Tactical Tragedies

The lone gunman theory of firearm regulation


On Tuesday evening, December 7, Colin Ferguson sat with weary commuters in the third car of the 5:33 train from Manhattan to Hicksville, Long Island. About 6:10 p.m., as the train was approaching the Merillon Avenue station in Garden City, he drew a 9-mm pistol, stood up, and began firing. Ferguson shot 23 people, fatally wounding six, before three passengers managed to subdue him.

President Bill Clinton was quick to take political advantage of what he called a "terrible human tragedy." The next day, during a luncheon with reporters, he cited Ferguson's rampage as evidence of the need for stricter gun control. Specifically, Clinton said he was sympathetic to the idea of licensing all gun owners under standards set by the federal government, a proposal he had discussed a few days before in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He also reiterated his support for legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would ban 19 "assault weapons," along with ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds.

Only one of these measures—banning large-capacity magazines—had any connection to Ferguson's crime. Nassau County police say Ferguson was carrying four clips, each of which held 15 rounds. He emptied one, reloaded, emptied the second, and was switching to the third when a few brave passengers overpowered him. If each of the clips had held only 10 cartridges, Clinton argued, Ferguson might have fired fewer shots, and some of his victims might have been spared. That's assuming, of course, that Ferguson would not have compensated for the lower capacity by bringing an extra gun, by taping magazines together so they could be switched more quickly, or by choosing a higher-caliber weapon-in which case he might have killed more people, even if he fired fewer shots.

Clinton's other suggestions, although ostensibly prompted by the shootings on the Long Island Rail Road, had nothing to do with the facts of the incident. Ferguson's gun, a Ruger P-89 semiautomatic, is not covered by Feinstein's legislation or by any existing "assault weapon" ban. And Ferguson picked up the gun in California seven months before the crime, after a background check and a 15-day waiting period. Under the sort of licensing scheme envisioned by Clinton, he would have had to undergo firearms training as well. There's no reason to believe the additional requirement would have deterred him. Indeed, it might have improved his aim.

The response to Ferguson's shooting spree illustrates once again how gun-control policy is driven by dramatic, isolated events that attract wide attention precisely because they are so unusual. Politicians and activists use mass murders, assassinations, and other sensational acts of violence to build support for gun-control measures and generate an atmosphere of hysteria that discourages critical reflection. Not surprisingly, the resulting laws often fail to address the very incidents that inspire them. And they do little or nothing about ordinary crime, which represents a much bigger threat to the average American.

The week before the murders on the train to Hicksville, Clinton signed into law the Brady Bill, which requires a buyer to wait five working days before taking possession of a handgun. The waiting period is intended to allow the authorities to verify that the buyer is not a felon or otherwise disqualified to own a firearm under federal law. Supporters of the measure have also argued that it gives people intent on violence time to "cool off."

The main impetus for the federal waiting period was John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, in which White House Press Secretary James Brady was seriously injured. Since the 1981 attack, Brady's wife, Sarah, who heads Handgun Control Inc., has repeatedly implied that a waiting period would have stopped Hinckley from shooting the president and her husband. "Had a waiting period been in effect seven years ago," she told USA Today in 1988, "John Hinckley would not have had the opportunity to buy the gun he used."

But as gun-control scholar David Kopel has shown, there is very little foundation for this belief. Hinckley had no felony convictions and no public record of mental illness. He presented a Texas driver's license to the Dallas gun dealer who sold him the .22-caliber revolver that he used in the assassination attempt, and it appears that Hinckley was indeed a resident of the state at the time, as required by federal law. Since he purchased the weapon months before he shot the president, a cooling-off period would not have helped. Finally, even if Hinckley had been prevented from buying the .22, he could have used one of the handguns he already owned. These included a .38 special that he had legally purchased in Colorado, which probably would have killed the president and his press secretary rather than injuring them.

In Colin Ferguson's case, we don't have to speculate about whether a background check would have stopped him; we know it didn't. Nor did it stop James E. Pough, who killed eight people at a Jacksonville, Florida, loan office in 1990. Pough was not listed as a felon, so he had no trouble buying the .30-caliber rifle and .38-caliber revolver he used in the attack. Gian Luigi Ferri, who killed eight people in a San Francisco office building last July, also cleared a background check when he bought two 9mm pistols in Las Vegas a few months before his shooting spree.

