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Going off the rails with the Second Amendment: Its the assault weapons, stupid

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
The incontrovertible conclusion about American violence is that we have far and away the highest number of mass killings in the world and those killings are taking place at the hands of attackers with assault weapons.

Welcome to Part 5 of my series and about the Second Amendment and gun violence in the United States. In the previous four parts I explored the history, nature, legal realities and surrealities of the Second Amendment itself. You can go back and look at that here if you’d like.

The short story regarding the Second Amendment is that it was NOT meant to bestow the individual right to own a gun in the United States. The Second Amendment was about creating and maintaining State Militias and equipping them for the common defense. Primarily the Amendment was about reassuring slave states that Federal government wouldn’t interfere with their ability to suppress slave rebellions. Over the centuries the historical and legal realities of the Second Amendment have diverged. Contrary to the historical reality, the legal reality is that the Second Amendment currently guarantees some individual rights to own guns. However the exact nature of those rights and what kinds of guns they may apply to remains murky.

It’s important to understand the real nature of the second amendment because it may ultimately determine whether we succeed or fail to control gun violence in America. A broad ruling that gun restrictions are unconstitutional could put assault weapons in the hands of mass murderers for decades to come. We await the rulings of the future with our fingers crossed. In the meantime we turn our attention to the carnage assault weapons have unleashed upon us.

For decades Americans have debated the nature and causes of national crises from Watergate to welfare. One of the most enduring and vitriolic debates of recent decades has been the nature and causes of violence and gun violence. In the 1960s and 70s the U.S. started experiencing a number of crime waves and horrific individual acts of violence. Predictably this trend provoked battle after battle in an ongoing war of words concerning gun control. Recent episodes of savagery at the hands of gun wielding maniacs have stunned the nation yet again and triggered a fresh debate about gun control and violence. Unfortunately the nature and capacity of public discourse in the United States has degenerated to the point where simply recognizing the true nature of a national problem has become nearly impossible. What exactly is the nature and scope and of the gun problem in America? Are we just a violent nation that happens to have a lot of guns? Do the guns make us more violent than other societies? Unless we get a handle on the actual nature of the problem we cannot hope make any reasonable public policy that addresses it.

Evaluating the level and nature of violence in the United States and comparing it to other countries or regions is actually a very complex proposition. There are a number of variables any statistical analysis must contend with, some are easily isolated and controlled for and others aren’t. The 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime collects data on a yearly basis and reports it. However UNODC points out that things like intentional homicide rates can be complicated by a nations standards and even their health care systems. For instance an affluent country may have lower homicide rates simply because it has better emergency medical services that a poorer country. This can create the illusion based on homicide rates that one country is less violent than another simply because fewer people actually die as the result of homicide attempts. When evaluating violence and gun violence it’s important to compare apples and apples as best as we can, which means looking at studies that control for population and other variables, you can’t just look at raw numbers.

Is the United States a violent country?

Many Americans might be surprised to learn that the United States is not the most violent country in the world. According to data collected by the United Nations, the US Center for Disease Control, and the FBI, the United States is actually not a particularly violent country. Many Countries are far more violent, and many are less violent. A recent British study looking 34 comparable countries found that amongst six categories of violent crime (intentional homicide, rape, robbery, assault causing serious bodily harm, burglary, and vehicle theft) the United States does not rank number one in any category. In fact in the category of assault and car theft the United States Ranked behind 16 and 12 other countries respectively. In this particular study Scotland had he highest rates of assault… go figure. A larger United Nations study looking at intentional homicides found that the United States ranks 109 out of 193 (just about in the middle). The intentional homicide rate in the United States is 4.8 per 100,000. The dubious 1st prize go to Honduras with stunning rate of 91.6 per 100,00. The lowest Homicide rates belong to Manaco and Palau with 0 per 100,000. Are there even 100,000 people in Palau?

