Monday, July 30, 2012

Jason Alexander Is Scared and Ignorant

Jason Alexander tweeted about how he did not understand how people can support private ownership of "assault weapons" and then links to the wikipedia link about the AR-15.  He received, predictably, a number of heated responses to his tweet. Salon subsequently posted the entirety of a longer message from Mr. Alexander about why he feels the way he does and his thoughts about the responses he received.  In this particular post, I won't be presenting arguments about the legal, historical, philosophical and practical reasons I think Americans should retain their rights to own so called "assault weapons."  I think it is important to point out factual errors in the statement Mr. Alexander has made.

I'll admit I'm picking on this particular statement and Mr. Alexander with this post.  Over the last week there have been many similar statements in a variety of media outlets saying similar things.  I could have responded to any one of them but choose this one because it filled with factual errors.  Many of the others have the same factual errors but no single one of them seems to be quite as riddled with ignorance as this one. You can read the entire article at

"Despite these massacres recurring and despite the 100,000 Americans that die every year due to domestic gun violence – these people see no value to even considering some kind of control as to what kinds of weapons are put in civilian hands."

100,000 is way off.  The 2011 crime stats are still in a preliminary form so I'll go with the 2010 stats.  According the FBI, there were a total of 14,748 murders.. Table 20 of the FBI's Uniform Crime Report breaks down murders by the method used by the murderer. According to the FBI, in the year 2010 the total number of murders with firearms were 8,775. Private citizens killed 232 criminals during the commission of a felony. Combining the two we come with roughly 9,000.  That's a 90% difference between his number and the FBI's number.  I'll be generous and add the 18,000 suicides (about half of all suicides) then we get a ballpark figure of 27,000 deaths via firearm. Automobiles kill more people than guns do.  The flu kills more people than guns do. Diabetes kills twice as many people.

To get an idea of how often AR-15's are used for murders, I looked at the number of deaths attributed to rifles, of all types. In 2010 rifles accounted for a total of 358 deaths. It wasn't separated into categories for "assault rifle" or "hunting rifle." 358 is less than one half of one percent of all homicides.  While the Aurora, CO shooting is a terrible, terrible event; it is very rare.

There are controls on what sorts of weapons can be in civilian hands.  I'm not allowed to own an automatic weapon, a mortar, an artillery piece or a rocket propelled grenade launcher for example. Semi-automatic rifles are also regulated.  Properly licensed individuals are allowed to own automatic weapons but there are very tight controls on them and machine guns are extremely expensive. Felons and the insane are not allowed to have firearms at all.  States are allowed to make limitations on what firearms are allowed by civilians and some of them do.  Massachusetts has retained the assault weapon ban.  It hasn't prevented the state from having one of the highest murder rates in the north east.  California has considerable limits on the ownership of assault rifles but still has one of the highest violent crime rates in the US.

"Constitution says citizens have the right to bear arms in order to maintain organized militias. I’m no constitutional scholar so here it is from the document itself:"  Mr. Alexander then proceeds to prove the statement that he is no scholar.  He claims that gun owners are not members of militia, which is false. He is apparently ignorant of the fact that he is a member of the militia by the thinking of the late 18th century. In the 1958 Supreme Court case United States v. Miller it was observed by the court

"The significance attributed to the term Militia appears from the debates in the Convention, the history and legislation of Colonies and States, and the writings of approved commentators. These show plainly enough that the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. 'A body of citizens enrolled for military discipline.' And further, that ordinarily when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time"

Nearly all constitutional scholars agree that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to own firearms.  The Supreme Court of the United States ruled about this in United States vs. Emerson and District of Columbia VS. Heller.  This is settled scholarship and settled law. The only way it can be changed is by a constitutional amendment.

He makes a number of common errors I've seen in many of the assault weapon rants over the years. The term "assault weapons" is not a very useful one. The primary difference between an AR-15 and a semi-automatic hunting rifle chambered in .223 Remington ammunition is that the AR-15 has a synthetic stock because it is less expensive and can take more abuse than a wood stock.  That's it.  They shoot similar projectiles, they can shoot similar volumes of fire, many guns for hunting can hold large amounts of ammunition.  A hunting rifle can be more or less accurate depending on how much money the owner wants to spend.  It all comes down to the intent of the person with the gun and their skill with the weapon.

"What purpose does an AR-15 serve to a sportsman that a more standard hunting rifle does not serve? Let’s see – does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes. Does it fire farther and more accurately? Yes. Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? Yes. So basically, the purpose of an assault style weapon is to kill more stuff, more fully, faster and from further away. To achieve maximum lethality."

Mr. Alexander is not aware that a growing number of hunters are using AR-15's.  One of the most popular applications for AR variants right now is for coyote hunting. The gun is reliable, has a minimal recoil, there are a number of aftermarket gadgets for customizing the rifle for a hunter's specific applications and the ammo is widely available at a reasonable price. The specific features of the AR-15 that some hunters like come down the convenience of the gadgets that can be attached to it and that the semi automatic action that allows the hunter to take follow up shots without operating the action.

Magazine capacity is not an inherent feature of the rifle unless the rifle's magazine is built into the rifle.  Most modern hunting rifles have a detachable box magazines and some have large capacity magazines.  Mossberg released a bolt rifle this year designed for predator hunting that can use 30 round magazines from an AR-15. It doesn't allow the gun to fire faster, further or be more deadly.  It just hold more ammo with refilling the magazine. The AR-15 is not known for it's accuracy.  Bolt action rifles achieve far greater accuracy than the AR-15 design. It can be made more accurate but requires a trained gunsmith to tune the gun at considerable expense.  It also doesn't fire further than any other rifle. Hunters and target shooters often reload their ammo to reach further distances and improve accuracy beyond the capability of the mass produced ammo that the military uses.

The 5.56mm ammunition the AR-15 fires is not a "more lethal payload" than a hunting rifle.  In fact, few hunters will use the 5.56 cartridge on any animal weighing more than 50lbs. Soldiers have long complained since Vietnam that the AR-15/M16 can require several hits to kill an enemy combatant. Did you note that the Aurora gunman killed 12 and wounded 58?  If the gun was more lethal then you might imagine that there would be more dead than wounded.  The AR-15 design was, in fact, intended to be less lethal.  When a combatant is wounded but not killed, several people are put out of the fight to take care of the casualty.  The designers preferred to wound but not kill.  Hunters much larger calibers that will produce a reliable single shot kill. Killing with a single shot reduces the animal's suffering and the possibility of loosing a wounded animal.  The AR-15's cartridge only provides a reliable single shot kill on small predators and varmints.

I don't think Mr. Alexander is ill intentioned but he is a human.  He doesn't want these sorts of events to happen any more than the rest of us.  He sees that a terrible mass shooting that makes the news.  Because guns, shooting and hunting are not part of his daily life his reaction is a visceral one.  Completely understandable.  We fear what we do not understand.  What is really unfortunate is that some of the response he received was just as absurd as his statements.  2nd Amendment rights advocates don't help matters by hyperbolic outbursts born of ignorance as deep and pervasive as that spewed by the anti-gun activists.