Mass Shootings

Calls for 'Commonsense' Gun Control Sound Senseless After Pittsburgh Shooting

Politicians' demands for stricter laws are notably lacking in detail and logic.


Amy Beth Bennett / Zuma Press / Newscom

Within hours of Saturday's massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Democratic politicians were calling for stricter gun control. As usual, their comments were notably lacking in detail and logic:

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, 12:02 p.m. ET Saturday: "We have been saying 'this one is too many' for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 2:14 p.m. ET Saturday: "Thoughts and prayers are not enough—Congress must finally act on commonsense, bipartisan gun violence prevention legislation."

Former President Barack Obama, 5:54 p.m. ET Saturday: "We have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun."

In what way might the "commonsense, bipartisan gun violence prevention legislation" recommended by Pelosi and implicitly endorsed by Wolf and Obama have stopped Robert Bowers, the accused Pittsburgh gunman, from murdering 11 people?

The Associated Press reports that Bowers legally owned the Colt AR-15 SP1 rifle and the three Glock .357 handguns he used in the attack, which means he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record. Hence "universal background checks" would not have helped.

A renewed federal "assault weapon" ban, such as the one backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would have covered new rifles similar to Bowers' AR-15. But it would not have applied to more than 16 million Feinstein-disapproved rifles already owned by Americans (including the one owned by Bowers).

Even if the government could make all those guns magically disappear, there are plenty of equally deadly substitutes. A New York Times editorial published on Sunday claims bills like Feinstein's ban "high-capacity weapons," but that is not true. The features that distinguish the guns Feinstein wants to prohibit from the ones she would leave on the market (things like adjustable stocks, barrel shrouds, and pistol grips) have nothing to do with how many rounds a gun can fire before reloading (or with caliber or rate of fire).

It's true that Feinstein also wants to ban "large capacity ammunition feeding devices," meaning magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds. But if pre-existing products would undermine Feinstein's ban on guns, they are an even bigger problem for her ban on "large capacity" magazines, tens of millions of which are already in circulation. Leaving that point aside, it is not clear that the need to switch magazines (or weapons) after firing 10 rounds would make much of a difference in attacks on unarmed people.

The Times also weirdly claims that "universal background checks" and "red-flag laws that take guns away from the mentally unstable" could "make attacks like the one on Tree of Life synagogue less deadly." The point of those policies is not to reduce the average death toll of such attacks but to prevent them altogether by depriving would-be mass murderers of the means to carry them out.

As I mentioned, background checks manifestly would not have prevented the Pittsburgh attack, because they did not prevent the Pittsburgh attack. What about a "red-flag law," which allows various parties (such as cops and relatives) to seek court orders prohibiting gun possession by people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others? It is hard to see how such a law could have made a difference in this case, unless anti-Semitic comments on social media platforms suffice to prove a gun owner poses a danger to public safety. If that were the standard, people could easily lose their Second Amendment rights for exercising their First Amendment rights.

The problem is not that gun controllers immediately take advantage of the latest bloody atrocity to push their policy agenda. The problem is that they do it so poorly. Depending on your perspective, maybe that is not really a problem at all.