Would a New Law Make Big Magazines Disappear?


Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is proposing an amendment to the Cybersecurity Act that would ban possession or transfer of "large capacity ammunition feeding devices," i.e., magazines holding more than 10 rounds. ThinkProgress explains the rationale this way:

24-year-old James Holmes, the prime suspect in the Aurora shooting, purchased a 100 round drum magazine. Jared Loughner, who shot former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) in 2011 along with 18 others, used an extended magazine that held 33 bullets, and police found two more 15-round magazines in his pockets. Under the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, these two killers could not have legally purchased these large capacity ammunition feeding devices. 

That last part is not correct: The federal "assault weapon" ban defined "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" as magazines holding more than 10 rounds "manufactured after the date of enactment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994." Since pre-existing magazines were not covered, Holmes and Loughner would have had little trouble buying the same equipment (although it might have cost more) even if the ban had been extended in 2004. Lautenberg's amendment likewise says the ban does not apply to "the possession of a large capacity ammunition feeding device otherwise lawfully possessed within the United States on or before the date of the enactment of this subsection." A ban without such a clause would transform millions of law-abiding Americans into felons overnight. At the same time, the fact that millions of large-capacity magazines will remain in circulation no matter what Congress does tends to undermine the argument for the legislation, even if we assume that the need to switch magazines or guns would make a crucial difference in mass shootings.

Lautenberg's resistance to acknowledging this reality makes the recent press release in which he "Calls on GOP Leaders to Use the Facts on U.S. Gun Violence" especially risible. The senator claims Mitt Romney misrepresented the current state of federal gun control in an interview last Wednesdy with NBC News anchor Brian Williams when he said, in reference to Holmes' "weapons and bombs and other devices" that "it was illegal for him to have many of those things already, but he had them." Not so, says Lautenberg:

The shooter's arsenal of weapons—including a semi-automatic assault rifle and a 100-round ammunition magazine—was obtained legally.

Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress need to understand the basic facts before they rule out reforming our country's lax gun laws. Romney and the Republicans need to stop hiding behind the gun lobby's talking points, and admit that our weak gun laws play a significant role in tragic shooting incidents.

Romney, who signed an "assault weapon" ban when he was governor of Massachusetts, certainly has some inconsistency to answer for in this area (and many others). But it is clear that in the NBC interview he was referring to the explosives and incendiary devices with which Holmes booby-trapped his apartment, not his rifle, shotgun, or pistol.

Lautenberg's erroneous correction reflects the tendency of gun controllers to emphasize that everything a mass shooter did leading up to his attack was perfectly legal, clearly demonstrating the need for new laws. But planning mass murder, not to mention carrying it out, is about as illegal as you can get. It is therefore rather silly to imagine that more stringent rules for concealed carry in Arizona would have stopped Loughner, any more than a movie theater's ban on weapons stopped Holmes. The burden for gun control advocates is to show not just that new legislation would have made a particular mass murder even more illegal but that it would have created insuperable practical obstacles for a determined killer.