What do guns have to do with violent crime rates? It’s actually surprisingly difficult establish a connection between something like gun ownership rates and violent crime. The United State by far has the highest rate of guns per capita than any other country in the world. Its estimate that the United State has around 270 million guns in civilian hands, that’s 89 guns for every 100 people in the country. The Next closest countries are Serbia and Yemen with around 50 guns per 100.

gun ownership chart

Source: Wikipedia

However despite all of our guns we do not have the highest violence crime, homicide, or even homicide with gun rates. The United Kingdom with a gun ownership rate that’s a fraction of ours (.07 per 100) has by some measures a violent crime 400% higher than the United States at 2,034 per 100,000 vs. 466 per 100,000. If we narrow our examination down to actual homicides committed with guns no real pattern emerges. The United States has around 3 gun homicides per 100,000. It may not be surprising that the United Kingdom with a fraction of a fraction of the number of guns only has .07 gun homicides per 100,000. However Venezuela has 39 gun murders per 100,000 despite having a much lower rate of gun ownership (about 10 per 100) than the US, although not as low as the UK. You can find a really cool interactive version of this map here.

map of gun homicides

Source: Datablog

There are some technical problems associated with these comparisons but it seems clear that it’s hard to draw reliable statistical connections between the sheer number of guns in the United States and our violent crime or homicide rates. Granted our rates are higher than those in Europe but given the fact that we have almost 90 times the number of guns per capita it’s kind of amazing the rates aren’t much much higher. I’m not saying everything is peachy, it would be better if we had less violence and homicides no matter how low our levels are. It is somewhat encouraging to note that both our rate of gun ownership and violent have been decreasing in recent years. Nevertheless it’s not entirely clear that our violent crime rates would significantly drop unless we get rid of 99% of our guns, and even then the results would not be guaranteed. Brazil has one ninth our number of guns per capita yet 70% of their homicides are committed with guns and they have six times as many of those homicides. Welcome to the Olympics by the way. Some comparisons seem contradictory, Sweden has 30 times the number of guns compared to the UK but actually has a smaller rate of gun homicides.

There are some studies that look at American cities and compare states within the US, but no real clear pattern emerges with dramatic results. The states with the most guns per capita are not the states with the highest gun homicide rates for instance.

Undoubtedly the number of guns floating around in a population tends to increase the amount of gun violence as a general rule although maybe not as dramatically as might be assumed; it’s a question of degree. While the United States may not have the highest violent crime rates, the sheer number of guns in the United States creates real problems. Any significant reduction in gun violence might require far more drastic measures than anyone is currently or has ever contemplated. In order to get down to European levels of homicide we might have to get more than 250 million guns out of American hands, good luck with that, and there’s no guarantee that it would work. It’s possible that even if we reduced gun ownership by 90% we could still have the same homicide rates in the United States. Note: there is absolutely no data anywhere that indicates that putting more guns in more hands will decrease gun violence or homicides. There isn’t a single country in the world that has more guns than the United States and lower homicide rates. If more guns in more hands with less regulations decreased gun violence Louisiana wouldn’t have the highest homicide rate in the country. We can say with a lot of confidence that more guns means more gun violence with a few exceptions, we just can’t reliably predict how much more violence. Conversely it’s difficult to predict how much gun violence would decrease along with decreases in gun ownership.

While the nature of over-all gun violence and its relationship to gun ownership is too complex to succumb to simple analysis, there is one body of data and information regarding American gun violence that is absolutely clear and unambiguous.

Assault weapons and mass shootings

If we redirect our attention from “guns” in general and gun violence in general towards a specific kind of gun and gun violence, the fog of complexity lifts and we are left with the sight of a clear and present danger.

The United States has far more mass shootings and fatalities from mass shooting than any other country in the world, and those shooting are primarily committed with assault weapons. Despite only having 4.5% of the world’s population more or less over the last 87 years, the United States accounts for 33% of all mass killings by a single individual. The US has had more children killed in school attacks than the rest of the world combined and accounts for 50% of the world’s workplace mass killings. The United States has had 75% of all the mass shootings in this hemisphere. No country or region has a higher rate of these attacks or killings than does the United States.

