We’ve reached a fevered pitch on the gun control topic lately, and I think it’s fair to say it’s for good reason. The Parkland shooting has gripped the emotions of both sides of this debate and everyone who’s speaking on it is passionate. On one end you’ve got the left who is pushing for just about any kind of gun control you can think of (depending on who you speak to) and on the right you’ve got everything from the run-of-the-mill 2A advocacy, to far-fetched conspiracy theories involving the children expressing their opinions that were present in the school during the shooting being called crisis actors. (For the record, I do not believe the children from the school in the event are paid actors.)
As these conversations get louder, there are a lot of people heaping heavy criticisms on the NRA. There is also a bunch of blame being placed on the law enforcement agencies that were in charge of upholding the rule of law when it comes to these situations. It’s my personal opinion that if we’re going to point fingers, we should be pointing fingers and those in law enforcement who had failed to do their jobs. If they had done their jobs, this would not have happened. That seems far more efficient to me than creating more responsibilities for individuals who have proven they are inept… however, that’s another topic for another article.
As this blame game is ping-ponged from twitter account to twitter account, from news station to news station, I became curious, much like I did a while back when I wrote the article analyzing the NFA in Australia. This curiosity led me to hunt down some data and see if there was a larger picture I was missing. Often times in these situations it’s common to focus on the symptom and ignore the cure. I was determined to find the root cause and attempt to address the cure, rather than the symptom.
The first place I went was the CDC and I pulled recorded rates of firearm-related injuries age, from 1970 – 2015. I compiled this data and ran it into a line-chart. Here is the result:
The first place people will focus on are these areas. The peak in 1993, and the firearm ban that came the following year. These dates are marked by the green bars on the chart below:
Without any accompanying information, it seems that the obvious answer is “we had a spike in firearm violence, and as a result, we enacted the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, which is responsible for a decrease in violent incidents involving firearms.” The problem is, that’s not true.
What caused the increase in firearm violence that peaked in 1993?
Answer: The War on Drugs created many new felonies, which lead to a large increase in the volume and amount of new felons. Gun control measures taken made sure felons could not legally obtain firearms, created a dangerous and violent black market. The only outcome of the regulation and control of firearms and a war on drugs was an increase in all of the exact issues that said regulation and control set out to eliminate.
Earlier we focused on the obvious part, the peak in 93’ and the ban in 94’. That dataset is far less interesting to me, however. What’s more interesting to me is exactly why gun violence became a problem in the first place.
Let’s focus on some other key areas here, again I’ve highlighted the areas of interest with green markers:
The first marker (furthest left) is placed at about 1985. This period is a bit of a calm before the storm. I placed the marker here arbitrarily because to me it looked like a good place to start doing an analysis. It was before the trend started to go upward, and that seemed like a logical start to me. It wasn’t until after I looked at what had happened around that time that things started to make a lot more sense.
In 1984, the United States of America passed the Sentencing Reform Act. A couple major keys here were the “Armed Career Criminal Act” which provided “sentence enhancements” for felons who commit crimes with firearms if they are convicted of certain crimes three or more times. Some crimes were seen as more egregious than others. Most notably, “violent felonies” and “serious drug offenses.” Along with the ACCA, the Sentencing Reform Act included increased federal penalties for cultivation, possession, or transfer of marijuana.
In 1986, Congress passed laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the trafficking or possession of crack when compared to the penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine. At the time this was largely seen as a policy that was intentionally discriminatory against minorities, which from as best I can tell is accurate, as they were far more likely to use crack than powdered cocaine. 5g of crack would land you a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years in federal prison.
There’s something else interesting that happened in 1986, and that is the passing of the Firearm Owners Protection Act. Much like many other government policies, this was marketed on its face to protect gun owners, and if we’re being honest a fair amount of the policy included in the act did just that. It made it easier for firearm owners to carry while traveling without having to worry about legal issues coming from states with different policy positions on gun control and made some things a bit fairer for consumers in the firearms industry. As part of this Act as well, however, came an update from a Gun Control Act of 1968, stating who is prohibited from owning Firearms.
