In the weeks following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida last winter, something remarkable happened: Florida lawmakers delivered a bill to Governor Rick Scott that raised the age of firearm purchases to 21 and increased funding for mental health services, among other changes. The bill, the "Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act," marked the rare occasion when an episode of horrifi c gun violence resulted in direct and relatively speedy legislative action.
Even more remarkable was that it happened in Florida, a state that has been the crucible for so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws and other policies that embody the NRA’s vision of gun culture in the US. In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, the March for Our Lives movement that arose from it has given the gun debate a new significance, precisely because it shows that the voices of young people can result in direct political change.
The gun debate is incredibly complex and too often cast in black and white when, in reality, the political interests and opinions that drive the discussion tend to land in the gray. So over the coming days, I’ll be posting video thought-starters as part of a series called Maybe I'm Wrong that outline my stances on certain elements of the gun debate. I don’t believe I’m 100 percent right about anything, and I’m curious to see what you guys think might be flawed or biased or straight up wrong with my POV.
Then, later this month, I’ll be hosting a live discussion between advocates on both sides of this issue to continue the work of elevating young people’s voices and forcing elected officials to pay attention.
Our second thought-starter explores whether a flat ban on AR-15-style weapons is a sound approach to reducing mass gun violence.
AR-15-style rifles has been involved in a number of notorious mass shootings in recent years, from Parkland to Las Vegas to Orlando to Sandy Hook, to name just a few. Given the gun’s prominence as "mass shooters' weapon of choice," some Americans have been clamoring for a federal ban on the sale and ownership of them. Versions of the weapon, modeled as the consumer-facing, semiautomatic version of the military service automatic rifle M-16, has already been banned in a few states and municipalities across the country, and sales of certain models were made illegal nationwide in 1994 by the federal assault weapons ban. But in 2004, Congress declined to renew that legislation and the gun became more widely available, surging in popularity and sales. These days, one in five new firearms sold are AR-15 type models.
While some data from the years the weapon was outlawed suggested there was a drop-off in mass shootings, a University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by the federal government and published in 2004 summed up the ban’s general impact with a frustratingly vague conclusion: “Reducing Criminal Use of the Banned Guns and Magazines Has Been Mixed.” Another study published last year by Quinnipiac University researcher Mark Gius found “the number of school shooting victims was 54.4 percent less” thanks to the federal ban.
I tend to agree with the seemingly obvious idea that AR-15s and other assault weapons serve to ramp up the carnage during mass-shooting events. But statistically speaking, they don't account for a large share of these tragedies. Which is why I think there’s something more at play when considering the rifle and the idea of forbidding people from buying them.
Maybe I’m wrong, but gun bans don't really work. My argument isn’t necessarily about numbers; it’s about symbolism, strategy, and the nature of prohibition—and the need to collectivize risk rather than try to snuff out danger.
Numbers do tell us one thing. There are too many AR-15s in the country—approximately eight million, according to the NRA—for a ban on future sales to prevent their use in further mass shootings. Unless the US were to enact an Australian-style buyback and amnesty initiative, there’s little to suggest these kinds of guns wouldn't be used in illegal ways to kill people again, regardless of future regulation.
Then there’s the symbolism: The AR-15 has become a rallying cry for ardent supporters of the Second Amendment and gun marketers. The “AR” stands for Armalite Rifle, for the gun company that originally developed and manufactured the weapon, but in a sense, it’s been rebranded by the gun lobby as “America’s Rifle.” It is a potent symbol of America’s protection of gun ownership rights, and like the Ford Mustang or a Hummer, its beauty or its offensiveness lies in the eye of the beholder. When some consumers or gun-rights activists suspect assault weapons—some or all of them—might be banned after a school shooting, they tend to buy more.
And that conforms to an axiom of prohibition: If you tell people they can’t have something they want—something they feel they have the right to own—they might just want it even more. This may prove the case even when it comes to, say, new regulations limiting sales of ammunition in aggressive gun-control states like California. Meanwhile, handguns remain the weapons responsible for the supermajority of gun deaths in America.
So instead of banning these rifles, states should require gun owners to buy insurance in case their gun is used to kill wrongfully; that way, at least victims and their families might recover some financial damages. In most states, individual gun owners can be held liable, but it’s rare that any one person might have enough money to compensate victims. Mandating insurance would collectivize the risk posed to broader society by the constitutional right to bear arms.
For this to work, gun owners have to decide what duty of care they owe to the rest of the public. If you decide to own a gun, are you willing to bear the cost of it causing the damage it was designed—in the most extreme cases—to inflict? Some might argue this would dissuade people from owning guns legally, simply incentivizing people to buy guns under the table. But it would also force law-abiding gun owners to consider whether a gun that can kill many people quickly is an asset or a liability. If they were more widely sought, insurance companies might policies with discounts on premiums to people who lock their guns up or have a safe record of ownership. As John Gear, a consumer law specialist from Oregon, has noted, “Insurance is very effective in getting people to adopt safer practices in return for lower premiums.”
It should be acknowledged that the NRA's own "carry guard" insurance program, introduced to protect gun owners from legal expenses in the event they acted in "self defense," has come under regulatory scrutiny in New York and elsewhere, raising the question of just how strong the market is here. But what I’m suggesting (and I’m not the first) is a free-market strategy to curtail the unintended effects of supposedly useful and popular but also deeply dangerous and polarizing tools. As we know from marijuana and alcohol, outright prohibition almost inevitably fuels a black market. I would argue that a gun as popular and culturally resonant as the AR-15 would command a significant black market as well, should it ever be banned. But perhaps actuarial tables would do better than a ban ever could to keep AR-15s out of the hands of people who would use them to kill.
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