Presidential candidate Joe Biden just did an op-ed in the New York Times on his desire to see assault weapons banned. In it, he argued that the assault weapons ban (a ban that really just banned the sale of such weapons) that was passed back in 1994 did indeed work. Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, there are a lot of claims in his opinion piece that, well, are not true. Let’s go through them.
First, in not necessarily an outright claim, but rather a subtlety, Mr. Biden hints that assault weapons and mass shootings go along with each other. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that the majority of mass shootings over the past 40 years were carried out using handguns. In fact, assault weapons (an arbitrary term in itself) were used in 25% of mass shootings. Still a significant number no doubt. Sure, but people don’t realize that potential perpetrators can easily switch to handguns if assault weapons are not available. In fact, it may come as a shock to some people (including myself) that shootings carried out with handguns have been notably more lethal. This particular fact is damning to those who make the seemingly intuitive argument that assault weapons allow shooters to kill more people. Mr. Biden cites research to claim that assault weapons are more deadly in mass shootings, but he fails to realize that “high capacity” guns are not necessarily assault weapons, something I’m sure many people ignorant of the subject mistakenly believe.
Then, Mr. Biden moves back to the assault weapons ban of 1994. “We now know that [the ban] did make a difference,” says Biden. Do we? To answer this question we first have to ask, how do we measure if the ban worked? Do we say it did if assault weapons that were banned were used less in committing murder? No, I don’t believe that is an effective measurement. If murder rates using assault weapons goes down, but murder rates using other guns goes up, have we actually solved the problem? This is what actually happened during the ban’s duration (until 2004).
Finally, Mr. Biden argues that the assault weapons ban reduced mass shootings. First of all, this claim is dependent on your definition of mass shooting, an inherent problem in research done on the problem. Many studies use 3 deaths, excluding the perpetrator, as a definition, but most people prefer the use of 4 deaths, excluding the perpetrator. Biden cites a study done by Charles DiMaggio, which looked not at mass shootings, but at mass shooting deaths. Jacob Sullum, of Reason Magazine, details the problems of the study, one that DiMaggio himself even said does not answer the question of causality rather than correlation. Here is Jacob Sullum:
“The study, in other words, looked not at the number of mass shootings, as Biden claims, but the number of mass-shooting deaths as a share of all firearm homicides. The difference in total fatalities during the period when the ban was in effect amounted to 15 fewer deaths over a decade, or 1.5 a year on average, including mass shootings that did not involve weapons covered by the ban. That’s based on a comparison of deaths from 1981 through 1993 to deaths from 1994 through 2004, the year the ban expired. Leaving aside the fact that the pre-ban period is two years longer than the ban period, “the drop of 15 mass shooting deaths from before the ban to during it is a slender difference on which to base firm conclusions,” as Jon Greenberg notes in a recent Politifact analysis.”
There you have it. Joe Biden hardly concerned himself with finding data directly pertinent to the claim he was making. And, as I suggested earlier, all of this is ignoring the inherent arbitrariness of his use of the term “assault weapons.”