“What we know is that in States that have imposed those reasonable limitations, there are less gun crimes. There are less homicides.”
— Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), speaking on the Senate floor, June 15
Readers have asked for fact checks of some of the gun rhetoric used by Democrats in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando. In one case, we have already delved into this material, but other claims are new. So, let’s take a look, starting with Murphy’s statement.
Murphy’s staff said he was referring to a chart that appeared in the National Journal in 2015. As it turns out, we had carefully checked this chart when President Obama made a similar but more carefully phrased claim about “gun deaths.” Note that Murphy referred to “homicides” and “gun crimes.”
The data used in the National Journal chart calculates the number of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people by including all gun deaths, including homicides, suicides, accidental gun deaths and legal intervention involving firearms. We removed suicides from the totals and reran the numbers — and in some cases, it made a huge difference.
Alaska, ranked 50th on the National Journal list, moved up to 25th place. Utah, 31st on the list, jumped to 8th place. Hawaii remains in 1st place, but the top six now include Vermont, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Iowa and Maine. Indeed, half of the 10 states with the lowest gun-death rates turn out to be states with less-restrictive gun laws.
Meanwhile, Maryland — a more urban state — fell from 15th place to 45th, even though it has very tough gun laws. Illinois dropped from 11th place to 38th, and New York fell from 3rd to 15th.
Moreover, the counting of gun laws is certainly open to interpretation, so that also affects the outcome. It’s not enough to count laws to figure out the reasons gun deaths are lower in one state than another. One would need to specifically determine whether certain laws had an effect, over time, on the gun-death rate in a state.
There is some evidence this could be the case. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 2015 reported that data suggested that a 1995 Connecticut law requiring a permit or license, contingent on passing a background check and taking a gun-safety training course, led to a 40 percent decline in the homicide rate — whereas the researchers found a repeal of a similar law in Missouri led to an increase in the homicide rate.
But Murphy, in his statement, is extrapolating across the county–and not being as careful as Obama was with his language. He also stated it as an accepted fact — “what we know” — when the evidence is not so clear-cut. So, in this instance, Murphy’s claim is worthy of Three Pinocchios because he specifically referred to homicides, rather gun deaths.
“AR-15-style weapons weren’t legal in the United States until 2004 after being banned for 10 years. It is not coincidental that there was a massive increase in mass shootings in this country after 2004.”
— Murphy, June 15
This is another problematic claim. Murphy’s staff could not point to specific data to back it up.
There is significant contrary data that shows the 10-year assault weapons ban had little, if any, effect—though it should be noted that the ban was riddled with loopholes, allowing copycat weapons to be sold.
A 2004 study for the Justice Department found that the ban’s impact on gun violence was mixed, at best; if the ban were renewed, the “likely effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” The report said that assault weapons were “rarely used” in gun crimes.
James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor, collected data back to 1982 showing that assault weapons account for 24.6 percent of public mass shootings.
“Assault weapons are not as commonplace in mass shootings as some gun-control advocates believe,” Fox wrote in a 2012 article in the journal Homicide Studies. Instead, “semiautomatic handguns [47.9 percent] are far more prevalent in random massacres than firearms that would typically be classified as assault weapons.”
Did the assault weapons ban make a difference in mass shootings? Not significantly, according to Fox’s data. From 1976 to 1994, there were about 18 mass shootings per year. During the ban — 1995 to 2004 — there were about 19 incidents per year. After the ban, through 2011, the average went up to nearly 21.
A 2016 study published in Applied Economics by Benjamin M. Blau of Utah State University and colleagues also looked at whether state and federal laws on assault rifles affected whether the weapon was used in public shootings between 1982 and 2014.
“Our study seems to indicate that both the Federal assault rifle ban and individual State assault rifle bans do not affect the likelihood that an assault rifle was used in a mass shooting,” Blau said. “Said differently, these types of bans do not appear to deter the ‘use’ of an assault rifle during a mass shooting. In the data that we used, determining whether assault rifle bans (negatively) influenced the likelihood of the occurrence of a mass shooting was not conclusive.”