The full list can be seen here, but this item specifically caught my attention:
- Anyone who has been convicted in any court of a felony punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, excluding those crimes punishable by imprisonment related to the regulation of business practices, whose full civil rights have not been restored by the State in which the firearms disability was first imposed.
And to add to this, in 1988 the Anti-Drug Abuse act of 1988 was instituted 2 years later, again raising the standards for mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking and drug crimes. As stated by Warren Redlich when expressing the effects of these policies:
“After spending billions of dollars on law enforcement, doubling the number of arrests and incarcerations, and building prisons at a record pace, the system has failed to decrease the level of drug-related crime. Placing people in jail at increasing rates has had little long-term effect on the levels of crime”.
Not only did it cost billions, pay attention to the important part there: Increased the number of arrests and incarcerations. Just what kind of volume are we talking?
An absolutely staggering jump, which only seems to have continued upward at a rapid pace. You can see the data also reflected quite clearly here:
Was the Federal Assault Weapons ban of 1994 effective?
Answer: The ban would have been totally successful if not for the ban.
While there was a decrease, yes, there’s a bit of a blip on the radar in the time-frame that complicates things. I don’t know if you remember the little event, Columbine.
The problem with attributing this decline to the Firearm regulation from 1994? There was an almost non-existent change in the data attributed to the firearms that were included in the legislation. I don’t mean to say there was no difference, there seems to be a bit of one. What was that difference? A report conducted in 2004 gives us some information:
In 2004, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence examined the impact of the Assault Weapons Ban, On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act. Examining 1.4 million guns involved in crime, “in the five-year period before enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Act (1990–1994), assault weapons named in the Act constituted 4.82% of the crime gun traces ATF conducted nationwide. Since the law’s enactment, however, these assault weapons have made up only 1.61% of the guns ATF has traced to crime. Page 10 of the Brady report, however, adds that “an evaluation of copycat weapons is necessary”. Including “copycat weapons”, the report concluded that “in the post-ban period, the same group of guns has constituted 3.1% of ATF traces, a decline of 45%.” A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) stated that he “can in no way vouch for the validity” of the report.
So, in reality, we went from 4.82% to 3.1%, It’s not horrible by any means, but can we be sure that these results are a direct result of the firearm ban?
Information on two other reports suggests that it is not:
In 2003, the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent, non-federal task force, examined an assortment of firearms laws, including the AWB, and found “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence”. A 2004 critical review of firearms research by a National Research Council committee said that an academic study of the assault weapon ban “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes”. The committee noted that the study’s authors said the guns were used criminally with relative rarity before the ban and that its maximum potential effect on gun violence outcomes would be very small.
In 2004, a research report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice found that should the ban be renewed, its effects on gun violence would likely be small, and perhaps too small for reliable measurement, because rifles in general, including rifles referred to as “assault rifles” or “assault weapons”, are rarely used in gun crimes. That study by Christopher S. Koper, Daniel J. Woods, and Jeffrey A. Roth of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania found no statistically significant evidence that either the assault weapons ban or the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds had reduced gun murders. The authors also report that “there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury.” 
If you’re sitting there wondering, “well there was a decline, but how come the analysts are saying it was insignificant?” – sample size matters here. When you take a look at the share of gun violence that exists overall, take a look at the “Rifle” category, and understand that the weapons that were banned in 1994, make up a percentage of rifles available on the market.
So in reality, we’re talking percentages of percentages.
Obviously, these numbers will change from year to year, but the overall ratio and rates of weapons and murder victims remain as it has for a long time.
Furthermore, if the ban was so effective, we would have seen a big peak in violence coming out of the ban in 2004, which we did not. It was actually a continuation of the trend downward, that in retrospect would have existed with or without the regulations.
