The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives

Our recent New York Times article provided important new empirical evidence that the federal assault weapons ban (AWB) – in place from 1994-2004 – was an important tool in the effort to reduce the death toll from public mass shootings.  Within 24 hours, Reason magazine published a piece by Jacob Sullum that tried to challenge our results.  Ironically, the first portion of Sullum’s title perfectly describes his own article: “A Suspiciously Selective, Logically Shaky Analysis of Mass Shooting Data.”  The heart of Sollum’s attempted criticism is that it was “suspiciously selective” to define gun massacres as involving at least six deaths and that the definition should involve four individuals killed.  Essentially, Sollum offers the “let’s kick sand into the faces of our readers so they won’t see the truth” approach to policy analysis.  Here, we offer our evidence to refute his feckless challenge.

Figures 1 and 2 tell the story graphically:  the body count from gun massacres was visibly restrained during the AWB and rose sharply after 2004 when President Bush reneged on his campaign promise to renew it. Moreover, the number of deaths per gun massacre fell during the ban and has risen sharply over the next 15 years as the gun industry has flooded the market with increasingly more lethal weaponry.

Figure 1

The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives

Figure 2

The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives 1

The decline in gun massacre fatalities during the AWB was not simply a product of declining violent crime, which has continued downward, even as mass shooting fatalities have skyrocketed.  Note that in the last five years alone, we have already surpassed any previous decade in the number of deaths in these horrific gun massacres.  Importantly, every gun massacre in the last 5 years has used weaponry – a prohibited assault weapon or high-capacity magazine or both — banned by the federal AWB.  Without dedicated governmental action, there is no reason to believe this ghastly trend will abate.

As Figures 3 and 4 show, the evident restraining impact of the AWB on gun massacre fatalities is not altered by using Sollum’s preferred definition of four individuals killed (Sollum’s numbers are off because he occasionally and inconsistently errs in including the mass shooter as a victim, while we do not).


Figure 3

The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives 2

Figure 4

The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives 3

Our research and analysis was inspired by Louis Klarevas’ important work on mass shootings, which offered the initial evidence on the effectiveness of the AWB.  We retained Klarevas’ 6+ definition but did our own assessment of public mass shootings (rather than all gun crimes) and used a different data set than Klarevas.  Importantly, even with these changes, we confirmed Klarevas’ findings, which were strengthened by our analysis of five additional years of data.  The pattern is extremely robust, across different datasets, different exclusions decisions (eliminating or retaining gang and domestic violence killings), using the Sollum preferred 4+ standard, or even looking at more extreme mass shootings that kill more than ten:  the empirical evidence supports the view that the federal assault weapons ban saved lives.

The Reason article does inadvertently make two rather good points, which its author would likely be unhappy to learn.  First, it buttresses the point that the gun lobby did try to dampen the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban by restricting the array of weapons that would come within its prohibition.  Sollum apparently thought he had issued a fatal blow by showing two rifles – an AR-15 (pictured immediately below) and a Mini-14 (pictured thereafter) – when only the AR-15 would be deemed a prohibited assault weapon.

But this point fails for two reasons.  First, gun industry imagery is very moving to many of the troubled young men who contemplate mass murder, and if one of them was trying to assert his power and manliness, the AR-15 is a far more gratifying weapon.  There is a reason that assault weapons are advertised under slogans like “Consider your Man card reissued,” while the Mini-14 is not (and indeed the Mini-14 has never been used in any of the mass shootings captured in the Mother Jones dataset during the period of the assault weapons ban or since).  If there is any force to Sollum’s point, though, it is that a renewed federal assault weapons ban should be more comprehensive – perhaps following the more expansive 1996 ban on semi-automatic weaponry that eliminated the previously serious public mass shooting problem in Australia.

But the second point that needs to be emphasized is that Sollum ignores the critical importance that the AWB ban included a limit on the size of large-capacity magazines.  Thus, all guns that could accept magazines, whether handguns, assault weapons, or the Mini-14 were less deadly when high-capacity magazines were restricted.  It is unclear whether Sollum just did not know the details of the federal AWB that he was trying to criticize or was simply trying to confuse his readers, but the point should be emphasized that restrictions on high-capacity magazines are absolutely essential if one wants to reduce the risk of Las Vegas style killings that wound hundreds of individuals.

Of course, it is not surprising that the libertarian ideologues at Reason would continue their efforts to thwart any restrictions on guns.  In one of their recent articles, they proclaim that “Grieving Parents’ Policy Preferences Are Irrelevant to the Constitutionality of Gun Laws.”  But our work was about empirical evidence, and the preferences of libertarian zealots and gun merchants are irrelevant to the facts about the beneficial impact of the federal assault weapons ban.

Figure 5

The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives 4

AR-15 (top picture) and a Mini-14 (below)

The Assault Weapon Ban Saved Lives 5