Although the records we’re referring to here go back to 1925 the era of mass attacks by individuals clearly began in the US in 1966 with University of Texas attack by Charles Whitman. Whitman killed 14 people on campus and two off campus while wounding 32. If we graph school shootings going all the back to 1764 (Using the School Shooting Wikepedia as our source of information) the pattern is unmistakable: (click on the image to see a larger version)

school shooting chart

As you can see from 1966 onward we entered an era of school shootings that increase in frequency after 1989. The number of fatalities and casualties also begins to increase in 1989. That event in 1764 was part of an Indian war, and the event in 1927 was actually a dynamite attack by a disgruntled school accountant. If we were to remove those the pattern would be even more striking.

So what happened in the early 1960s? What accounts for the high number of casualties and fatalities? Obviously this is a complex development but one element we can identify is the introduction of military style assault weapons into civilian population. Whitman climbed up into that clock tower on the University of Texas carrying a small arsenal of guns, two of which were military weapons (an M-1 carbine and a Luger pistol). Thereafter as the frequency and body count increase so does the presence of assault weapons. 71% of the attacks involving 5 or more fatalities involve assault weapons. After 2001 all but one attack involving 5 or more fatalities involves an assault weapon.

What is an assault weapon? The definition I’m working with is as follows: An assault weapon is any 20th century weapon designed for military combat or derived from such a design. Most of the assault rifles for instance are derived from the WWII German MP44 or the American M-1 Garand. I also include clip fed semi-automatic pistols most of which descend from the 1911 Colt 45 that was designed as a military side arm.

Couldn’t these killings take place without these weapons? In most cases the answer is simply: “no”. While the original attack in 1966 didn’t rely heavily on assault weapons by the time we see that spike in late 80s attackers are relying on assault weapons to kill as many people as possible in a short time. Couldn’t attackers kill people with pencils and knives? Sure, and they could attack people with their thumbs as well, but they wouldn’t kill very many people.

We actually have data on this: Since 1995 there have been 21 attacks on schools in China. The total fatalities thus far amount to 59. The highest fatality count in any single attack was 12 and in 11 of the 21 attacks there were no fatalities at all. In the last two years alone there have been a series of attacks in China yielding 25 fatalities. How is it that one guy can walk into one school in the United States and kill more children in 20 minutes than multiple attackers over course of two years in China? The attackers in China are using everything from cans of gasoline to meat cleavers but what they DON’T have is assault weapons. Even attackers using hand grenades are killing fewer people than are American gunmen with assault weapons. Couldn’t attackers use different guns? Sure they could, look at the graph, prior to 1966 they WERE using different guns, shot guns, 22’s, revolvers… then in 1966 they start using assault weapons and you can see what happens.

Assault weapons are designed specifically for combat. They are designed to kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. Everything about assault weapons from the rate of fire, to the magazine size, to the rapid nature of reloading is designed for combat. No other type of gun, and few other weapons of any kind can perform with such lethal efficiency in the hands of a single attacker.

It maybe difficult to draw conclusions about American gun violence in general. Americans are certainly the most heavily armed people in the world but some countries are more violent and some countries less. Nevertheless the incontrovertible conclusion about American violence is that we have far and away the highest number of mass killings in the world and those killings are taking place at the hands of attackers with assault weapons. Without those weapons attackers would simply not be able kill as many people.

Next week in the final installment I’ll look what we can or should do about these weapons. We’ll talk a little more about the definition of assault weapons, and we’ll talk about some ways we might be able to decrease their numbers and control their circulation.

This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/31/2013 - 03:16 pm.

    The Source of Your Definition?

