Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna says the gunman who killed 11 people at a dance hall in Monterey Park, California, on Saturday used a “9mm caliber semiautomatic MAC-10 assault weapon.” Citing “a law enforcement official,” CNN reports that the gun was “a Cobray M11 9mm semi-automatic weapon,” which is modeled after the MAC-10 but unlike the military version fires just one round per trigger pull.
Police say the gunman who killed seven people at two farms in Half Moon Bay, California, two days after the Monterey Park massacre used a legally purchased semi-automatic handgun. So far they have not specified the make and model.
Do these details matter? Yes but also no, judging from President Joe Biden’s response to the two mass murders.
“Yesterday, Senator Feinstein—alongside Senators Murphy, Blumenthal and others— reintroduced a federal Assault Weapons Ban and legislation that would raise the minimum purchase age for assault weapons to 21,” Biden said on Tuesday. “Even as we await further details on these shootings, we know the scourge of gun violence across America requires stronger action.”
Regardless of what “further details” might reveal, in other words, Biden thinks banning “assault weapons,” or at least restricting their sale to people 21 or older, is a rational response to these crimes. As he sees it, “stronger action” is obviously necessary, even if that action is not logically related to the incidents that prompted his statement.
In the context of the two California shootings, the age restriction Biden mentioned is clearly a non sequitur. The Monterey Park murderer, who killed himself before he could be arrested, was 72. The Half Moon Bay suspect is 66.
It’s true those attackers were unusually old. “The median age of mass shooters in the United States”—defined as assailants who kill four or more people—”is 32,” criminologists Jillian Peterson and James Densley report. Prior to the recent California attacks, they note, the median age was declining: “From 1980 to 1989, the median age of mass shooters was 39. Over the next two decades, it was 33. And from 2010 to 2019, it was 29. Since 2020, the median age of mass shooters has come down to just 22.”
Last June, The New York Times reported that “only two of the 30 deadliest mass shootings recorded from 1949 to 2017 involved gunmen younger than 21.” But in the nine deadliest mass shootings since 2018, the Times noted, four of the perpetrators were younger than 21.
Those trends help explain why Biden and his allies in Congress are focusing on 18-to-20-year-old gun buyers, notwithstanding the ages of the California gunmen. But perpetrators younger than 21 still account for a relatively small share of all mass murderers, who typically are in their 20s or 30s. More to the point, restricting access to “assault weapons,” whether through an age limit or a general ban, can reasonably be expected to have a meaningful impact on mass shootings only if those firearms are uniquely suitable for killing large numbers of people.
Biden himself has conceded that they are not. In a 2019 New York Times essay, he complained that manufacturers “circumvent[ed]” the 1994 federal “assault weapon” ban, which expired in 2004, by “making minor modifications to their products—modifications that leave them just as deadly.” In other words, the distinctions drawn by the law had no practical significance for murderers, because they had plenty of equally lethal alternatives.
The same thing is true of the new, supposedly improved Feinstein bill that Biden touted this week. It would ban a long list of specific models, along with firearms that fit general definitions. A semi-automatic rifle that accepts detachable magazines, for example, would qualify as an “assault weapon” under Feinstein’s bill if it has a pistol grip, a forward grip, a folding or adjustable stock, a barrel shroud, or a threaded barrel. But removing those features does not affect a rifle’s fundamental capabilities: With or without them, it fires the same ammunition at the same rate with the same muzzle velocity. It is “just as deadly,” as Biden put it in 2019.
Times reporters Holly Secon, Shawn Hubler, David W. Chen, and
Like the California killers, most mass shooters use handguns rather than rifles. And unlike the pistol used in the Monterey Park attack, those handguns usually do not qualify as “assault weapons.” What’s the difference?
Under Feinstein’s bill, any of these features transforms a pistol into an “assault weapon”: a threaded barrel, a second pistol grip, a barrel shroud, a stabilizing brace, or “the capacity to accept a detachable ammunition feeding device at some location outside of the pistol grip.” California’s definition is essentially the same.
As many mass shooters have demonstrated, a murderer does not need any of those features to kill a large number of people. Several of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history—including the 2007 Virginia Tech attack, which killed 32 people, and the 1991 Luby’s massacre, which killed 23—involved ordinary handguns.
Police said the handgun used in Half Moon Bay was “legally purchased,” which indicates that it did not qualify as an “assault weapon” under California law, assuming the transaction was relatively recent. But it seems the Cobray pistol used in Monterey Park also was legally purchased. Citing “two law enforcement officials briefed on the matter,” the Times reports that that the gunman bought the pistol “in the 1990s,” before California banned “assault weapons.”
California’s ban grandfathered previously owned guns, and so would Feinstein’s bill, which is another reason to be skeptical about the practical impact of such laws. Americans own an estimated 20 million rifles that would be covered by Feinstein’s ban, and that figure does not include pistols that meet her criteria. The fact that the guns she wants to ban are “in common use” for “lawful purposes” also makes such a law hard to defend against a constitutional challenge.
“Liberals have focused too much on banning assault weapons,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes. “What we call assault rifles probably account for fewer than 7 percent of guns used in crimes and only a small share of suicides, and they have repeatedly proved difficult to define. California banned assault weapons, for example, yet manufacturers promptly designed and began selling California-compliant weapons that are almost the same as those that are banned but are technically legal.”
That “fewer than 7 percent” estimate, which comes from a 2018 Journal of Urban Health article, includes any criminal use of guns. When it comes to deadly violence, the role of “assault weapons” is even smaller. In 2019, according to the FBI’s numbers, rifles of any sort, only a subset of which would qualify as “assault weapons,” were used in less than 3 percent of gun homicides where the type of firearm was identified.
“Rifles are known to have been used in 364 homicides in 2019, and shotguns in 200 homicides,” Kristof notes. “Both were less common homicide weapons than knives and other cutting objects (1,476 homicides) or even hands and feet (600 homicides).” The FBI reported 6,368 homicides involving handguns.
“I still believe in tightly restricting AR-15-style weapons,” Kristof adds, “because they play a significant role in mass shootings.” But the definitional problem he notes—that the guns “assault weapon” bans allow are “almost the same” as the ones they prohibit—is no mere quibble. That point, which is the same problem that Biden described in 2019, goes to the heart of the claim that such laws make any sense at all.