On August 5th, Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden tweeted a proud poster stating “Ban Assault Weapons” while extolling his senatorial experience behind the 10-year assault weapons ban. While undoubtedly an effort to gin up support by signaling his true believer devotion to increased gun control, there is only one problem: by almost any empirical standard, the assault weapons ban instituted from 1994 to 2004 was unambiguously ineffectual. However, political quibbling over the efficacy of gun control among the nation’s politicians misses a deeper lesson that’s emblematic of a broader social phenomenon: the intransigence of the elite intelligentsia to empiricism in favor of moral virtue, what prescient economist Thomas Sowell refers to as the “Vision of the Anointed”i.
If there is one message from the 20th Century, it’s that bad ideology left unchallenged can create human catastrophe; one need not go further than Maoist China to reach this conclusion. A common thread among all of these catastrophes is that at some point a roadblock to feedback from reality emerged; individuals in positions of power, absorbed by their own ideas, were granted increasing power to pursue those ideas to their fatal conclusions, often resulting in untold human death and misery. All too often in politics today, we are handed policy prescriptions through a common template that is similarly resistant to counter-veiling evidence: 1) assertions that a clear and present danger exists to the whole of society, 2) a pressing need for action must be accomplished now to save ourselves, 3) the government is the only option to execute the need for action, 4) a disdainful denigration of opposing ideas and viewpoints as uninformed, partisan, and irresponsible.
For many years increasing gun control, such as an assault weapons ban, has been a view commonly promulgated as the obvious answer to a pressing need for the government to save us from gun violence. To be clear this is not to demur the significance of gun violence in America. On the contrary, if we ever hope of finding solutions that work, then we need to strip all policy prescriptions of their moral weight, which only cloud our reasoning and distract us from a solution-based orientation. What Joe Biden means when he says “Ban All Assault Weapons” is not that he necessarily thinks banning assault weapons is the best possible answer to gun violence, or that it even works. Instead, he is reading the political tea leaves around him, specifically the indisputable rise in popularity of far-left ideology, and signaling his dedication to the sacrosanct virtues around gun control in order to harness their vote. The actual policy details are tangential, what matters is that Biden is standing in the trenches with the far left, seemingly unconcerned with the overwhelming bevy of empirical evidence suggesting that an assault weapons ban is an anemic prophylactic against gun violence.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to promote an effort to defund the police, gun and ammunition sales have soared according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, with gun background checks up 48% from last year, and an estimated 40% of sales occurring with first-time gun buyersii. It is for this reason that a coherent, fact-based view around firearms is needed now more than ever. As it relates to an assault weapons ban, the Department of Justice, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (to name a few) all reached retrospectively similar conclusions in response to the 1994 to 2004 ban: they could find little or no statistically significant, causal evidence that banning assault weapons reduced violent crime of any sortiii. Of course, this should be obvious given the fact that assault weapons account for less than 1% of all forms of gun crime every year, according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, and that this percentage has decreased since the repeal of the baniv. The political Left’s fetishization of “assault weapons” is purely a product of availability bias: mass shootings are disproportionately covered in national media when compared to all-too-common inner-city gun violence. In fact, even when compared to Europe and Canada, the United States does not even rank in the top ten for both mass shooting (defined as four or more people slain) frequency and annual death rate when adjusted for population sizev. But that doesn’t change the obstinate politicians who, unable to overcome the emotional tenor of these so-called “weapons of war,” leverage the emotive reasoning of their base to signal virtue for votes and lobbying dollars.
Before pursuing possible remedies, it must be stated that there likely is no perfect remedy. Humans, despite how highly we may think of ourselves, are still primordial apes equipped with a set of paleolithic emotions that often overwhelm our ability to interface with reality. By discussing gun violence as a problem with solutions, we ignore the reality of imperfect tradeoffs, such as the fact that by most estimates defensive uses of guns by law-abiding gun owners outnumber the offensive uses of guns in a crime, and an assault weapons ban would certainly influence that ratio as it is only the law-abiding citizens who will give up their guns. This highlights the paradoxical logic behind an assault weapons ban and shows precisely why policy answers to social problems must be treated as testable hypotheses with empirical results, rather than ethereal, a priori moralizing in the absence of data.
Politics are a manifestation of culture, and we all want to reduce gun deaths in America. But a culture that chooses to engage in affective heuristics over empirical analysis is both dangerous and counterproductive. Insipid attacks on law-abiding gun owners only obfuscate the obvious fact that definitionally, criminals intent on committing crime won’t be considering Biden’s assault weapons ban. The fact remains that, according to a 2014 study, 68% of murders occurred in just 5% of US counties, and these same counties correlated closely with drug and gang crime as wellvi. The reality is gangs don’t follow the law when they use guns and violent crime to protect their drugs, and just like the drugs they sell, their guns are acquired illegally. America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a gang problem, and ritualistic attacks on inanimate objects like AR-15s, and their law-abiding gun owners, only vitiates our ability to reduce violent crime.
i Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed (New York, New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 2.
v John Lott Jr., The War on Guns (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2016), p.86-87