    What is the source for your definition of an assault weapon? It does not agree with the definition used by the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban; nor does it find company with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s recent gun ban bill proposal. A side note regarding the latter; I just read the list of 157 firearms on Senator Feinstein’s list. I didn’t get far before encountering a 22 caliber rifle. The squirrels of America will owe her a debt of gratitude if she can get this bill passed and signed.

    Let’s consider what mass murderers did in 2012 in America. One shot moviegoers seated in rows and columns of immoveable chairs; another shot small children trapped in a school classroom. Neither 20th nor 21st century arms are essential to killing in these scenarios. For instance, wheel guns and pump action shotguns, 19th century firearms, are quite lethal against trapped victims at close range. Wheel guns are light and easily concealed; some are equipped with interchangeable wheels (preloaded).

    You made passing mention above of the largest mass murder at a school in the United States, in which no one was shot. It seems to get forgotten that the most dangerous weapons brought to Columbine High School the day of the killings were not guns. Two bombs made from 20-pound propane canisters were placed in the cafeteria during lunch time. It was only after the killers failed to detonate the bombs that they opened fire on their classmates.

    Why not discuss ways of preventing or reducing attacks, rather than accepting them, with a goal of reducing the body count?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/31/2013 - 08:39 pm.

    Definitions and reality


    I wrote this definition of assault weapons. We can’t deal with Wheel gun shootings that happen in your imagination, we must cope the ones that take place in the real world. As far as I know no one has foreclosed any conversations about reducing the number of attacks as well as the number of fatalities.

    • Submitted by Marc Masnor on 02/12/2013 - 02:59 am.

      You redefined and you reinterpreted

      You created your own definition of an assault weapon.
      The definition is contrary to the military definition.

      You interpreted your own meaning of the 2nd Amendment.
      The interpretation is contrary to the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

      While I read your story, I can’t imagine why anyone would take you seriously, or be upset, or try to argue with you. You will spin any argument and rebut any facts that don’t match your thinking. You seem to have an agenda and no one will be able to change your mind.

      Have a nice day.

  3. Submitted by John Samanna on 02/01/2013 - 05:37 am.

    Going off the rails about gun

    If one were to actually use the scientific method to determine causation of gun violence one would break out of the propaganda stream for thirty seconds and come up with some interesting questions.

    Gun ownership was static throughout the 1900’s. It is not as though there has been a tremendous spike in per capita gun ownership that somehow relates to the alarming frequency of gun violence incidence in the past 20 years.

    If the guns were always there but the violence has fluctuated (according to FBI statistics) and has sharply increased in recent years, the scientific mind should inquire to determine which other variable(s) are influencing the outcome of the experiment (the increase in gun violence).

    It is worth noting that violence of all kinds has increased significantly, regardless of the rates of gun possession. Why has murder from weapons other than guns increased dramatically over the past couple of decades? Why has domestic violence increased dramatically? Why has child abuse increased dramatically?

    Career academics at reputable universities have come up with some scientifically tenable theories. The Merva-Fowles study is a great start. Our own law enforcement agencies provide a much different analysis than you do. The joint research study put together by the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, and the Department of Education titled ‘campus attacks’ shows fairly clearly in tables 2 and 3 that the number of campus attacks resulting in homicide spiked by over 100% starting in 2008. Can we think of anything else that might have happened in 2008? The beginning of the recession is a big one that I can think of. That is not an unrelated coincidence if the Merva-Fowles study is taken into consideration.

    It appears if one were to use science to solve social problems, it would be far more effective and make a whole lot more sense to start talking about ‘inequality control’ as opposed to ‘gun control’.

    Even if you can artificially influence gun violence through gun control mechanisms, the causation is not being addressed and it would be like trying to cure a bad case of AIDS with Tylenol.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/01/2013 - 08:53 am.

      Root Cause Analysis

      John makes an important point regarding causation.

