Biden’s focus on semiautomatic weapons is ignorance manifest
The hallmark of the Joe Biden presidency is ignorance, the hallmark of the gun-policy debate is ignorance, and so when President Biden weighs in on firearms — as with his recent insistence that the United States should categorically prohibit semiautomatic weapons — the result is ignorance squared.
President Biden has been in public office as long as I have been alive, and he was elected to the Senate in 1972, when the violent-crime rate in the United States was on its way toward quadrupling from its relatively modest 1960 level to its ghastly peak in 1991. You would think that Biden would have at some point in those five decades learned a little something about guns and crime — but he has not.
Biden, like many Democrats, speaks about semiautomatic firearms — a category that includes nearly all of the handguns currently sold and the great majority of the rifles — as though the presence of such weapons in civilian hands were something new. Nothing could be further from the truth: Semiautomatic handguns have been for sale in the civilian market since the late 19th-century, and by the early 20th century, Colt was selling tens of thousands of its popular semiautomatic handgun — known as the 1911, after the year of its introduction — to civilians, as well as exporting them to Canada and other countries. Semiautomatic rifles weren’t far behind, with Winchester offering its first in 1903 and Remington in 1905. These were firearms explicitly designed for the civilian market—the first military-use semiautomatic rifle wouldn’t come into use until a few years later. The AR-15 was first sold to civilians in the early 1960s and was advertised as a hunting rifle.
According to ATF data, about 85% of all the handguns sold in the United States in 2018 were semiautomatics, with almost all of the rest being revolvers. ATF data do not separate semiautomatic rifles from other kinds of rifles, so the prevalence of semiautomatics cannot be documented precisely, but a look around any gun shop or a trip to any firing range will suggest that semiautomatics make up about the same share of rifles as of pistols.
As a matter of crime control, semiautomatic rifles are very close to being a non-issue. In 2019, there were 13,927 murders in the United States, and rifles as a whole — not only semiautomatic, but all rifles combined — were used in only 364 of them. For comparison, 600 Americans died from being beaten to death with bare hands or stomped. There were more Americans murdered with baseball bats and other blunt objects than semiautomatic rifles.
This follows a familiar pattern — the pattern of imbecilic futility from anti-gun activists. Semiautomatic rifles make up at most 2.6% of the firearms used in murders, even though these guns are very common. Almost all of the new proposed firearms controls target firearms retailers and their customers, who make up a vanishingly small share of criminals: Of the offenders in custody who were in possession of a firearm at the time of their crime, about 2 % got that gun from a retail source, according to the DOJ.
There has been a low-level panic about gun shows for years, but the criminals who got their guns at gun shows make up about 0.8% of the prisoners in custody. If you listen to Mike Bloomberg or the editorialists of the New York Daily News, you might believe any criminal can walk into a gun show and leave with a machine gun: In reality, there have been exactly two cases of a legally owned fully automatic weapon being used in a homicide in the United States since before World War II — one by a civilian, and one by a corrupt cop assassinating an informant. But there are a fair number of fully automatic weapons in private hands, albeit only those made before 1986. Statistically, you’re more likely to be killed by a Democratic politician in Nevada than by one of the thousands of fully automatic weapons legally owned by Americans.
We talk about the non-issues because the issues are uncomfortable to talk about. Semiautomatic rifles may be involved in less than 3% of the murders, but the black men who make up about 6.5% of the population account for the majority of those arrested for murder, according to federal data, and the majority of murder victims, too. One in ten New York murder victims is a confirmed gang member. We have a runaway mental-health crisis that manifests itself as much in the murder rate as in urban homelessness, we have complex issues related to race, poverty, culture, and social dynamics, we are three generations into the experiment of raising young men with failed families and failed schools, we have Democratic politicians in cities from San Francisco to New York who simply refuse to prosecute many gun crimes — 61% of gun cases are dismissed without trial in Philadelphia, etc. The NYPD made 4,456 gun arrests in 2021, but more than 1,200 were dismissed out of hand, while only one — one! — case resulted in a conviction at trial.
Almost nobody is murdered in New York by someone using a semiautomatic rifle. On the other hand, almost every murder victim in New York City is killed by a habitual criminal with a prior arrest record — 87% of the murder suspects have prior arrests, a quarter are on parole or probation for a previous crime or have an active arrest warrant, etc. Talking about scary-sounding semiautomatic rifles is a way of not talking about the stuff President Biden and other politicians would rather not talk about.
But we need to talk about that — or our current violent crime surge will never subside.