What happens when two mushy-minded moderates who qualify as opposite ends of a political spectrum only on the op-ed page of The New York Times get together for a "conversation" (definitely not a debate) about gun control in the wake of a highly publicized mass shooting? Pretty much what you'd expect: They agree that self-righteous extremists are just awful (although Gail Collins mainly has in mind NRA members, while David Brooks focuses on gun control activists), that policy should be driven by evidence rather than emotion, and that it's too bad all those rude shouters are impeding a consensus on the commonsense steps that obviously should be taken to prevent gun violence. Steps like…reinstating the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004:
Gail Collins: There are some parts of the gun control debate that are definitely open to, um, debate. There are parts that aren't, like the need to ban assault weapons. The fact that Congress found it impossible to extend the law against guns that allow you to shoot off 100 bullets in a couple of minutes is simply insane.
David Brooks: I agree with you there. The best argument for gun control this week is that even more people would have died if Holmes's gun had been faster or more effective.
Immediately after declaring the debate about "assault weapons" closed, Collins conflates the military-style guns that fall into that arbitrary category with "guns that allow you to shoot off 100 bullets in a couple of minutes," i.e., semiautomatic firearms that accept detachable magazines. Although the same law that banned "assault weapons" also banned magazines holding more than 10 rounds, it left millions of the latter in circulation—plenty to supply the needs of deranged mass murderers.
But Collins' confusion is crystal clear compared to Brooks'. He says "even more people would have died if Holmes's gun had been faster or more effective." The whole reason people like Collins and Brooks are talking about reviving the "assault weapon" ban is the assumption that James Holmes' Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle would have been covered by the law (which may indeed be true, depending on its specific features). So what on earth does Brooks mean when he says things would have been even worse if Holmes had been carrying a "faster or more effective" weapon? A machine gun? Those are already tightly restricted. Brooks probably doesn't mean that Holmes could have killed more people if he had not opted for that scary 100-round magazine, which ended up jamming, forcing him to switch guns. An unnamed "law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation" told CNN "these after-market extended magazines have a tendency to jam," a point that undermines the claim that they are especially suited for mass murder. Brooks probably also does not mean that more people might have died if Holmes had relied more on his shotgun, which is deadlier at short range. Acknowledging that point would cast doubt on the notion that "assault weapons" are uniquely dangerous.
So Collins and Brooks don't really know what the "assault weapon" ban did, but they want to bring it back anyway. The really irritating part is that Brooks makes a big show of siding with science and reason, noting three different reviews that found the evidence about the impact of gun control laws inconclusive. "This is not an open and shut case," he says. It's a mystery why Brooks does not bring the same caution to the case for the "assault weapon" ban, especially in light of "An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003," a 2004 report that three University of Pennsylvania criminologists prepared for the National Institute of Justice. Does this sound like "an open and shut case"?
Should it be renewed, the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. AWs [assault weapons] were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. LCMs [large-capacity magazines] are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading.
The researchers allow that "reducing criminal use of AWs and especially LCMs could have nontrivial effects on gunshot victimizations" but say "predictions are tenuous." According to Gail Collins, that's crazy talk, and possibly sufficient evidence of insanity to strip you of your Second Amendment rights.
[Thanks to Bob Woolley for the tip.]