      In the engineering world, we use a method of attacking problems called Root Cause Analysis. This method seeks to focus corrective actions on causes instead of symptoms. A symptoms focus may provide some relief by suppressing the problem, but until the root cause is identified and understood, real progress will be elusive, and problem suppression will likely be temporal.

      Sometimes, duct tape addresses the root cause, but other times it does not.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/01/2013 - 07:25 am.

    Have you been off of the media grid?

    Franken introduces student mental health bill:

    This legislation is aimed at identifying and helping young people with issues that can lead to violence.

    Many police in the United States and other places carry wheel guns, yet they don’t meet your definition of an assault weapon. Smith & Wesson makes several .38 Special wheel guns which are popular with law enforcement. In the mass murder scenarios of Aurora and Newtown, wheel guns are no less lethal than AR-15 rifles.

    The fact that you have introduced yet another definition of “assault weapon” to the conversation does nothing to move it forward. Our cousins in the UK are way out ahead of you; after banning and confiscating handguns in 1997, they moved quickly to reclassify some kitchen tools as “assault knives”.

    As reported in this BBC article, some Brits became gravely concerned with the included angle on the tips of kitchen knives.

    “A team from West Middlesex University Hospital said violent crime is on the increase – and kitchen knives are used in as many as half of all stabbings. They argued many assaults are committed impulsively, prompted by alcohol and drugs, and a kitchen knife often makes an all too available weapon. The research is published in the British Medical Journal. The researchers said there was no reason for long pointed knives to be publicly available at all. They consulted 10 top chefs from around the UK, and found such knives have little practical value in the kitchen. None of the chefs felt such knives were essential, since the point of a short blade was just as useful when a sharp end was needed.”

    I find it curious that these 10 top chefs live on an island, but have never fileted a large fish. “No legitimate purpose.” Whether protecting your home or gutting a fish, should the government be the arbiter of what you need, and more importantly, what you don’t need?

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/01/2013 - 10:11 am.

    Science and Data and bad assumption

    Good science is NOT based on bad assumptions. John states that the rates of gun ownership have remained stable throughout the 20th century, this is simply wrong. Between 1937 and 1963 for instance ownership of handguns in the US increased 250%. Likewise ownership of assault rifles has obviously increased by several hundred percent since 1960 since such ownership has gone from near zero to nearly 3 million. Regardless of over-all rates of gun ownership the analysis clearly reveals that assault weapons are the weapon of choice for the majority of attackers in mass shootings.

    Now it’s true that in recent decades over-all gun ownership has declined, but if you want to play that game I’ll point out that violent crime has also declined along with gun ownership. Nevertheless the claim that gun ownership has remained flat is simply mistaken. The extent to which over-all gun ownership is correlated with violent crime and homicide is a complex question, but you can’t make the problem go away by making false claims about ownership rates.

  6. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/03/2013 - 12:45 pm.


    Paul, if you aren’t finding a link between higher gun ownership and more violent crime, then why are you pushing for gun control? Shouldn’t the scientific method push you towards other means of preventing crime?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/05/2013 - 08:33 am.


    Peder, we’re talking about mass shootings not “crime”. Obviously gun control has the capacity to reduce shootings since shooting cannot take place without gun. This is why England has a much much much lower rate of gun homicide than the US.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/05/2013 - 11:15 pm.

      Violent Crime

      Yes, the UK has a much lower rate of gun homicide and mass killing. But while the violent crime in the US is dropping, it’s rising over there. Now, I don’t want to over do that connection. The world is clearly a hugely complex thing and we can’t really reduce an entire country (much less two) to a single statistic. But we know that some violent crimes in the US are prevented by guns. Those same actions in the UK don’t lead to gun deaths but they do lead to assault, rape, etc. We shouldn’t just dismiss this.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/06/2013 - 08:44 am.

        I don’t dismiss it

        Peder it looks like you didn’t actually read my article. Again, I’m not making a simple connection between gun ownership and crime or even violent crime. I’m establishing a connection between assault weapons and mass shootings.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/06/2013 - 10:47 am.

