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Why Does Anyone Need High-Capacity Magazines?

100 round magazine, similar to one used in the 2012 Aurora mass shooting. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Leopold Medina, Jr., via Wikimedia.

100 round magazine, similar to one used in the 2012 Aurora mass shooting. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Leopold Medina, Jr., via Wikimedia.

By Andrew Kydd

One aspect of the gun debate ignited by the Newtown massacre is the controversy over the size of magazines. Large capacity magazines — the component of a firearm that store rounds before they are fired — are popular accessories for semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15, and 30 round magazines are common. These strike many observers as indefensible: why on earth does anyone need a 30 round magazine?

The gun lobby likes to pretend that AR-15s are as appropriate for hunting as killing people. But no self-respecting hunter fires more than a couple of rounds at a deer; usually one doesn’t even have the chance, as the deer will either drop or flee. Bolt and lever-action rifles — which require manual action to load each round and typically have an internal magazine holding a handful of rounds — have been standard equipment for hunters for a hundred years. Large clips therefore have nothing to do with hunting.

That leaves “personal protection” as the main justification for large magazines. As a student of arms races at the international level, I was stunned and impressed when I heard someone make the arms race argument while testifying before Congress about high-capacity magazines. Extending the general ‘if we ban guns, only criminals will have guns” thesis, this witness testified that if 30 round magazines are banned only criminals will have them, leaving householders outgunned and vulnerable. I was impressed, I should clarify, that anyone would make such an easily discounted argument.

First, on the data side. How many householders have been gunned down by a home intruder because, while they had a gun and were firing at the intruder, they ran short of ammunition first and were killed? My guess is zero, though America’s a big country with lots of guns so the scenario is possible, but I would like to see it documented. Stack that up against the numbers killed by shooters armed with high-capacity magazines at Aurora and Sandy Hook, and its clear where lives could be saved.

Second, let’s think theoretically. Are home intruders generally so motivated as to engage in sustained firefights with homeowners? Not unless the homeowner has crossed a heavily armed drug gang, and gang minions have orders to take him out. Typical criminals interested in money or rape flee at the sound of a gun being cocked, much less fired. With so many houses unoccupied and so many homeowners unarmed, why stick around to see if you prevail in a firefight just so you can score another Nintendo Wii?

Finally, even in a firefight, it doesn’t take 30 rounds. Our GIs won World War II with the M1 Garand, a semi-automatic with a capacity of eight rounds. If it was good enough for the greatest generation, it’s good enough for a homeowner. Let’s face it, there are probably two main reasons that people want high-capacity magazines. The majority probably simply think they look extra cool and badass and military, and, having no actual military experience, especially the getting shot at part, find that attractive. Then there’s the survivalist cohort that fantasizes about gunning down federal agents when they come over the property line to enforce their totalitarian municipal recycling ordinances. Neither reason weighs a feather in the balance against the lives of the children of Sandy Hook.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I, too, have been struck by the scenarios created to justify large-capacity magazines. Based on no particular evidence, I would assume that an encounter between an armed assailant with an armed defender would likely end with (1) the assailant being shot or (2) the defender being shot or (3) one or both running away. The prolonged siege scenario strikes me as similar to the “ticking bomb” argument for torture; it’s something that happens only in the imaginations of torture advocates.

    Like

    February 5, 2013
  2. Good piece!

    I just wonder why you left out the apocalyptic zombie attack and the alien invasions out of the typical thoughts of the survivalist cohort. ;)

    Like

    February 5, 2013
  3. I think another under-appreciated aspect of the gun control debate is how much military and civilian semi-automatic rifles have converged in the last fifty years. After the 1934 National Firearms Act there was substantial difference between a banned submachine gun with a large detachable magazine and a civilian semi-automatic rifle. Today there’s not a lot of practical difference between a civilian firing a semi-automatic AR-15 with a 30 round magazine and a soldier with an automatic M-16.

    Like

    February 5, 2013
  4. fb #

    “Typical criminals interested in money or rape flee at the sound of a gun being cocked, much less fired. With so many houses unoccupied and so many homeowners unarmed, why stick around to see if you prevail in a firefight just so you can score another Nintendo Wii?”. This being outcome (3) of the model proposed by Scott Monje, assuming rational criminals or “typical criminals interested in money or rape”, I should get a gun in order to keep my Wii, shouldn’t I?

    And second, assuming that there is some kind of deterrence at work (or that people have some sense for deterrence), that would probably be enhanced by signals like high capacity magazines lying around in the back yard. So there is a third reason to get that stuff, coolness and countering possible zombie-attacks come as a large plus. And assuming people aren’t rational actors in average, but are willing to take high risks to get my Wii or my GameBoy Color, well, get me those grenades over there too!

    There is no empirical evidence for 30 minutes gunfights or intruders outgunning defenders necessary in order to theorize why people would possibly want to buy guns in the first place, and martially looking add-ons like high capacity magazines in the second, when available. “Of course I use that for hunting” being obvious bullshit, people might buy in the argument because of the rationale above, putting “democratic” leverage behind a stupid narrative.

    Raising awareness by pointing out that gunowners might unintentionally provide people suffering severe mental illness with deadly equipment probably remains to be ineffective, since it’s the others ones setting free crazy killers. We usually trust our beloved ones, the foundation of our social relations and all that. Avoiding mass shootings and gun violence would mean banning guns and disarming the population on the ground of aggregate data showing at least a correlation in between gun availability and phenomena of violence. As for the federal agents, recent revelations might evoke the feeling that the administration has an issue with the extrajudicial killing of american citizens going on (besides other stuff). Not particularly helpful, since the rationale above might depend on perceptions of security.

    Sorry for this comment being overlong and somewhat tendentious towards the end.

    Like

    February 8, 2013
  5. Weak arguement. Because GI’s in WW2 were limited to 8 round clips does not mean 8 rounds is sufficient for all people in all situations. It does not mean that 30 rounds is not better, or that if they had the option of a 30 round M4 they would not drop those 8 round M1’s immediately and take up the M4. And a 40 man platoon has a lot of flexibillity in ovecoming the limitations of a small magazine, a rifle squad less so, and an individual can be at a significant disadvantage with a 8 round limit.

    The police have determined their requirement is as large a capacity magazine as possible which is practical to carry. That turns out to be 30 round magazines for AR style rifles, 15+ capacity magazines for their 9mm pistols, and shotguns with extended magazine tubes holding 6+ shells.

    That is my requirement as well. The criminals the police encounter are the same criminals that I would encounter. Because a policeman is more likely to encounter a criminal is irrelevent, the frequency of encounter does not impact the requirements to fight the encounter.

    In reality, because the criminal chooses the time and place of the encounter, and the criminals may outnumber me, the advantage is with the criminal. It makes no sense at all to handicap me by limiting my firearm.

    And you ignore the fact that rifles of all kinds including so called “assault weapons” are the least used tool for muder (323 murders in 2011, FBI UCR, Table 20). Almost 3X as many were killed by hands and feet as killed by rifles.

    Like

    February 9, 2013
  6. Dog #

    Why is it necessary to “justify” large magazines in the first place? Justify to whom?

    A purchasing officer in the military or at a police department might be required to answer this question before spending public funds, but a private citizen has every right to purchase a 30 round magazine if it pleases him or her, with no justification required to anyone – especially his or her servants in government. (That’s right, government exists to serve the people, not to rule over or oppress them.)

    What business is it of mine, and what difference is it to me if my neighbor(s) have 1 gun or a half a dozen? 10 round magazines or 30 round? None whatsoever!

    From what I’ve seen of these mass shootings, a lack of a 30 round clip would not have stopped the shooter(s), but one man (or woman) with a gun would have.

    The real threat to society comes not from mass shootings or 30 round magazines, but from our own police and government, which have grown increasingly trigger happy in recent years.

    I may never encounter a mass shooter, but I can be shot dead anytime by any policeman I meet. He does not have to be acting in self defense. it he (or she) merely “feels threatened”, he can use deadly force without warning, like the trooper who shot a Sunday school teacher dead in a church parking lot and then lied about it.

    One final thought. The courts have repeatedly ruled that the police are under no legal obligation to protect anyone. (Except themselves, of course.) If you still want justification for 30 round magazines, this should be reason enough.

    Like

    February 10, 2013
  7. Sean smith #

    GI’s in world war 2 used the m1 grand with a 8 round clip because that was the best they had back then, there was no such thing as an assault rifle (well there was but it was in the hands of the Germans). So it was either a semi auto rifle with the knock down power to take somebody out in 1 shot or a full auto sub machine gun that fires pistol rounds which obviously didn’t have the knockdown power of a larger rifle round. Not trying to discount your argument just saying learn some fucking history before you start making those claims.

    Like

    February 16, 2013
  8. Rowan B #

    You so funny.

    Why do you need a car? Last I checked, they killed more people than just about everything else combined each year.

    I am limited to 10 round mags, but I have 6 of them. That’s the equivalent of 2 30rd mags. Considering I can change a magazine in less than 1 second, that’s less than 2 seconds to change magazines and still have 30 rounds at my disposal. That’s still <5 seconds for a full 30 rounds. Get over yourselves.

    Like

    April 27, 2013
  9. Unfortunately, the reality of this matter is ignored by both sides, but gun proponents win by default.

    Practically speaking, there are few advantages conferred by larger magazines. It’s not that they increase the number of rounds able to be fired, its that when one carries the largest magazine practical, lets say the ubiquitous 30 rounds, one is reducing the need to reload. Reloading doesn’t take a significant amount of time, that not my point, my point is that is simply one less action that one can screw up. Actual rate of fire isn’t really impacted.

    Do people need 30 rounds for home or self defense? Probably not, but there is no evidence to suggest that magazine size makes weapons more effective. If that were the case, the police and military would use 100 round mags, but they don’t.

    From the military side of things, it is actually a concern that large magazines can lead soldiers to waste ammo, a resource not easily replenished in combat.

    Since I haven’t seen any evidence that a ban would change anything by a measurable margin, there is no point spending limited political capital imposing a pointless restriction.

    One last thing, there are no differences whatsoever between one semi-auto rifle and another if they both accept external magazines.

    Like

    June 5, 2013
  10. Doug #

    30 round mags aren’t high capacity, they’re fucking standard. Get that shit straight.

    Like

    June 13, 2013
  11. A Critic #

    Three reasons were omitted why people need high capacity magazines:

    1. Liberty
    2. Target practice (that’s what almost all any capacity magazines are used for)
    3. The majority of guns made and sold today have standard capacity that counts as “high” capacity (i.e. more than 5-10).

    The real question is – why do you NEED to prohibit 11 round magazines but not 10 round magazines?

    Like

    June 29, 2013
  12. ‘Melinda Herman fired a six-shot revolver at the intruder, hitting him five times, in his torso and in his face. Surprisingly, he managed to flee.’ http://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/10/us/home-invasion-gun-rights

    Like

    July 1, 2013
  13. ‘The 15-year-old boy and his 12-year-old sister had been home alone in the Mount Royal Village subdivision when around 2:30 p.m. a pair of burglars tried the front and back doors, then broke a back window.
    The teenager grabbed his father’s assault rifle and knew what to do with it.’ http://www.khou.com/news/crime/Burglary-suspect-shot-by-15-year-old-son-of-deputy-97430719.html

    Like

    July 1, 2013
  14. Pete #

    If you had only day a 5 round capacity in your home defence weapon, and say more than 5 members of government or law enforcement came to your property to seize you, your guns, or any other property, you would be at a distinct disadvantage. After all, that is the precise reason the founding fathers wrote the second amendment into the Constitution, to make government respect your other rights. In fact there should be no trespassing signs that state plainly: absolutely no trespassing. All trespassers will be shot regardless of legal affiliation. Call 555-1234 to secure permission from property owner in advance before entering this private property.

    Like

    November 24, 2013
    • The articles point out that one never knows how many rounds will be needed to stop intruder, or intruders. So the more you have in your weapon, the better.

      Like

      December 22, 2013
  15. How many of you have studied the Constitution? The right to bear arms has nothing to do with deer hunting, etc. The Second Amendment was created to provide a way for Americans to fight back against the government, in the event that government started taking rights away from the American people. (It’s happening right now.) America is heading toward CIVIL WAR.

    Like

    December 22, 2013
  16. joshua #

    2nd amendment. Rights. Freedom. It doents matter any crazy nit can reload or havw several weapons just as easy. As a Iraq freedom marine vet I know what this actually means. If it was not important our founding fathers wouldn’t have protected us and thank god they did or this right would have been gone long ago.

    Like

    January 10, 2014
  17. Joshua’ I too am a vet(Vietnam three tours,101st Airborne) But i see no practical cililian purpose for military weapons or high capacity mags or drums.
    First of all,if you can’t hit what you are shooting at with three loads or less,you are much too dangerous a person to be owning a gun of any kind.
    In a conversation about New town,I heard someone say,’If a teacher had had an ak47 he could have taken that child killer out’.
    Sure with how much more collateral damage? I own several guns,but I don’t ‘love’ them.That’s nuts! I do not plan on shooting up some public place,or engaging in treasen by trying to overthrow the government. So what other use do they have?

    As for the founders,do yo really believe they had the forsight to see assault weapons in our future? I think not.
    What next? A nuke in every back yard and a M1 tank in every driveway? Where does it end?

    Like

    November 20, 2014

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