Now, as our colleague Christopher Ingraham has pointed out, assault-style rifles have been used in seven of the eight high-profile public mass shootings since July of last year. That certainly raises the profile of the weapon, but the data so far does not show a link between the use of the weapons and the lifting of the ban, as Murphy asserts.
“Here’s our bottom line: The statistics cited and stories told on Wednesday all show that it is undeniable that guns kill thousands of Americans every year,” said Murphy spokesman Chris Harris. “And that when you step back and look at the totality of the data, easier access to firearms by way of fewer regulations leads to an increase in gun deaths — both homicides and suicides. This is true in the U.S. when comparing state-to-state, and in comparing the U.S. to other nations.”
The Pinocchio Test
Murphy says it is “not coincidental” that mass shootings have increased since the ban was lifted. But the data shows that the ban was not particularly effective in the first place — and that mass shootings have not increased significantly since then. The data set is relatively small, and maybe something has changed in the past year. But for now this claim is worthy of Three Pinocchios.
“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”
— Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), quoting an “al-Qaeda spokesman” in a statement on the Senate floor, June 15, 2016
There was indeed an al-Qaeda spokesman, Adam Gadahn, who used this exact language in 2011. The American-born Gadahn was later killed in a drone strike in 2015. Here’s the clip:
But even terrorists get their facts wrong, which is why Senate leaders should not uncritically quote them. As Reid put it, “This terrorist was talking about the gun show loophole. He was specifically pointing to a flaw in our nation’s gun laws that allows convicted terrorists to slip through — and it’s a big, wide hole to slip through.”
Actually, you can’t buy a “fully automatic assault rifle” at a gun show. The al-Qaeda spokesman — and by extension Reid — are mixing up semiautomatic weapons and automatic weapons.
Semiautomatic, as defined by the 1968 Gun Control Act, means one pull of the trigger equates to one bullet leaving the barrel. Fully automatic rifles are available in the United States, but they require about six months of paperwork from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They are also significantly more expensive than their single-fire counterparts — and are banned in many states. Moreover, a 1986 law banned new ones, so any automatic weapon you purchased now would be an old one.
Still, one could purchase a semiautomatic weapon and then retrofit it with something called an “auto sear” that mimics an automatic weapon, though the weapon still fits the definition of a semiautomatic. This modification requires permission from ATF.
Here’s a video describing one of these products:
[Correction: An astute reader points out that that this product, the Slide Fire stock, is not an auto sear. “Bump fire” stocks such as the Slide Fire stock simulate automatic fire by allowing the shooter to automatically pull the trigger each time the gun recoils, but can also make the weapon quite inaccurate. It does not require ATF permission since the weapon is still not considered automatic. Meanwhile, an auto sear must be registered prior to May 19, 1986, and can only be transferred with permission of the ATF because once installed, the rifle is considered an automatic weapon.]
As for the so-called “gun show loophole,” this refers to private sales within state lines. Any licensed gun dealer at a gun show must run a background check. Anyone at a gun show selling to someone from out of state must run a background check. A number of states, including California and New York, require background checks for all gun transactions; other states require it only for handgun purchases. Some gun shows require background checks as a matter of policy, no matter what the state law says. So, again, Gadahn — and by extensive Reid — was speaking sloppily.
A Reid spokesman declined to provide an on-the-record comment.
The Pinocchio Test
It may not make sense to award Pinocchios to a dead al-Qaeda operative. In this case, Reid should have more clearly stated that Gadahn was not correct, even if he believes that his quote makes a noteworthy point. Reid quoted the “fully automatic” line twice without informing his listeners that this was not actually possible. Moreover, Reid made these comments in a prepared statement that was publicly issued as a news release — which could still be updated with a correction.
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