The government even said itself in a study conducted by the Department of Justice:
“We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”
To add to that, in the time leading up to the ban, anticipating the ban was coming firearms producers doubled down on output, flooding the market with weapons and accessories that would soon fall under the federal ban.
As stated in the DOJ report:
“However, the decline in AW use was offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with LCMs in jurisdictions studied (Baltimore, Milwaukee, Louisville, and Anchorage). The failure to reduce LCM use has likely been due to the immense stock of exempted pre-ban magazines, which has been enhanced by recent imports.”
If you’re still following, I’ll recap: Leading up to the gun ban, manufacturers produced a much larger than normal amount of the weapons and modifications that were slated to be made illegal. As a result, any reduction in violence due to the ban was offset by the increase in violence due to production that resulted from the announcement of the ban.
So… The ban wasn’t effective, then why did the rates go down following the spike in 1993?
Answer: It’s hard to tell exactly, but crime overall around that time follows the same trend as these rates do. Leading up to the decline after 1994 the problem with crime was becoming a serious concern for the American public. These death rates follow the general trend of crime rates in the same time-frame, which were also declining.
From our analysis, we’ve learned some important factors that we’ll want to consider when building our conclusion. We’ve learned that the Firearm ban in 1994 had little to no effect at all toward the issue that it was trying to solve. So that leaves us with the obvious question, what DID end up lowering those rates? What’s interesting is when we look at the data that was pulled at the beginning of this article, it was broken up by age. The largest demographic of gun violence victims and perpetrators were in the 20-24 age bracket. This is entirely compatible with a study conducted on May 2001 by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, pointing to Rowe Vs Wade as an actual cause of a decrease in crime. 1993 is exactly 20 years after the passage of Rowe Vs Wade and would mark the first generation coming to the age that qualifies for the most significant demographic represented in this country by gun violence. Do I believe this accounts for all of the decline? I do not, I think that the hightened awareness of the topic overall led to better knowledge and education on it, which led to more people being aware of, and caring about this issue. I don’t believe anyone in society (or most people in society) wants this kind of thing to happen. Aside from measures that were taken federally, I think a lot of people took measures personally in their own way, and in their own communities.
What can we learn from all of this?
In my opinion, this is very obvious. It was a perfect storm of creating criminals and then making sure that the newly created criminals could not obtain firearms. Just as we discussed how prior to the 1994 regulations there was a boon in production, any time you move to regulate anything, those who are directly affected by regulations are going to go out of their way to make sure they’ve hedged their bets in the face of said regulations.
The federal government established an intense and powerful war on drugs, one that saw incarceration numbers skyrocket. More and more individuals were now criminals, and the average time spent in prison during this time was 42 months. The largest percentage of incarcerations were for drugs, which thanks to widespread drug policy in the 80’s were now federal offenses. When you then consider those federal laws passed in the late 80’s ensured that any individual who was incarcerated for over a year for a federal crime had their rights to bear arms removed. If you’re not familiar with what happens when you make a large-scale of anything illegal, a black market is instantly created.
So now you have millions of citizens in the united states who are now labeled as criminals, that can no longer legally own firearms to protect themselves. Aside from the immense struggles that are placed on an individual with these kinds of criminal charges, they are now also forced to go through a dangerous firearm black market (if you think they didn’t, you’re being foolish) to purchase weapons that aren’t legal or tracked.
In two decades the federal government found a way to turn law abiding citizens into federal criminals, and then proceeded to place a dangerous black market (where they could purchase weapons that could not be tracked) directly at their feet as they continued to attack the general population with hurdle after hurdle to increase the challenge of living a life free of complications and burden. In just two decades the government grew, raised, and armed a militia of individuals, fed up and mad as hell that they couldn’t live their lives without the states foot on top of their heads as they struggled to breathe. In my opinion, the question is not what led to the surge of violence we saw in 1993, but why no one else seems to realize the effects policy has on the public at large.