Let’s have a national conversation about gun control.

Let’s have a national conversation about gun control.

But let’s have an informed, rational conversation. Let’s not let our justified horror over recent events overshadow our responsibility to consider facts when making national policy decisions; let’s make those decisions based on reality, rather than on our emotional reactions born of our natural grief.

I’d like to discuss a lot of common misconceptions I’ve been reading lately, to dispel some myth, and to attempt to discuss gun control on a more rational basis.

I’ve heard it said that “this is not the time” to talk about firearms facts. I disagree. I think that this is exactly the time, because this is exactly the time at which people will be using these misconceptions to potentially affect policies, and I’d like to see any policy changes we make be informed by actual facts, rather than misconceptions and emotion.


I’ve seen a lot of people (Rupert Murdoch is the obvious high-profile example) talking about the need to ban “automatic weapons,” when, in fact, they’ve been banned since 1934, and in fact, no fully-automatic weapons have been used in mass shooting in the USA since then. (Not even the recent one that was committed at an Army base by an active-duty military officer.)

These people are almost certainly confusing “automatic weapons” (those which fire rapid bursts of rounds with a single continuous trigger pull) with “semi-automatic weapons” (those which use the action of one shot to re-cock the weapon and load the next round into the chamber).

The contrast to a semi-automatic handgun would be a revolver. (Revolvers come in two flavors: single-action and double-action. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll consider double-action revolvers only.) For a semi-automatic rifle, it would be a bolt-action or lever-action rifle (think old-west style here). (Or a muzzle-loader, I guess. For purposes of modern gun control discussion, I won’t even bother to mention muzzle-loaders again.) For a shotgun, it would be a pump-action shotgun.

There are two main differences between semi-automatic weapons and their non-semi-automatic counterparts: rate of fire and capacity.

As to rate of fire, from slowest to fastest, the various mechanisms would likely rank as follows: bolt-action, lever-action, revolver, pump-action, semi-automatic. (The ordering of the last two are arguable.)

As to capacity, the difference is not so much the action as it is the loading mechanism. The loading mechanism on nearly all semi-automatic weapons (except semi-automatic shotguns) is a magazine. These come in capacities from about 3 rounds on up. Magazines of more than 10 rounds were banned between 1994-2004. Magazines of more than 20 rounds, while no longer banned, are not readily available (to my knowledge) for most guns. Capacities of between 7 and 17 rounds are the most common. Most bolt-action rifles also use magazines, like their semi-automatic counterparts.

By contrast, revolvers tend to have capacities between 5 and 7 rounds, and these capacities are not readily expandable. Pump-action shotguns tend to use a tubular magazine under the barrel, with a capacity between 3 and about 10 shells (these also tend not to be readily expandable).

I’ve seen a lot of comments about “assault weapons”, without a lot of discussion about what those are. The Wikipedia article on the Federal Assault Weapons Ban discusses this at length. The long and short of it is that the definition hinges on cosmetic features and on magazine capacity. It is important to note that “assault weapons” are not fully-automatic weapons, which have been banned since 1934.

OK, but what should we do?

It seems that there are basically six questions we should answer before we decide what policies to change or enact.

1. Should we ban private gun ownership entirely?

Some people think we should. Personally, I’m undecided. Practically, we should admit to ourselves that at least in the USA, this will never actually fly. To do this, we’d need to repeal the 2nd Amendment, and frankly that just isn’t going to happen.

2. Should we ban based on capacity?

This seems to be a very popular idea. Personally, I’m not completely convinced. The thought process here seems to be that the shooter in a mass shooting wouldn’t be able to shoot as many victims if they can’t carry a high-capacity magazine.

But in many of these incidents, such as the 1991 Luby’s massacre in Killeen, TX, the shooter is said to have calmly reloaded their weapon; in most, the shooters used multiple weapons. My guess is that limiting magazine capacity will just motivate perpetrators to bring more magazines, or just bring more guns. However, It could also be argued that limiting magazine capacity, forcing shooters to reload or switch weapons, potentially gives other people at the scene an opportunity to intervene and overpower (or shoot back at) the shooter.

The shooter in the aforementioned Luby’s incident in Killeen paused to reload multiple times without being confronted; that would argue against the theory that reloading presents an opening. However, one person present at the scene, Suzanna Hupp, argued that the law requiring her to keep her own gun in her car (rather than on her person) was what prevented her from stopping the shooter, and that if she had had her gun, she could have stopped him (and she successfully campaigned for that law to be changed). Nick Meli, who was present at the recent shootings at Clackamas Mall in Oregon, believes that the fact that the shooter in the mall saw him pull out his own gun may have caused the shooter to give up sooner than he otherwise might have.

