In his most recent column for The New York Times, conservative writer Ross Douthat tackled the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 innocent people dead. While Douthat is typically measured and even-handed in considering what is driving men of a certain age and demographic profile to purchase deadly weapons and direct their fire at innocent people, his recommended solution to the problem — age-based bans on certain weapons — completely misses the mark.
Specifically, Douthat recommends that “hunting rifles,” which he does not define, be legal to own once an individual reaches 18 years of age. Revolvers, under Douthat’s suggested gun control regime, would be legal at age 21. Semi-automatic pistols would be legal when an individual turned 25, and semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 could not be sold to anyone under 30:
“Which leaves me wondering if there’s a way to adapt a high-minded vision of guns and citizenship to our era of extended adolescence and young-male anomie.
“For instance, instead of debating gun regulations that would apply to every gun owner, we could consider limits that are imposed on youth and removed with age. After all, the fullness of adult citizenship is not bestowed at once: Driving precedes voting precedes drinking, and the right to stand for certain offices is granted only in your thirties.
“Perhaps the self-arming of citizens could be similarly staggered. Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.”
These recommendations evince not only a lack of understanding of guns, but a complete unfamiliarity with U.S. data on violent crime, weapon usage, and mass shootings. In fact, the most damning indictment of Douthat’s gun control proposal is the data on mass shootings. Contrary to his suggestion that “isolated young men” are the most likely perpetrators of mass shootings, the data show otherwise. Since the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas, an incident which many believe touched off the modern phenomenon of mass shootings (defined as a public shooting in which 4 or more people were killed), there have been 150 shootings involving 153 individuals, according to a detailed database published by the Washington Post. Of those, 150 were men, and the ages of 148 of them are known.
The average of those male mass shooters is just over 33 years old. While media coverage of these shootings can often give the impression that they are committed primarily by young men in their late teens or twenties, the data show otherwise. In fact, 55 percent of all public mass shootings in the U.S. since 1966 have been committed by men who were at least 30 years old. The deadliest mass shooting in American history, which occurred in Las Vegas in 2017, was perpetrated by a 64-year-old man. Forty-one percent of shootings, according to data from The Washington Post, were committed by men between the ages of 18 and 29 (4 percent were committed by those younger than 18).
Those data alone, which show that mass shootings are far more likely to be committed by those outside of Douthat’s proposed limits, demonstrate the folly of his gun control recommendations. But it’s not just the actual age of shooters which calls into question Douthat’s age-based bans; weapon usage statistics also contradict his calls for new strict regulations on rifles.
Although media outlets and gun control proponents focus their ire on the AR-15, a relatively low-caliber rifle which has been widely sold to civilians for more than half a century, rifles are one of the least-used murder weapons in the U.S. Just as an age-based gun ban would not have had any impact on a majority of mass shooters in this country, a feature-based weapon ban that targeted rifles would also barely scratch the surface. That’s because the vast majority of murders in the U.S. are committed not with rifles like the AR-15, but with simple handguns.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics, only 2.2 percent of murders in the U.S. over the last five years were committed with rifles. Shotguns were used in 2.1 percent of murders. The weapon of choice for most killers in this country is not the much-villified AR-15, but the simple handgun, which was used in more than 31,000 murders between 2012 and 2016, the most recent five years for which data are available. In fact, the FBI data show that you are more likely to be stabbed to death (11.9 percent of all murders) or killed by someone’s hands, fists, or feet (5.1 percent) than you are to be killed by any type of rifle, let alone an AR-15. Rifle bans, even if they were practical, effective, and constitutional, still wouldn’t stop the overwhelming majority of murders in the U.S.
In response to criticism of his proposals on Twitter, Douthat responded by highlighting a New York Times list of 19 recent mass shootings and noting that because rifles were used in many of them, a rifle ban would clearly make a big difference:
It's a Times list, and not school-specific, but about half of these feature semi-auto rifles. Again, just seems like there's a big gap btw what ppl use for ordinary murder (mostly handguns) and these kind of deliberate sprees.https://t.co/phyGdzCHGY
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) February 17, 2018
But even under those terms, the logic of his proposal fails. Why? Because contrary to his claim that “about half” of recent shootings featured semi-automatic rifles, the very list he references shows the opposite: in 11 of the 19 shootings he references, or 58 percent, a rifle was never used. Another defense offered by Douthat, that semi-automatic rifles are “almost always” used in mass shootings is similarly false. The deadliest school shooting in history was perpetrated using just two handguns, one of which had a maximum magazine capacity of just 10 rounds. Multiple incidents on the list cited by Douthat resulted in double-digit deaths using only handguns or shotguns.
Forget the 25/30 provocation for now; do you think it would be a disastrous infringement on liberty if the age for semi-autos in FL had been 21 and not 18?
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) February 17, 2018
In many ways, though, the data are beside the point, because what is being debated right now is not guns or gun control. Guns are just a proxy for a much larger philosophical debate about the nature of man. Can evil be regulated away if we just put certain tools under lock and key? Can murder be driven into extinction through the right mix of technocratic regulations? I think the entirety of human history overwhelmingly indicates that the answer to both questions is a resounding “No!” Evil cannot be regulated away. Men and women intent on doing vicious harm to others cannot be dissuaded by simple rules against possessing this or that piece of fabricated metal. Criminals, by definition, do not care about laws. And criminals intent on murder, the most vicious and permanent of all crimes, will not stop lusting for blood because a piece of paper somewhere says they can’t legally possess that weapon until they turn a certain age.
And that brings us to the next philosophical question that at issue in the debate over guns: if evil cannot be regulated away, do we have the right to defend ourselves and our loved ones with force, if necessary? The men who founded this country and wrote its foundational legal document clearly believed in the God-given right to self-defense, which resulted in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. If, as the Founders noted in the Declaration of Independence, we are all endowed by our Creator with an unalienable right to life and liberty, are we not also entitled to defend those very rights? A right which ceases to exist the second a criminal threatens it is no right at all, which is why tens of millions of Americans proudly keep and bear firearms to this day.
While I respect and share Douthat’s desire to find a solution to the problem of mass shootings, I simply disagree with not only his recommendations, but also their premise. The data clearly show that his proposals would do little to address his stated problem. The bigger issue, however, is one of principle. A nation cannot be made safer from criminals by restricting the God-given rights of those who respect and follow the law. My Second Amendment right to defend myself is every bit as important and vital as Douthat’s First Amendment right to publish his political opinions as he pleases without interference from the government.
Just as I would never dare suggest that the free press be limited only to those of a certain age, or that the government should set limits on how many words a journalist may publish in any given day, I wish that political pundits would refrain from trying to set limits on the constitutional rights that I and millions of my fellow countrymen believe are the only way to defend ourselves from mass murderers like the one in Parkland, Florida.