          “connection between assault weapons and mass shootings.”

          In December, Mother Jones News published a “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America”,

          It provides some graphs that show the scale of the problem. MJ did not include their definition of “assault weapon”, but as the numbers indicate, it doesn’t matter much. Over the 30 year span from 1982 – 2012, there were 35 mass shootings with “assault weapons”; an average of one per year. It is tough to make a connection with a statistically insignificant sample size.

          The focus of the White House to address a problem that occurs an average of once per year; it is unprecedented. 90-100 Americans will die on the roads today, some of them will be children. Many of these deaths are preventable, yet there is no outrage.

          • Submitted by Tim Walker on 02/07/2013 - 07:48 am.

            No outrage? Nonsense!

            Steve writes: “90-100 Americans will die on the roads today, some of them will be children. Many of these deaths are preventable, yet there is no outrage.”

            Can you cite a poll saying that there is no outrage?

            I, for one, am outraged every time I hear or read about a preventable road death, whether it be a child not buckled in dying in a crash, a drunk or stoned parent killing his or her children in a crash, or a helmet-less child dying in an ATV rollover or a motorcycle crash.

            Yeah, you’d better bet that I’m outraged when these things happen, and I dare say I’m not alone.

            So, again, where’s your proof that there is “no outrage” when these things happen?


            • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/11/2013 - 07:16 am.

              Proving a Negative

              You are right Tim, I cannot cite a poll. As we all know, all truths are supported by a poll.

              I will take the silence from the White House, including the recent state of the union address, as proof that reduction of accidental deaths is not a high priority.

              Proof of the outrage, where is it?

  8. Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/07/2013 - 08:48 am.

    The Proof is in the Action

    I have provided an excerpt below from this Reuter’s article:

    “With Biden at his side, Obama said the group would give him proposals he could outline in his State of the Union speech in late January. Cabinet members involved include Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

    “This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now,” Obama said.”

    No mention of children dying on our roads in the state of the union address; no panel with Cabinet members looking into the daily carnage on our highways. If there is the outrage you claim, provide some examples, and some evidence that the White House is responding. Surely, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should have this safety issue as a top priority.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/07/2013 - 12:41 pm.


    Does someone really have to explain the difference between dying in an accidental car crash and being murdered with an assault rifle? We don’t have to justify our concern about assault weapons. And we don’t have to prevent every other conceivable type of death on the planet before we’re allowed to contemplate gun control.

    Again, in my article I point out that the US has had more children killed in mass shootings than the rest of the world combined, we’ve had 50% of the workplace shooting, despite having only 4.5% of the world population. Comparisons with falling televisions and car crashes are irrelevant, this is a phenomena in it’s own right. Maybe some people don’t care, but we gonna talk about it anyways.

  10. Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/07/2013 - 01:54 pm.

    Tell that to a parent that has lost a child to accidental death

    “Look on the bright side, your baby didn’t get shot at school!”

    According to an NPR report:

    “Nearly a million children worldwide die every year as a result of unintentional injuries, and the biggest killer is traffic accidents, according to a report from the World Health Organization.

    The report said traffic accidents, followed by drowning, fires and burns, falls, and poisoning, are the five major causes of unintentional injuries. About 830,000 children under 18 die every year, and millions more children suffer disabling injuries that could have been prevented, says Dr. Etienne Krug, the director of the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at WHO.”

    When we ask ourselves, what should we talk about, the school shootings or a problem that claims 1000X or 10,000X the number of children? We choose school shootings, because our solution, arguably unproductive or counterproductive, is well aligned with what we want, with our vision of a utopian society. There is not a veneer thick enough that can be applied to your argument to not focus on the big problems.

    Talk about what ever you like, but some of us see right through your crystal veneer. Seizing on tragedy and the suffering of others, you toil to accomplish your longstanding goals of limiting the freedom of others.

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