President Joe Biden says he wants Democrats and Republicans to join together in responding to mass shootings like the recent attacks in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Tulsa. Yet the speech he delivered last night was suffused with the off-putting, aggressive self-righteousness that Democrats routinely display when they push new restrictions on firearms. Again and again, Biden implied that anyone who questions or resists the policy solutions he favors is complicit in the murder of innocents. As he frames the issue, there is no room for honest disagreement about the merits of those proposals, which are self-evidently the right thing to do.
That attitude is not exactly conducive to building the bipartisan consensus that Biden claims he wants. Nor is Biden’s egregiously misleading deployment of the facts that he says demonstrate the urgency and effectiveness of the laws he supports. Biden does not want a rational, empirically informed debate about the costs and benefits of those laws. He prefers emotion to logic, and he demands that everyone else—including the Republicans he accuses of callous indifference to mass murder—do the same.
“For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept?” Biden asks. “How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say ‘enough’? Enough.”
That “enough” refrain, which appears 11 times in Biden’s 17-minute speech, is not an argument. It is an emotional appeal that assumes the wisdom of Biden’s policy prescriptions and the bad faith of anyone who opposes them.
For the most part, Biden does not even attempt to explain why legislators should support those policies. “The issue we face is one of conscience and common sense,” he says. If you disagree with him, in other words, you either have no conscience or lack common sense.
According to the president, for example, it is obvious that Congress should expand the background-check requirement for gun buyers, which currently applies only to purchases from federally licensed dealers, to cover all firearm sales. He thinks that would help prevent mass shootings.
How would that work? That is a question Biden does not want us to ask, for obvious reasons.
The perpetrators of the three recent mass shootings all passed background checks, which means they did not have disqualifying criminal or psychiatric records. Biden mentions six other mass shootings. The expanded requirement that he wants Congress to enact would not have made a difference in any of those cases, because the perpetrators either passed background checks or obtained guns from others who bought them legally—a parent in one case and older friends in another.
According to a recent National Institute of Justice report on public mass shootings from 1966 through 2019, just 13 percent of the perpetrators obtained guns through illegal transactions. So even theoretically, an expanded federal background-check requirement would be a barrier for only a small minority of mass shooters. And in practice, it would not be much of a deterrent even for would-be killers with disqualifying records. Data from states that notionally mandate “universal background checks,” which require that every sale be completed through a licensed dealer, indicate that gun owners generally do not comply with that edict, presumably because of the additional time, inconvenience, and expense it would entail.
There is little reason to think gun owners who defy state background-check requirements would be more inclined to obey a federal law demanding the same thing. And since private transfers are both common and generally invisible to the government, effectively enforcing that law would be impossible. The upshot is that would-be mass killers would have little trouble arming themselves even if they could not pass a background check.
The same would be true for ordinary criminals, the vast majority of whom obtain guns from sources that would not be affected by a new federal law. Unsurprisingly, 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.”
At the same time, the legislation that Biden supports would transform millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans into federal felons because they decline to jump through government-mandated hoops when they dispose of their own property. For that newly invented crime, they would face up to five years in prison.
Does the uncertain and probably negligible public safety benefit of expanding the background-check requirement justify the massive criminalization of hitherto legal transactions? That’s a question Biden does not even bother to ask.
Biden notes that “universal background checks” poll very well. But as The New York Times points out, there is a big difference between those survey results and the support that Americans register for this policy when they vote on ballot initiatives that would implement it. The gap between “expected support” (based on polling) and “actual support” (based on election results) was 28 points in California, 22 points in Washington, 36 points in Nevada, and 35 points in Maine.
When confronted by specific policies they have the power to approve, it seems, voters pay more attention to the details and the likely consequences than they do in opinion surveys. They hear arguments pro and con in the run-up to the election, and they tend to be much more skeptical than the polls suggest. That is the sort of debate Biden wants to avoid by insisting that virtually everyone agrees this is a good idea.
Likewise with the renewed federal ban on “assault weapons” that Biden has long favored. He does not want to talk about the details of that legislation, which would reveal that the category of firearms it targets is defined by functionally unimportant features such as folding stocks, pistol grips, and barrel shrouds. He does not want to address the basic problem with such laws: They leave untouched guns that fire the same ammunition at the same rate with the same muzzle velocity as the prohibited models.
Biden instead insists that everyone knows the 1994 “assault weapon” law, which expired in 2004 and included a ban on the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, reduced mass shootings. “In the 10 years it was law,” he says, “mass shootings went down. But after Republicans let the law expire in 2004 and those weapons were allowed to be sold again, mass shootings tripled. Those are the facts.”