Just as John Hinckley gave us the Brady Law, Patrick Edward Purdy gave us the recent spate of "assault weapon" bans. In 1989 Purdy attacked a Stockton, California, elementary school, armed with a Chinese-made, semiautomatic rifle that resembles the Russianmade AK-47. He shot a teacher and 34 students, killing five of them. The massacre led to "assault weapon" bans in California and three other states, and it boosted support for similar legislation at the federal level.

The definition of assault weapon, a term invented by the gun-control lobby, has never been clear. Legislators who go after them tend to pick out weapons that look scary, so the banned firearms are not necessarily any more dangerous than the ones that remain legal; in fact, they tend to be of intermediate caliber, so they are less powerful than many shotguns, hunting rifles, and handguns. This haphazard process can have embarrassing results: The original version of California's "assault weapon" law did not even cover Purdy's weapon, which had to be added to the list later.

Supporters of these bans either do not understand or purposely obscure the distinction between automatic weapons, which fire rounds continuously, and semiautomatic weapons, which fire once for each trigger pull. Automatic weapons (machine guns), which include assault rifles designed for military use, are already strictly controlled by federal law. So-called assault weapons are all semiautomatic, so they fire no more rapidly than hunting rifles or revolvers. Press accounts frequently imply that "assault weapons" are machine guns—for example, by calling Purdy's gun "an AK-47 assault rifle."

This confusion is tied to another misconception: that the rate of fire is a crucial factor in mass murders. Referring to the shootings on the Long Island Rail Road, for example, Clinton said, "Apparently, the rapid fire of the gun was something that almost paralyzed all the people on the car." Yet police say Ferguson emptied two 15-round clips over a period of three minutes, so he was firing at an average rate of about one round every six seconds, far below the gun's capability. James Pough used an "assault weapon" during his rampage in Jacksonville, but a survivor told The New York Times: "It wasn't random and it wasn't continuous. It wasn't pandemonium and at the end we didn't know it was over, because there were silences all through the shooting." These examples suggest that it's a gunman's unpredictability, rather than his speed, that paralyzes his victims.

As it happens, the murderers responsible for the worst shooting sprees in U.S. history managed just fine without "assault weapons." In 1984 James Huberty, armed with a shotgun, a pistol, and a hunting rifle, killed 20 people at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California. In 1991 George Jo Hennard killed 22 people at a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, using two ordinary pistols, a Glock and a Luger.

After the Killeen massacre, Sarah Brady and other gun-control advocates argued that it showed the need for a federal ban on—you guessed it—assault weapons. Brady wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Is it going to take a massacre in every congressional district for enough members to find the backbone to put public safety ahead of the profits of the assault-weapon lobby?" The day after the massacre, which was also the day of a House vote on the "assault weapon" legislation, The Washington Post editorialized: "Maybe just a few members of Congress at least will think beyond the standard, obvious and empty comment about a 'senseless tragedy' and reflect instead on the senseless, gross national arsenal of firearms everywhere across the land. Today, hours after the bodies fell in Texas, the clerk will call the roll, and a lot more people will be watching."

Chet Edwards, Killeen's representative in Congress, did reverse his opposition to the proposed ban, even though it did not deal with the guns Hennard had used. "In the past, I have been opposed to gun control," said Edwards, a moderate Democrat. "I still am…but today is different. Today, I am not talking about statistics and charts and graphs and constitutional, esoteric issues. I am talking about 22 people—preachers, soldiers, mothers, fathers, teachers—who were killed brutally by this murderer." Edwards's comments reflect the perception that rational arguments are unseemly in the wake of such a tragedy—a notion that supporters of gun control often use to their advantage.

Thomas F. McDermott, an attorney who was wounded in the shoulder during Colin Ferguson's shooting spree, afterward wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he insisted: "The issue we must focus on is achieving true, enforceable gun control. Whether this can be accomplished by constitutional amendment, an expanded Brady law, gun licensing or a combination of these approaches, there is no room for moderation, nor for prolonged discussion and delay. There must be an immediate ban on the kind of automatic [sic] weapon that mowed down the riders on the 5:33."

