Ten Miles Square


December 17, 2012 9:57 AM Why The Second Amendment Rulings May Make a Ban on Assault Weapons More Likely

By Erik Voeten

In the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy, several experts argue that new gun control measures are unlikely to succeed in part because of recent Court rulings that have strengthened the second amendment, including last week’s Seventh Circuit ruling written by Richard Posner (who cited this Monkey Cage post in the opinion!). I suspect this is true for some gun control measures but not for others. Indeed, it may strengthen the case for some forms of gun control.

Consider a ban on “assault weapons,” something that plausibly could have prevented  yesterday’s tragedy or could have limited the number of victims.  There is no defensive rationale for owning semi-automatic weapons that hold 10 rounds or more. No-one hunts with these weapons. People may enjoy owning them and shooting them but that is a fairly limited rationale. The case against a ban on semi-automatic weapons rests strongly on a “slippery slope” logic: the idea that once you start outlawing some weapons legislators will gradually impose more severe restrictions.

Recent Supreme Court rulings undermine that logic. The more credible the protection of core Second Amendment rights, the less credible the slippery slope argument. That is: fewer people should be concerned that the government is going to take away their hunting rifle or handgun next if the Supreme Court firmly protects Second Amendment rights. [A ban on semi-automatic rifles almost certainly does not violate the Second Amendment].

I am not saying that the NRA will buy this argument but contrary to gun control more generally, bans on semi-automatic rifles are popular with the public. If legislators feel assured that the Supreme Court protects core gun rights, then they have at least an argument to their constituents for accepting such a ban. A ban on the manufacturing and sale of semi-automatic rifles would also have important spillover effects for Central America, where many massacres are committed with assault weapons purchased in the U.S.. This may matter too in certain key states. In short, I don’t think it is so unlikely that the next Congress will pass a new and improved version of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and I think that we will hear pro-gun control advocates using the Second Amendment rulings as an argument in favor of such a ban.

ps. I know that there are issues with the definitions of assault weapons and semi-automatic rifles but I do not think these are prohibitive and I didn’t want to touch them in this post.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.


  • Walt French on December 17, 2012 12:45 PM:

    In recent news, Judge Scalia thinks it just fine to restrict individuals' Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness, just because a state (Texas) finds consenting-adult behavior morally repugnant.

    Shouldn't be too hard to interpret an ill-worded amendment to the Consitution based on obvious assaults on individuals' rights to the same. Somehow, slowing tens of thousands of gun deaths trouble me a teensy bit more than telling individuals what they can do in their bedrooms. Betcha about 99% of the American populace would agree.

  • TJ on December 17, 2012 1:53 PM:

    Poorly researched article. No wonder why your tagline says you don't want to touch the definitions of semi-automatic, since you don't know what you are talking about and anyone in law enforcement would be wondering why you are writing on a subject where your basic facts are wrong.

    80% of pistols made today are "semi automatic". They are MORE powerful than the AR15 "assualt weapon" with the single exception of long range accuracy. A 9mm, 10 or 12 round magazine semi automatic glock pistol or smith and Wesson pistol has double the killing power of an ar15. Those pistols, the most common run of the mill type, fire as fast, reload as fast, have the same capacity, fire the same velocity and type of bullets, in fact even larger ones.

    The 5.6 mm nato round in the AR15 has half the kinnetic energy of the average 9mm pistol.

    Again, AR15 type assault weapons have equal or LESS firepower, less killing power, less concealability, less maneuverability, less of every lethal metric with the single exception of accuracy once you get past 50'.

    This killer happened to be using a AR15. He had no need to use a long weapon in a classroom with the victims 15 to 30 feet away where his AR15 has zero improved accuracy over a pistol.

    Now when it comes to clip capacity, if anything this shooting proved it is meaningless. The guy was wearing an ammo vest with dozens of clips in velrco. to change out exhausted 10 or 12 round clips takes about 1 second.

    And do you even know exactly which capacity clips he had?

    Civilian assault weapons which are not capable of automatic fire LOOK mean.

    here is the definition of assault weapons under the prior law:
    Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
    Folding or telescoping stock
    Pistol grip
    Bayonet mount
    Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
    Grenade launcher

    So are you saying if this guy did not have a grenade launcher, or a night-time flash suppressor he would have killed less kids?

    Or are you syaing you have read he bayoneted some of the victims? Which is it?

    His advantage with an assault weapon woudl have been in confronting the cops or another armed force. This was NOT an issue in this shooting, in Columbine, in Virgina Tech, in Norway, or in Denver.

  • RTZ on December 17, 2012 2:54 PM:

    tj...for someone who pretends to be some kind of expert, you really don't know squat. I can tell what an expert you are by the constant references to "clips"--it's called a "magazine", smart guy. Only posers like yourself refer to it as a clip.

    The 5.56x45 is a much more powerful round than any 9mm pistol round. What it may lack in size it more than makes up for in power and lethality. To say that AR15 type weapons has half the killing power of a typical pistol is just a flat out lie--really just plain idiocy--so either you're a liar or you're stupid, or both. Further, the the shooter likely equipped his Bushmaster with 30 round magazines, making it much more lethal again--less time changing mags, more time shooting. Any decent shooter can change the mag in an AR-15 as quickly as a mag in a pistol.

    Theses things should be outlawed. There's no rational reason for their legality. You've already made an excellent argument for that yourself when saying they're good for confronting cops but overkill when shooting civilians. So, let's get rid of them. I'm glad you agree.

  • chad on December 17, 2012 3:18 PM:

    RTZ, you are correct.

    Or, if you're wrong, let's save a whole bunch of money by equipping all our soldiers with pistols. After all, they are more lethal than assault rifles.

  • Tom Cunningham on December 17, 2012 3:18 PM:

    Limit the amount of ammunition carried with a weapon. Duck hunters can only have three rounds of ammunition in their shot guns when duck hunting. A plug must be installed in the magazine to limit the capacity. Why should a handgun owner or hunter need more than three rounds. Anyone outside of his or her residence with a gun with a capacity for more than three rounds would be subject to a felony. Might help with gang activity too.