On Sunday, former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden published an op-ed in The New York Times, titled: "Banning Assault Weapons Works," and subtitled: "That’s why, as president, I will push to ban them again."
About three quarters of the way into the piece, Biden writes:
We have to get these weapons of war off our streets. Nearly 70 percent of the American public support a ban on assault weapons — including 54 percent of Republicans.
When you have that kind of broad public support for legislation that will make their families safer, and it still can’t get through the Senate — the problem is with weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins.
This type of argument is becoming more and more common among Democratic politicians, especially as we approach the next presidential election. Leaders in the Democratic Party continue to make one claim and one hard implication as it pertains to mass shootings:
- The claim: We must ban "assault weapons," otherwise referred to as "weapons of war," because they are the "gun of choice" for mass shooters.
- The implication: The majority of people killed in mass shootings are killed with "assault weapons."
Both the claim and the implication are statistically dubious.
Looking at the data set from Mother Jones, which has compiled a comprehensive record of every mass shooting since 1982, the percentage of shootings in which the perpetrator used only rifles is significantly smaller than the percentage of shootings in which the perpetrator used only handguns.
Here are some critical data points (not everything will add up to 100% as not every category and combination of firearms used in mass shootings is catalogued here. For example – a shooting in which only a shotgun was used will not be represented here):
- 50% of the 114 mass shootings committed in the United States from 1982 - 2019 were committed using only handguns.
- 12.2% of the 114 mass shootings committed in the United States from 1982 - 2019 were committed using only rifles.
- 24.5% of the 114 mass shootings committed in the United States from 1982 - 2019 were committed using a mix of handguns and rifles together (some shotguns, and other firearms as well).
- Of the 934 deaths in mass shootings from 1982 - 2019, 385 (41.2%) happened in shootings in which handguns were the only firearms used.
- Of the 934 deaths in mass shootings from 1982 - 2019, 182 (19.4%) happened in shootings in which rifles were the only firearms used.
- Of the 934 deaths in mass shootings from 1982 - 2019, 367 (38.3%) happened in shootings in which a mix of firearms were used.
Further, according to FBI crime statistics, from 2013 - 2017, 66.2% of all gun homicides in the United States were committed using handguns, while just 3.25% were committed using rifles.
26% were committed using "type not stated" firearms, but even if you conclude that half of those unspecified firearms were rifles, that would bump the 3.25% up to approximately 16.2% of gun homicides. Even with that generous statistical assumption, handguns would still be responsible for four times as many homicides as rifles.
So called "weapons of war" aren't the sole tool of gun violence, or even mass shootings. If Democratic politicians truly seek to curtail this particular type of gun violence, they should be advocating for a ban of all semiautomatic firearms, including handguns – but they're not.
Biden cites an August 2019 poll from Morning Consult and Politico of 1,960 registered voters, which asked: "How much do you support or oppose ... banning assault-style weapons?" A combined 70% of respondents said they "strongly support" or "somewhat support" such a ban.
However, in October 2018, Gallup polling asked: "Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?" 71% of respondents said there "should not be" such a law.