Question: "You honestly believe [these gun measures] will have a significant impact on crime?"
Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette: "Yes."
Congresswoman DeGette's embarrassing stumble last week about how gun magazines work may have been the most newsworthy statement at a forum at The Denver Post, but it was not the only claim deserving skepticism. Both the Denver Democrat and Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, also argued that the combination of gun-control measures proposed in Congress would, if passed, result in a substantial reduction in gun violence.
But would they? Would universal background checks covering private sales, a ban on gun magazines of more than 10 rounds, and outlawing certain assault-style weapons make a dent in either the general incidence of gun violence or the frequency of mass shootings such as occurred in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.?
It's hard to believe. And I say that as someone who supports background checks, wobbles back and forth on magazine size, opposes the weapons ban, and has never accepted the argument that such restrictions amount to assaults on the Second Amendment.
Still, supporters of the measures are vastly overselling their significance and thus stoking suspicion that future mass shootings would only trigger another round of restrictions.
First of all, rifles — let alone assault-style rifles — are not exactly the weapon of choice for murderers. As gun advocates have noted, the FBI identifies more homicides in 2011 by blunt objects such as hammers and clubs than rifles (although the rifle figure is understated to an unknown degree because the firearm type in some murders wasn't identified). When killers use guns, they mostly prefer handguns.
Meanwhile, the number of handgun homicides that necessitate more than 10 rounds is relatively trivial.
And of course assault-style weapons and large magazines are irrelevant to the toll of firearm suicides, which equalled 19,000 in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We hear repeatedly (including at the Denver Post's forum) how the theater shooter's 100-round magazine jammed or his toll might have grown, and how bystanders in the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords were able to tackle Jared Loughner when he stopped to reload. Those are good points. So maybe a 10-round federal limit on magazines would give bystanders a better chance in a few mass shootings in the next decade. We could hope.
On the other hand, consider the 2007 massacre of 32 at Virginia Tech. As the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City (a big supporter of magazine limits) notes, "Investigators found a total of 17 empty magazines at the scene of the shooting, a mix of several 15-round and 10-round magazines loaded with hollow-point rounds."
Seventeen empty magazines! Clearly tackling a maniac during the few moments it takes to reload is easier said than done.
The 10-year federal ban on certain assault-style weapons that ended in 2004 may have reduced crimes using those guns, according to FactCheck.org. But the effect was offset by an increase in the use of other semi-automatic weapons. Surely Congress is never going to outlaw all semi-automatic guns.
And even if its does, there would still be the old options. Back when Time magazine published a list of "the top 10 guns used in crimes in the U.S. in 2000" — when the murder rate was higher than it is today, by the way — the old-fashioned Smith and Wesson .38 revolver led the parade.
At last week's forum, Perlmutter said "the universal background check I think is key here. ... Eighty percent of guns used in crimes come through the private sale, 10 percent are stolen and 10 percent, they pass the background check. That will have a substantial effect pretty immediately."
Notice the word "substantial." Perhaps he'll turn out to be right. But anyone want to bet?