On balance, my guess is that limiting firearms capacity would have a net positive effect in reducing the victim count of mass shooting incidents. So I’d be in favor of such a move, reluctantly (because I am not 100% convinced).

What I am 100% convinced of is that we should have a discussion based on honest discussion of the issue, rather than emotional reactions.

3. Should we ban based on firing rate (or mechanism)?

Do we believe that it will make a difference? Most of these events take place over enough time that you would have a hard time convincing me that the firing rate of the weapon mechanism was itself the limiting factor in how rapidly the shooter fired shots.

Personally, my feeling is that this would make absolutely no difference at all, and I am therefore against it.

However, if a convincing, logical argument could be made that this would actually make a difference, I’d like to hear it, and might change my mind.

If we want to do this, let’s have that discussion and hear that argument. Let’s not just do it while weeping “think of the children!” We do not honor their memory by overreacting on their imagined behalf.

4. Should we ban based on cosmetic features?

It would seem that the obvious answer to this question is “no.”

I’m actually not so sure.

It’s clear that (almost by definition) the people who perpetrate these acts are mentally or emotionally unbalanced. I think it’s entirely possible that the cosmetic features of the weapons they use contributes to their state of mind in deciding to commit these heinous acts. The Fort Hood shooter reportedly asked for “the most technologically advanced weapon on the market”, and fitted it with not one, but two laser sights—which he then did not actually use in the shooting, except to threaten a potential victim by sweeping the dot over his face (and then didn’t fire).

So my personal feeling is that this might actually help. Opinions are widely divided on whether the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (which did basically ban weapons on cosmetic features in addition to magazine capacity limits) did or did not have a positive effect on gun violence.

Again, this is a discussion we should have— but again, we should have it openly, rationally and honestly.

5. Should we have stricter licensing of firearms?

Should we limit access to firearms by those who are mentally or emotionally unstable?

As we’ve said above, it’s clear that the perpetrators of mass shooting are mentally or emotionally unbalanced. I don’t know anybody who seriously argues that people who are known to be mentally or emotionally unbalanced should have easy access to firearms; even the die-hard NRA elite don’t have an issue with prohibiting convicted violent felons from owning guns.

But: should we do more extensive background checks for those purchasing firearms? Should we do not just background checks, but psychological examinations of firearms purchasers? Should we issue licenses that must be renewed periodically, with psychological testing for renewal (to catch those who develop issues after purchase)?

Personally, I don’t have a problem with background and psych testing for firearms purchases, or even renewable licenses with retesting. Naturally this would necessitate tracking purchases, so that we could require those who fail their tests to divest themselves of their guns.

This gets into a very sensitive area; people are naturally very suspicious of their government tracking gun ownership. The general sentiment goes that if the government tracks all guns, that just makes it easier to round ’em all up when the other shoe drops. Personally I find that to be an overly paranoid point of view; I would like to think that the era of changing the political regime in the United States by force is over, and that our system of democratic elections and changing the government by peaceful political action could, after 200+ years, safely be considered “no longer an experiment.”

It also doesn’t solve the problem of unstable people taking guns from stable ones, by stealth, trickery or force. But clearly it would help quite a bit; as Mother Jones points out, more than three quarters of mass shooters over the last 30 years obtained their guns legally.

I would therefore vote for stricter gun licensing laws.

6. Should we improve access to mental health care?

Oh hell yes.

As I’ve said repeatedly, it is obvious that these shooters are mentally and/or emotionally impaired. Many of them were known to be unstable before they committed their crimes, but were largely untreated.

Because mental illness so often goes unreported/undiagnosed, it is hard to say what the real prevalence of it is. Because of the social stigma attached to mental illness (and treatment by psychologists/psychiatrists), many people who may benefit from such treatment refuse to seek it. In addition, the nature of many such illnesses is such that the illness itself causes the sufferer to believe that there is nothing wrong with them, or that treatment will be ineffective (depression is notorious for making sufferers believe that treatment would be futile).

But even depression is much more prevalent than people realize. It is estimated that one in six adults will experience major depressive disorder in their lifetime, with 6.7% of the adult population experiencing depression in a given 12-month period, with less than half of those receiving adequate treatment. This means that there are 6-7 million depressed adults in the US who are receiving inadequate treatment for depression alone.

We desperately need to remove the social stigma of diagnosis with mental and emotional disorders, and actively work to improve the treatment (and rate of treatment) of those suffering from them.


I’m generally in favor of stricter gun control; limits on magazine capacity, licensing, and even cosmetic features, but generally not firing rate/mechanism (except full-auto, of course, which is not at issue).

But I’d like to think that we can have a rational policy discussion, rather than rely on emotional reactions.

I’m also very much in favor of improved mental health access (and diagnosis), and I believe that that, possibly in combination with gun control, would do more to curb violent crime than gun control alone.