Semi-automatics causing deadliest mass shootings


There are no panaceas, especially not in the realm of public policy making, such as addressing the epidemic of gun-related deaths in the U.S. Clamping down on the private ownership of semi-automatic rifles is the place to start.

Semi-automatic weapons can fire only one round for each pull of the trigger but they can fire as quickly as a shooter can pull the trigger, limited by the capacity of the gun’s magazine. Semi-automatic rifles are like military assault rifles but not capable of fully automatic fire, unless they are modified, which is neither legal nor easily done. Currently, semi-automatic rifles and extended capacity magazines (some holding up to 100 rounds) are legal for civilian ownership. Full automatic weapons are not legal for civilian ownership in most cases.    

Advocates for unlimited gun rights base their opposition to any sort of gun-limiting legislation on the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right of civilians to own guns, of some type. The original proposal for a Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison in early 1789 and included 20 rights. Only 10 made it into the Constitution, of course.

The Founding Fathers were intelligent, far-sighted men, but they don’t seem to have been very good at imagining how technology would advance and shape the nation’s future, particularly as it applies to weaponry. At the time Madison was writing, firearms were vastly inferior to modern guns. A quick comparison of the 1790-era guns to modern guns is illustrative.

In 1790 both rifles (muskets) and hand guns were single-short, muzzle-loaded weapons. The best shooters could fire at most three rounds per minute. Ordinary folks would have trouble firing more than one round per minute. The maximum effective range of a musket was about 60 yards, whereas the typical assault style rifle is effective up to about 600 yards. Muskets’ muzzle velocity (the speed at which the bullet leaves the barrel) was about 1,200 ft/sec., whereas semi-automatic rifles’ muzzle velocity is around 4,000 ft/sec. Muskets were also much larger than many semi-automatic rifles, up to five feet long weighing some 14 pounds. Today’s military style rifles are about three feet long and weigh about half as much. There are similar differences between hand guns then and now.

While hand guns are overwhelming the weapons used in murders and suicides, semi-automatic rifles have been the weapons used in the most deadly shootings, such as those in Parkland and Las Vegas. According to a Washington Post online article, in the three most recent mass shootings, between them the three shooters killed 101 people with many other injuries. In all three cases, the shooter used a semi-automatic rifle. It is extremely unlikely so much carnage could have been done with lesser weapons; hand guns, hunting rifles or shotguns.

No single piece of legislation can possibly deal with all of the social pathologies involved in the gun violence epidemic. One piece must be very strict control of semi-automatic, military-style rifles and large capacity magazines. Granted, even completely removing all such guns would only put a dent in the rate at which we are killing each other and ourselves. But it would make it very unlikely a single shooter could kill so many so quickly.

Dealing with one-on-one shootings and suicides, in which hand guns are commonly used will require a very extensive, expensive set of policy initiatives, such as gun-owner licensing, greatly expanded mental health screening and treatment and thorough background checks. Nevertheless, outlawing civilian ownership of military style, high capacity rifles is low-hanging fruit. So far, we have shown the political will to do essentially nothing about gun violence, much less picking the low-hanging fruit. It’s way past time we started picking.

The views expressed are solely those of the author, a Millsaps professor, and  not representative of Millsaps College or its administration, faculty, staff or trustees.

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1. He drove a blue ‘77 Chevy Nova in high school. 2. He played on Jackson Prep’s 1985 and 1986 state championship basketball teams.