratio to the number of safe drivers versus the number of drivers who've been responsible for auto accidents. Which of this two ratios indicate the need for legislation?

Meanwhile, cheap pistols kill thousands of people each year. Given that the government really should strive for the greatest good for the greatest number, which of these things deserves Congress' attention? Which of these is worth undermining the constitution for?

Michael Heinz

I was taken aback at first by your apparent statement that there is no such thing as a semi-automatic weapon. However, once I thought about it, I came back to the conclusion that there is.

First, you use the term yourself (you refer to people "safely using semi-autos for hunting") so it clearly has some meaning to you. Secondly, Larsen, in his book Lethal Passage, warns that to the NRA, all guns are officially alike; one way to protect gun rights is to claim that there are no substantive differences between the guns we acknowledge are "safe" and the ones we are claiming to be dangerous.

This reminds me of a conversation I had in Texas a few weeks ago. I was sitting with a group of our local employees, all of whom turned out to be gun owners. I mentioned that there is some controversy in New York right now about Glocks. We armed the police with them a couple of years ago, and now it seems the police are firing more bullets indiscriminately and hitting more bystanders. One guy began to bristle and asked, "What is the relationship between the gun and firing more bullets?", as if I was a moron. I did a quick reality check, remembering your opinions as well and asking myself if I had been lured by wishful liberals into imagining distinctions that don't exist. But, as it happens, I had been at Red's Indoor Range that morning, firing Smith & Wesson and Taurus .357's, and this helped me reach the common sense answer. When you are firing a six shot revolver, you are going to place your shots very carefully. When you are firing a Glock or any other pistol with a magazine, your tactics might just be to sweep the street.

So some guns are more dangerous than others. The fact that there are no bright lines, that we may bandy the phrase "semi-automatic" around, without defining it carefully enough, nonetheless has some validity. I got onto Thomas and looked up all pending legislation relating to firearms (there are 35 bills introduced in Congress, some of which would ban all handguns, while others would ban all regulation of handguns.) I do think that most legislation dealing with semi-automatics probably does beg the question by identifying brand names rather than by attempting a definition. I wasn't very satisfied with the one exception I found, HR 174, introduced by Congresswoman Collins of Illinois. The bill actually defines "assault weapon," using "semiautomatic" as part of the definition. An "assault weapon" has: i. a barrel of 12+ inches; ii. is capable of receiving ammunition directly from a large capacity magazine OR iii. is semiautomatic AND iv. is not generally recognized as suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.

Whatever we think of this definition, making difficult distinctions-- or simply giving judges the tools to determine what falls where--is the law's specialty. There is no bright line definition of pornography, either, but the courts daily do the job of defining it. If evaluation of real cases according to generic standards were not necessary, we wouldn't have courts. I am therefore confident that a legal definition could be established of a semi-automatic. The most precise and scientific definition might have something to do with the amount of pressure it takes to pull the trigger, and the number of times the trigger can be pulled in a ten-second interval by a person of average strength. A law banning guns that could be fired more than a certain number of times in ten seconds, or by application of less than a certain scientific measure of pressure, would clearly not offend the Constitution. However, there are far vaguer definitions that would probably stand up too--even that definition of assault rifle above would probably stand up, because it gives a judge enough to get his or her teeth into.

I think the argument you make about heavy machinery, automobiles, kitchen knives, etc. is very tired. First, society has a legitimate interest in regulating these things, and at least two of them--cars and heavy equipment--are in fact regulated much more tightly than guns. Secondly, analogies between guns and any of these things break down for two reasons. i. Guns were invented for the killing of humans, long before they were made light and portable enough to use for hunting game or target practice. They are sold and kept today also largely for the killing of human beings, though wrapped in the justification of our legitimate right of self-defense. Stand in any gun shop, as I did that day in Texas, and you will hear conversations about the comparative stopping power of different calibers of ammunition, typically interlaced with graphic descriptions of the effect on human organs. You will not hear this kind of talk in cutlery stores or at car dealerships. Thus to claim that guns have no special status, are tools like any others and not the legitimate focus of a special moral concern, is to be blind and promote blindness. ii. Guns are more dangerous than the things to which you compare them. Yes, more people may be killed in car accidents today than gun accidents (though the gun accident statistics, especially those involving children, are pretty horrifying.) But the moral issues arise less in comparing accidents than in comparing the deliberate use of different instrumentalities. Cars are almost never used as a deliberate instrument of murder--certainly not where any precision is desired--and knives are much less successful when so used than guns. This year, a deranged man walked into a New Haven coffee house and stabbed seven people, all of whom lived. If he had been carrying any kind of handgun, some would have died, and if it had been a fast-firing weapon, many would have died.

I often feel when you and I are exchanging views that we are arguing about nothing--we are both in favor of reasonable regulation of guns. I suppose the difficulty is in determining how that is to be accomplished. Though I find the proposed Texas concealed carry law to be rather scary, the one thing I like about it is that it will require some kind of training and licensing, making owning a gun more like driving a car or being a scuba diver. Inherently dangerous activities or hobbies ought to be recognized as such.

I know this is a cheap shot, but I can't help it: The only gun-related article I've written to which you never replied is the one about gun rights advocates--including an NRA board member--fantasizing out loud about the murder of Mrs. Brady. Another NRA board member is the publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, which formerly carried murder-for-hire advertisements, and co-owns a publishing house that distributes murder manuals. How do you feel about the leadership of the organization to which you belong?