This sort of rhetoric, calling for immediate action in response to a perceived crisis, can be very effective. Consider President Lyndon Johnson's successful push for a federal gun-control law following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. On June 6, the very day that Kennedy died in a Los Angeles hospital, the president delivered an emotional message to Congress: "Today the nation cries out to the conscience of the Congress. Criminal violence from the muzzle of a gun has once again brought heartbreak to America. Surely this must be clear beyond question: The hour has come for the Congress to enact a strong and effective gun control law governing the full range of lethal weapons."

In the Gun Control Act of 1968, Johnson got just about everything he asked for, including a ban on possession of firearms by felons, people judged mentally incompetent, and several other categories of undesirables; a ban on firearm sales to out-of-state purchasers (except for licensed dealers); and a ban on the import of certain cheap handguns and rifles (perceived as the favored weapons of rioters). But although the King and Kennedy assassinations had a great deal to do with its passage, the law did not affect the weapons used by James Earl Ray (a .30-06 hunting rifle) or Sirhan Sirhan (a .22-caliber pistol). It did ban mail-order firearms such as the rifle used to shoot John F. Kennedy in 1963, but Lee Harvey Oswald could easily have bought the same weapon in a gun shop.

As much as gun control fails to stop assassins and mass murderers, it fails even more dramatically to protect us from muggers, rapists, and burglars. Licenses and waiting periods wll never have a significant effect on ordinary criminals, since the vast majority of them do not get their weapons over the counter at gun stores. (Those who do can always have someone without a felony record buy guns for them.) And despite the impression created by the gun-control lobby, "assault weapons" are very rarely used in crimes. Nor is it likely that many criminals are deterred by restrictions on interstate transfers.

But there is a policy that could provide significant protection against lunatics with guns and ordinary criminals alike. Clinton unwittingly suggested it when he said that driver licensing could be a model for gun licensing. Taken seriously, this would mean that you would need a license to carry a gun in public but not to own one or use it on private property. (After all, you don't need a license to own a car or operate it in your driveway.) Once you met the specific requirements for a license—say, a clean record and completion of a safety course—the government would have to issue you one. In other words, every state would have a liberal carry-permit system similar to Florida's. Florida's homicide rate fell steadily after the state adopted this system, from 36 percent above the national average in 1986 to about 4 percent below in 1991.

If a significant number of law-abiding people made a habit of carrying guns in public, they could create a general deterrent to crime. (See "Equal Protection," October 1993.) In Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms, sociologists James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi report that most felons worry more about encountering armed victims than about getting arrested. This fear has a real impact on criminal behavior. Last December, two teenagers armed with a sawed-off shotgun accosted Christine Schweiger, a 35-year-old accountant, as she and her 10-year-old daughter left a Popeye's fried-chicken restaurant in Milwaukee. After Schweiger told them she had no money, one of the muggers blew her head off. "In explaining his crime," the Chicago Tribune reported, "the 16-year-old told police that Schweiger was picked because she was one of the few white people in the restaurant. The boys, both black, told detectives that they had at first considered robbing a black woman, but figured a white person would be less likely to be carrying a gun."

Citizens carrying guns could also cut short rampages such as Colin Ferguson's, during which the victims tend to lie low, leaving the gunman a conspicuous target. When George Will suggested this possibility to the police chiefs of St. Louis and Los Angeles on the December 12 This Week with David Brinkley, they rejected the notion out of hand. "I think that's patently ludicrous," said St. Louis Police Chief Clarence Harmon.

Thomas Terry would probably disagree. In December 1991, two armed robbers entered a Shoney's restaurant in Anniston, Alabama, taking over 20 hostages. Terry, armed with a .45-caliber pistol that he was licensed to carry, hid under a table. After he was spotted, Terry shot and killed both robbers. He suffered a minor wound, but no one else was injured.

Suzanna Gratia was not so lucky. Two months before the aborted robbery in Anniston, she was one of the patrons at the cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, where George Hennard killed 22 people, including her parents. Gratia had a gun in her car but did not bring it into the restaurant, which would have been illegal. She later said that she would have had a clear shot at Hennard from where she was lying. "We were sitting ducks, and that just makes me so blasted mad," she said. "I've got a right to protect myself."

Jacob Sullum is managing editor of REASON.