Hours after Tuesday’s horrifying massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) indicated that he favored an immediate vote on legislation that would expand the background-check requirement for gun buyers to cover private transactions as well as sales by federally licensed dealers. Today he seemed to have second thoughts about that plan, which never made much sense to begin with.
Noting that some of his Democratic colleagues wanted to “quickly vote on sensible gun safety legislation,” Schumer said: “I’m sympathetic to that, and I believe that accountability votes are important. But sadly, this isn’t a case of the American people not knowing where their senators stand. They know. They know because my Republican colleagues are perfectly clear on this—crystal clear. Republicans don’t pretend that they support sensible gun safety legislation. They don’t pretend to be moved by the fact that 90 percent of Americans, regardless of party, support something as common sense as background checks.”
As a response to yesterday’s attack, which killed 19 children and two adults, expanding background checks is a non sequitur: The Houston Chronicle reports that the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter, who was killed during the attack, legally purchased the AR-15-style rifle he used last week, which means he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record. That was also true of the 18-year-old man charged with murdering 10 people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket on May 14, and it is typically true of mass shooters. According to a recent National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report on public mass shootings from 1966 through 2019, 77 percent of the perpetrators purchased guns legally, while just 13 percent did so through illegal transactions.
Even for the small minority of mass shooters who have disqualifying records, an expanded federal background-check requirement would not pose much of an obstacle. Data from states with similar rules, which in practice require that all firearm sales be completed via licensed dealers, indicate that gun owners generally do not comply with that edict. “Universal background checks” are universal only in theory.
The main point of an “accountability vote,” as Schumer acknowledged, would be to show that Democrats are prepared to do something about mass shootings, even if that thing is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on such crimes. A vote also would show that Republicans are unwilling to take that approach, which could serve as a handy talking point in this year’s elections.
Despite their practical limitations, expanded background checks are highly popular (although not quite as popular as Schumer suggested). A 2021 Morning Consult poll found that 84 percent of voters, including 91 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans, agreed that background checks should be required for all gun sales.
Schumer thinks the popularity of expanded background checks shows they are a “common sense” response to mass shootings. But this would not be the first time that “common sense” was wrong. “It’s one thing to say that, regardless of the facts, you should just do something,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R–S.D.) observed. “The question is whether something you would do would actually make a difference.”
Even when it comes to the much larger category of gun homicides, there is little evidence that broad background-check laws “actually make a difference.” A 2019 study found that California’s 1991 expansion of background checks “was not associated with a net change in the firearm homicide rate over the ensuing 10 years.”
The Uvalde massacre also predictably provoked renewed calls for a federal “assault weapon” ban. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” President Joe Biden asked during an emotional speech last night. “When in God’s name are we going to do what we know needs to be done?”
One of the things that “needs to be done,” according to Biden, is a renewed federal “assault weapons” ban, which he has long supported. “When we passed the assault weapons ban, mass shootings went down,” he said. “When the law expired, mass shootings tripled. The idea that an 18-year-old kid can walk into a gun store and buy two assault weapons is just wrong. What in God’s name do you need an assault weapon for except to kill someone?”
The implication, as always, was that so-called assault weapons, which are defined based on functionally unimportant characteristics, are uniquely suitable for mass murder and have no legitimate uses. That is demonstrably not true, since AR-15-style guns are among the most popular rifles sold in the United States. Furthermore, mass shooters overwhelmingly favor handguns. According to the NIJ study, 77 percent of mass shooters used handguns. A quarter of the perpetrators used what the NIJ describes as “assault rifles,” meaning they had features targeted by the legislation that Biden favors, such as a pistol grip, a folding stock, a threaded barrel, or a barrel shroud.
A gun without those characteristics, such as the “featureless” rifles that remain legal in states that have banned “assault weapons,” still fires the same ammunition at the same rate with the same muzzle velocity. It would therefore be surprising if prohibiting those features had any noticeable impact on the frequency or lethality of mass shootings.
In a 2017 column that The New York Times republished in response to the Uvalde massacre, Nicholas Kristof, who supports new restrictions on firearms (including expanded background checks), notes that “the 10-year ban on assault weapons accomplished little, partly because definitions were about cosmetic features like bayonet mounts (and partly because even before the ban, such guns were used in only 2 percent of crimes).” Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, glides over those points in another Time opinion piece published today, conflating arbitrarily defined “assault weapons” with “semiautomatic weapons,” a much broader category that encompasses most handguns and many rifles that would not be covered by the ban that Biden supports.
Like Times columnist Gail Collins, McCord, who served as acting assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration, seems confused about exactly what an “assault weapon” is. She mentions “the semiautomatic assault-style rifle” that the Buffalo shooter used (a Bushmaster XM-15), but the piece also refers seven times (once in the headline and six times in the text) to “semiautomatic weapons” or “semiautomatic firearms.”
Those terms apply to any gun that automatically loads another round in the chamber after the trigger is pulled, so that the weapon can be fired repeatedly without manual reloading. Unlike the features prohibited by “assault weapon” laws, that characteristic is functionally important. But a ban on all “semiautomatic firearms” would be flagrantly unconstitutional, prohibiting myriad guns “in common use” for “lawful purposes,” the category that the Supreme Court has said is covered by the Second Amendment. It would cover nearly all of the most popular handguns, which the Court described as “the quintessential self-defense weapon.”
Since McCord complains generally about “the ready availability of guns in the United States,” her bait-and-switch may be deliberate. If so, that suggests gun rights supporters are right to worry that banning “assault weapons,” while relatively inconsequential in itself, is the first step in a broader campaign to undermine the Second Amendment.
Even if McCord is sincerely confused, that is no excuse. It has been more than three decades since California enacted the nation’s first “assault weapon” ban, and that policy has been a subject of much controversy ever since. The least that advocates of such laws can do is read them.