If we are "sick of massacres," says the headline over Gail Collins' latest New York Times column, we should "get rid of the guns." Which guns? Collins herself is not sure. Sometimes she seems to be talking about the rifles that politicians call "assault weapons." She refers a few times to "assault rifles" and mentions "the infamous semiautomatic AR-15." But she also talks about banning "semiautomatic rifles" and "semiautomatics" in general, which are much broader categories that include many other commonly used guns.
As long as they do not have military-style features such as a folding stock, a pistol grip, or a threaded barrel, semi-automatic rifles are not covered by state "assault weapon" laws. The bill aimed at reviving the federal ban that expired in 2004 explicitly exempts dozens of semi-automatic rifles by name, and it applies to handguns only if they have specified characteristics such as a threaded barrel, a second pistol grip, or a barrel shroud.
Collins does not seem to understand any of this, which is both surprising and typical. It is surprising because Collins has worked at the Times since 1995, oversaw the paper's editorial page for six years, and has frequently written about gun control. It is typical because Collins has repeatedly demonstrated that she is unfamiliar with the firearms she wants to ban and unwilling to think through the practical consequences of the policies she favors, both of which are common failings among gun control enthusiasts.
After the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, Collins expressed amazement at the idea that Americans have "a right to bear Glocks." She drew a distinction between the Glock 19 used by the Tucson shooter and "a regular pistol, the kind most Americans think of when they think of the right to bear arms." Unlike a "regular pistol," she explained, a Glock 19 "is extremely easy to fire over and over, and it can carry a 30-bullet clip."
Although Collins claims a Glock 19 is not "a regular pistol," it is one of the most popular handguns in the United States. And contrary to what she seems to think, all semi-automatic pistols fire at the same rate, and they typically accept magazines of various sizes.
In 2012, Collins described "assault weapons" as "guns that allow you to shoot off 100 bullets in a couple of minutes"—i.e., about one round per second. That description would cover any semi-automatic firearm with a detachable magazine, including "regular" pistols as well as many of the rifles specifically exempted from the proposed federal ban on "assault weapons."
Three years later, Collins averred that "assault weapons…seem to be the armament of choice for mass shootings." Not according to a recent National Institute of Justice report on public mass shootings from 1966 through 2019, which found that 77 percent of the perpetrators used handguns. In the same column, Collins asserted that "semiautomatic weapons are totally inappropriate for either hunting or home defense," which would come as a surprise to the millions of Americans who use them for those purposes.
Collins continues her confusion in her latest column. She says Congress could "toughen background check laws" or "limit the sale of semiautomatics to people with hunting licenses"—a puzzling suggestion in light of Collins' insistence that "semiautomatic weapons" are "totally inappropriate" for hunting. But Collins thinks it would be better to "just get rid of them."
There are a few problems with that proposal. Given how Collins has defined the guns she wants to eliminate, her ban would apply to a host of firearms "in common use" for "lawful purposes," which the Supreme Court has said are covered by the Second Amendment. The forbidden firearms would include most handguns, which the Court described as "the quintessential self-defense weapon."
Maybe Collins, when she refers to "semiautomatics," actually means the guns covered by the proposed federal "assault weapon" ban. But just as she does not understand how that category is defined, she does not seem to realize that the bill would not "get rid of" those firearms. Like the expired 1994 ban, it would allow current owners to keep them.
There are sound pragmatic reasons for that grandfather clause. Based on production and import data from 1990 through 2016, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated that Americans owned more than 16 million guns that politicians would classify as "assault weapons." That number surely is even bigger now than it was six years ago. Even if legislators shared Collins' disregard for property rights, the Second Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment, any attempt to confiscate all those weapons would be a practical and political nightmare.
At the same time, the fact that maybe 20 million "assault weapons" would remain in circulation even if Congress renewed the ban means they would still be available to mass shooters who wanted them. And since the definition of "assault weapons" is based on functionally unimportant features (another point Collins overlooks), murderers would still have plenty of equally lethal alternatives even if all those guns disappeared tomorrow.
Unfazed by these considerations, Collins thinks it is obvious that Congress should ban "semiautomatics," "semiautomatic rifles," "assault rifles," or whatever. The important thing, she says, is to "think positive" and fight "a simple battle."
Collins does concede that "getting rid of assault rifles won't solve the gun problem as long as people in many states are allowed to own pistols and carry them when they stroll about the town." In reality, "getting rid of assault rifles"—whatever Collins thinks they are and however that would be accomplished—cannot reasonably be expected to have any meaningful impact on "the gun problem."
Leaving aside all the other problems with that plan, it would not affect the firearms that murderers (including mass shooters) overwhelmingly prefer. In 2019, according to the FBI's numbers, handguns accounted for more than 90 percent of the weapons used in gun homicides where the type of firearm was specified. Just 5 percent of those guns were rifles, only a subset of which would qualify as "assault weapons."
Since Collins is dismayed by the fact that Americans are "allowed to own pistols"(even the "regular" kind), it is not hard to imagine what she thinks the next step should be. A handgun ban would be not just flagrantly unconstitutional and politically impossible but also utterly impractical. In a country where civilians own more than 400 million firearms, with handguns being the most common kind, the idea is nothing but a fantasy.
The same could be said of pretty much everything that Collins says about gun control. She routinely substitutes emotion for logic, offers anecdotes instead of evidence, and makes wildly wrong factual assertions that could be corrected by a quick Google search. The fact that her astonishing sloppiness and magical thinking pass for policy analysis in a leading newspaper speaks volumes about the state of the gun control debate.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.