The Times on Guns: Still Tendentious, but Improving


The New York Times reports that James Holmes, the man arrested for killing 12 people and injuring 58 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, last week, "would have faced more obstacles" if he "had tried to carry out his scheme in a different state, or at an earlier time." This is true enough, as far as it goes. If Holmes had tried to kill people in a movie theater prior to the 13th century, for instance, he would have faced two major obstacles: 1) no firearms and 2) no movie theaters. In more recent times the obstacles would have been less serious, even in states with gun laws more restrictive than Colorado's.

One of the guns Holmes used, a Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle, is modeled after the Colt AR-15, which is a civilian, semiautomatic version of the M-16. Depending on its specific features, Holmes' rifle might have been covered by the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004 or by state bans. But as the Times concedes toward the end of the article, "Even if Mr. Holmes had been blocked from buying a specific model of assault rifle [sic] in California, Massachusetts or New York State, he would most likely have been able to buy a similar gun not covered by the law." Furthermore, an ordinary shotgun (which Holmes also used) is deadlier at close range than a so-called assault weapon.

The Times notes that a few states ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds, as did federal law until 2004. As I argue in my column today, the relevance of that restriction is questionable: Holmes could have obtained pre-existing large-capacity magazines even if the ban were still in effect, and if he didn't it probably would not have mattered much, given how quickly magazines and weapons can be swapped. Likewise, because Holmes bought ammunition online, the Times notes that Congress legalized interstate mail orders of ammunition in 1986. But is there any reason to think the need to buy ammunition in person would have stymied Holmes? Finally, the Times says New Jersey puts would-be gun buyers through the ringer:

If Mr. Holmes had tried to buy his guns in New Jersey, he would have had to apply to local law enforcement agencies or the state police — not to a gun shop — and answer questions about personal history, including whether he had ever been "observed by a psychiatrist" for "a mental condition," even a temporary one, and to waive all confidentiality. His behavior, which some have described as erratic in recent months, might have raised concern.

It might or it might not, but giving police this sort of veto power, based on the myth that future mass murderers can be identified by tell-tale eccentricities, hardly seems consistent with the Second Amendment. Even weirdos have constitutional rights.

Aside from the dubious implication (highlighted in the headline and the lead) that the "obstacles" erected by gun control laws would have deterred a man bent on mass murder, the Times story is surprisingly even-handed, which reminds me of something I noticed in the paper's earlier coverage of the Aurora massacre: Unlike in the past, the Times seems to be making an effort to get its gun facts right (conveying the distinction between semiautomatic "assault weapons" and machine guns, for example), to include skeptical voices (such as University of Florida criminologist Gary Kleck, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, and David Kopel of the Independence Institute), and to put the gun issue in a broader context rather than focusing exclusively on this one horrible event. The lead to the paper's July 23 story about Holmes' weapons, for instance, says they are "among the most popular guns available in the multibillion-dollar American firearms market," which you could read as an indictment of America's violent culture but also as a refutation of the popular notion that certain firearms are good only for evil purposes and that banning those models will frustrate criminals while leaving responsible, law-abiding folks unscathed. I don't want to exaggerate the change I perceive, since the Times still runs stories with tendentious headlines like "Colorado Gun Laws Remain Lax, Despite Some Changes" and "Other States, and Other Times, Would Have Posed Obstacles for Gunman." But it does seem to me that the coverage is more accurate and fairer than it used to be.