Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) unintentionally drew a round of raucous applause Wednesday night when he said at a CNN town hall gathering that, to effectively ban assault weapons, “you would literally have to ban every semiautomatic rifle that’s sold in America.”
But the latest available polling shows that, in fact, more than half of Americans say they would support an across-the-board ban on all semiautomatic weapons. And academics who study gun violence say that such a ban would be an effective way to combat mass shootings and gun violence overall.
Some definitions are in order. A semiautomatic weapon is any gun that fires one shot with a pull of the trigger and automatically reloads the gun's chamber with another round from a cartridge or magazine so that the gun can immediately be fired again.
The definition also covers virtually every handgun on the market today, as well as a number of common hunting rifles. It also includes military-style assault weapons, such as the AR-15 variant a shooter used to kill 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.
Common guns that aren't semiautomatic, on the other hand, include bolt- and lever-action hunting rifles, as well as certain types of revolvers.
A blanket ban on all semiautomatic weapons would be far more restrictive than the 1994 assault weapons ban, which covered certain types of semiautomatic rifles. As Rubio pointed out Wednesday night, Democratic lawmakers have largely shied away from supporting such a ban in the aftermath of major mass shootings.
That doesn't mean the idea is lacking public support, however. Pollsters don't ask about a comprehensive ban on semiautomatic firearms as frequently as they do about the more common assault weapons ban. But in 2016, Morning Consult and the New York Times asked registered voters whether they supported “banning the sale and ownership of all semi-automatic and automatic firearms.”
Nearly two-thirds — 63 percent — said they'd support such a ban to reduce gun homicides, and 62 percent said they would support it to reduce mass shootings.
Those numbers are considerably higher than the amount of support found for such a ban in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
In early 2013, CBS News, for instance, posed this question: “Do you favor or oppose a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons — including some rifles, pistols and shotguns — that have detachable magazines, allowing them to rapidly fire a high number of rounds?”
Forty-nine percent of respondents said they favored such a ban, with an equal amount opposing it.
Similarly, 58 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll taken around the same time said they supported “a ban on semiautomatic weapons,” with 39 percent opposing. And a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 50 percent supported “a nationwide ban on semiautomatic handguns, which automatically reload every time the trigger is pulled,” with 46 percent opposed.
It's unclear how these numbers might have evolved in the years since the Sandy Hook shooting, or whether most respondents fully understood the implications of banning most models of handguns sold in the United States. But it is clear that many, if not most, Americans support the idea in theory, putting it well within the mainstream of the current political debate.
Similarly, in 2016 the New York Times polled a panel of 32 gun violence experts from across the ideological spectrum on a variety of measures intended to prevent gun violence overall and mass shootings in particular.
Those experts ranked a ban on semiautomatic guns as one of the most effective tools for mitigating gun violence, putting it well above a more narrow assault weapons ban on that measure. And when it came to preventing mass shootings specifically, both the broad ban on semiautomatic guns and the assault weapons ban fared even better, tied for first place with a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on all sales to violent criminals.
So it's inaccurate to portray a blanket ban on semiautomatic firearms as a fringe idea. The latest available polling shows that a majority of Americans support it at least in theory, and experts rank it as an effective tool for limiting the toll of gun violence and mass shootings.