Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Future of Assault Weapons

During Tuesday’s Presidential Debate at Hofstra University, a member of the audience asked what the candidates planned to do to “limit the availability of assault weapons.”

The question most likely referred to the shooting this summer in Aurora, Colorado, where James Holmes used a Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, along with a pistol, shotgun, and other weapons, to attack people at a Dark Knight Rises movie screening. 58 people were injured and 12 were killed, including 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan.

Holmes purchased all of his guns legally at Colorado sporting goods stores. While assault weapons like the one Holmes bought had been outlawed in 1994, the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and Congress declined to renew it. Holmes’ legally-purchased assault rifle was capable of firing 100 consecutive shots; a deadly weapon designed for war combat with power far beyond any conceivable non-military needs.

Governor Romney reaffirmed his alignment with conservative gun rights positions, and redirected the topic to automatic weapons, instead of assault weapons: “I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal. We of course don't want to have automatic weapons, and that's already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.”

Fully automatic weapons are legal to own in the United States, but are very tightly regulated by The National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the 1986 Hughes Amendment. Under these regulations, only automatic weapons manufactured and registered with the federal government before 1986 can be bought, owned and sold, and purchasing one requires an FBI background check.

However, Romney had very little to say about assault weapons, the original question topic. Instead, he mainly focused on the idea that changes in culture are needed to reduce gun violence. He mentioned, in particular, education and family structure. “We need moms and dads helping raise kids wherever possible,” he said, and added that before having children, people “ought to think about getting married to someone.” This was likely a message to more conservative voters who believe that changing values about sex and marriage, including tolerance for homosexuality, are the true causes to larger problems in society, including violence. This point also helps resolve a potentially serious issue for those that argue for more gun rights, by reconciling support for more gun accessibility with an opposition to violence. However, the evidence has not shown a connection between single-parent families and gun violence. See Murnan, J., Dake, J. A. and Price, J. H. (2004), Association of Selected Risk Factors with Variation in Child and Adolescent Firearm Mortality by State. Journal of School Health, 74: 335–340.

President Obama, on the other hand, did not take a particularly strong position for more gun control. “We're a nation that believes in the Second Amendment,” he said. And though he did mention the Aurora shooting and supported getting “an assault weapons ban reintroduced,” Obama also seemed more interested in non-regulatory approaches to reducing gun violence such as education and “making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.”

So returning to the original question on whether much is being planned to reduce availability of assault weapons, the real answer seems to be “very little, if anything,” under either candidate.

But what has gone mostly ignored in this discussion is that availability of weapons may become a moot issue by the end of the decade, as the internet and new technology increase access to deadly weapons beyond what any regulatory approach may be able to keep up with. In August, an engineer claimed to have printed a working gun using a personal 3D printer. And a UT Austin Law student has been seeking funding for a crowdsourcing project to make 3D gun printing easily accessible to anyone via the internet. As 3D printers become inevitably cheaper and more sophisticated, and eventually able to print metal objects affordably, even strict gun regulations may become completely ineffective. It is worth exploring, then, whether there may be any other effective approaches to reducing violence and deaths from increasingly powerful, and available, weapons.

By Leonora Camner

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