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Mass shootings: Limiting magazine capacity saves lives and doesn't infringe on gun rights.

Large-capacity magazines hardly seem essential for self-defense, and our research shows they increase fatalities. We should have a national sales ban.

James Alan Fox Opinion columnist
Published 5:00 a.m. ET Aug 19, 2020 Updated 9:12 a.m. ET Aug 19, 2020

Days following the anniversary of one of the nation's worst weekends of senseless bloodshed, the killing of 32 victims in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned a California ban of the very type of large-capacity magazine that facilitated the two massacres. Approved in 2016 by a healthy voter majority, Proposition 63 outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

"California's near-categorical ban of (large-capacity magazines) strikes at the core of the Second Amendment the right to armed self-defense, Judge Kenneth Lee wrote for the court majority. "

However, it is hard to imagine a situation in which some law-abiding gun owner would need to shoot off dozens of rounds in defense of self or others. It is a stretch to conceive of a home invasion by a horde of armed intruders, so many that a rapid-fire response would be required to ward off the threat.

Limiting magazine capacity saves lives

The 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Heller clearly affirmed an individual's Second Amendment right to gun ownership for the purpose of self-defense, but not in an absolute sense. Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."
In that light, Judge Lee's contention that large-capacity magazines are essential for self-defense hardly seems reasonable.

In a paper soon to appear in the journal Law and Human Behavior, Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health and several colleagues (including me) examined the effect of eight specific types of state-level gun laws on the incidence and severity of mass public shootings from 1976 through 2018, each claiming the lives of at least four victims.

While laws mandating permits for all retail and private gun sales significantly lowered the odds of a state experiencing a mass public shooting, limiting the capacity of magazines was the only measure to reduce significantly the number of fatalities when such incidents do occur. It is of little surprise that all eight shootings with 20 or more fatalities involved large-capacity magazines.

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I have insisted on many occasions that most firearm laws, although worthwhile in combating the tens of thousands of shootings every year in this country, do little to repel the most extreme acts namely, mass killings the kinds of episodes that provide fodder for gun control arguments. Indeed, mass killers are very determined, dead set on destruction, and typically find a way to acquire the guns and ammunition needed to execute their vengeful designs.

One week before the El Paso and Dayton massacres, a gunman killed three and wounded 17 at California's annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, before committing suicide. Despite the state ban, the assailant's rifle was equipped with a 75-round drum magazine, and he carried five extra 40-round magazines just in case.

Looking ahead

In the wake of large-scale mass shootings, the rallying cry from gun control advocates often focuses on military-style firearms commonly characterized as assault weapons. Despite their menacing look, what makes these firearms particularly deadly is the attachment enabling an assailant to fire off round after round without pausing to reload. Contrary to common perception, most mass shootings do not involve AR-15-style rifles. Most are perpetrated with semiautomatic handguns, many of which can accommodate a large-capacity magazine.

The Virginia Tech gunman managed to kill 32 students and faculty using two handguns accessorized with magazines capable of holding 10-15 bullets.

Even if all sales of large-capacity magazines were blocked nationwide, there are countless already in circulation for anyone determined enough to purchase one privately. But whatever the magnitude of the impact, a national sales ban would be the right thing to do symbolically and might eventually shrink the supply.

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With many businesses, schools, churches and concert halls having been closed due to the pandemic, there has not been a large-scale, deadly mass shooting in such public venues since February. When the nation reopens with crowds congregating in confined spaces, it is the size of the magazine, not so much the length of the gun barrel, that will be most perilous.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox