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.