Good Shotguns Are Used in Crimes More Often Than Evil 'Assault Weapons'


White House

This morning J.D. Tuccille noted Vice President Joe Biden's dubious advice to his wife about how she should defend herself against would-be home invaders. It is interesting that Biden's weapon of choice is a shotgun, which he contrasts with "an AR-15," one of the military-style semiautomatic rifles he wants to ban, supposedly because they are especially suited to committing mass murder and other crimes. Biden says an AR-15 is "harder to aim" and "harder to use," which makes you wonder why he believes it is favored by criminals. It also makes you wonder why aim matters when you are firing warning shots into the air, as Biden recommends.

If you are firing at a person, a blast from a shotgun is much deadlier at close range* than the intermediate-size cartridges fired by AR-15s and other so-called assault weapons. That fact might count in favor of shotguns as self-defense weapons, but it also makes them more dangerous in the hands of criminals. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) nevertheless shares Biden's affection for shotguns, listing hundreds that are exempt from her proposed "assault weapon" ban. A shotgun was also the weapon that President Obama picked to show he is is no gun banner (despite the fact that he wants to ban guns) in a widely mocked White House photo.

Contrary to the impression left by such favoritism, there is nothing inherently virtuous about shotguns, such that they can be used only for legitimate purposes and never to hurt or kill innocent people. On the same day that Biden lauded shotguns as the ideal weapons for home defense, a young man used one to murder three people in the Los Angeles area. In fact, shotguns are used in crimes considerably more often than the "assault weapons" that Biden and Feinstein say pose an intolerable threat to public safety. A 2004 study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice estimated that "assault weapons" (mostly pistols) were used in something like 2 percent of gun crimes before they were banned by a federal law that expired that year. By comparison, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, shotguns were used in 5 percent of gun crimes in 1993, the year before Congress passed the "assault weapon" ban. In a 1997 survey of state and federal prison inmates, 7 percent of those who had carried a firearm while committing the crime for which they were serving time said it was a military-style semiautomatic, while 13 percent said it was a shotgun.

Ordinary handguns are far and away the weapons most commonly used by criminals, including mass murderers. They are also the most popular weapons for self-defense, which illustrates the folly of trying to distinguish between good and evil guns.

[*I added this qualifier to clarify that I am talking about a scenario like the one imagined by Biden, where someone is confronting a home intruder.]