“It is premature to make definitive assessments of the ban’s impact on gun crime,” University of Pennsylvania criminologist Christopher Koper warned in a 2004 report commissioned by the Justice Department. Koper and his co-authors noted that the use of “assault weapons” in gun crimes (primarily pistols rather than rifles) had declined in the six cities they examined, although that change “was offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns” equipped with “large capacity magazines” (LCMs).
“The failure to reduce LCM use has likely been due to the immense stock of exempted pre-ban magazines,” Koper et al. said. “Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of LCMs in crime, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.” If the law were renewed, they said, “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
That report focused on the impact of restricting LCMs, which it suggested “could have nontrivial effects on gunshot victimizations” if it actually succeeded in reducing the supply available to criminals. Notably, the report did not treat the distinction between “assault weapons” and other semiautomatic firearms as important (emphasis added): “The few available studies suggest that attacks with semiautomatics—including [assault weapons] and other semiautomatics equipped with LCMs—result in more shots fired, more persons hit, and more wounds inflicted per victim than do attacks with other firearms.”
Koper et al. noted that the “assault weapon” ban “targets a relatively small number of weapons based on features that have little to do with the weapons’ operation, and removing those features is sufficient to make the weapons legal.” Biden himself has conceded that the 1994 ban did not affect the lethality of legally available firearms, noting that it allowed the sale of guns that were “just as deadly.” That is also true of the new, supposedly improved version that Biden is pushing.
“Evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings is inconclusive,” the RAND Corporation said in a 2020 review of research on state bans. It called the impact of such laws “uncertain.” Last week, RAND researcher Andrew Morral likewise noted that studies of “assault weapon” bans “don’t yet provide enough scientific evidence to indicate what their effects might be.”
What about the claim that Biden made in his speech? “By some definitions,” Morral writes, “mass shootings declined in the United States during the period of the federal ban, but because mass shootings remain, at least in a statistical sense, relatively rare, and because rates of mass shootings are highly variable from year to year, there are methodological challenges to reliably detecting even fairly strong effects for these laws.”
Biden not only ignores these subtleties; he refuses to acknowledge that there is any controversy at all about the impact of the 1994 ban. “These are the facts,” he says, implying that anyone who thinks otherwise is either woefully misinformed or maliciously dedicated to promoting the murder of schoolchildren.
Biden also implies that such horrifying crimes are much more common than they actually are. Since 2013, Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox reports, “77 students in grades K-12 have been killed in 11 school mass shootings,” defined as attacks that injured at least four victims and killed at least one student. When other shootings are included, an average of 10 students are killed with firearms in K-12 schools each year. By comparison, Fox notes, the annual death toll from pool drownings in this age group is about 400.
Biden strives to create a much different impression. “According to new data just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns are the number one killer of children in the United States of America,” he says. “The number one killer. More than car accidents. More than cancer. Over the last two decades, more school-aged children have died from guns than on-duty police officers and active-duty military combined. Think about that: more kids than on-duty cops killed by guns, more kids than soldiers killed by guns.”
Given the context of Biden’s speech, which begins with a description of his visit to Uvalde, casual listeners might conclude that he is talking about school shootings. But he actually seems to be talking about all gun deaths among Americans 19 or younger, including suicides, regardless of where they occur. These “school-aged children” include adults, gang members shot by other gang members, and anyone 19 or younger who kills himself with a gun.
These are all serious problems, of course, but they have nothing to do with crimes like the Uvalde massacre and virtually nothing to do with “assault weapons,” which are rarely used in homicides. In 2019, according to the FBI’s numbers, handguns accounted for more than 90 percent of the weapons used in gun homicides where the type of firearm was specified. Just 5 percent of those guns were rifles, only a subset of which would qualify as “assault weapons.”
That bait-and-switch is characteristic of Biden’s approach to gun policy, which confusingly shifts focus between problems of vastly different nature and magnitude, making it impossible to pin down his argument. Policies aimed at reducing the frequency or lethality of rare mass public shootings, or even rarer school shootings, don’t necessarily apply to the much larger category of gun homicides, let alone suicides (which account for most gun deaths). It is hard to tell exactly what Biden expects to accomplish or why he thinks the laws he favors would accomplish it.
When you combine that vagueness with self-righteous certitude, you have a recipe for the political stalemate that Biden decries, pretending that he bears no responsibility for it. Given the godawful legislation that Congress tends to produce when both parties cooperate, that may be just as well.