A Critical Look at Some Gun Control Proposals

The Missouri legislature recently passed (over a veto) some new gun laws. These laws clear the way for “Constitutional Carry”: anyone legally permitted to own a firearm can now carry it concealed in public without a permit. (The term means, in effect, “I don’t need a permit to carry—the Constitution is my permit.”) Also included is a new Stand Your Ground law and some changes to the purchase permitting process.

In the interval between the veto and the override, the Missouri bishops asked the legislature not to override the veto. I’m not surprised the bishops have spoken out against Constitutional Carry. But I am surprised that they, in effect, spoke out strongly in favor of Missouri’s current concealed carry laws: “Missouri’s current statute outlines a reasonable and prudent process that ensures those obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon are properly trained and know when, and under what circumstances, they can lawfully use that weapon.”

I’ve seen some anti-bishop/anti-Catholic chatter from gun rights advocates in response to the statement. I’m not surprised about that. But again, what really ought to stand out here isn’t that the bishops were against Constitutional Carry—it’s that they were for the previous concealed carry laws.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

This is not quite in keeping with the call from the American bishops in 1978 to eliminate handguns from our society. As they put it: “we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.” In a previous article in Crisis, I criticized this call for confiscation. (So the Missouri bishops’ statement is encouraging to me, because they implicitly criticize that call, as well. I’m in good company!) But the call for confiscation was only one of many gun control recommendations the bishops have made. Because my previous article was very long as it was, I left aside these other suggestions. In this piece, I want to look into a couple of them.

Let’s start with a little background. The Church’s teaching on guns isn’t particularly detailed. Jimmy Akin wrote a very good piece on this not too long ago, and I’d point the interested reader his way. The upshot, really, is that the Church is perfectly clear on the individual’s right to self-defense (within well-worked out parameters that happen to line up extraordinarily well with American self-defense law), and the Church hasn’t ever taken any kind of clear magisterial position on gun control, though of course we see that in the US our bishops have been pretty consistently in favor of more gun control rather than less. Akin concludes that “this is an area in which, in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s words, there may be ‘a legitimate diversity of opinion’ among Catholics. (Crux also had a pretty good piece on this recently.)

I think that’s true—there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion. But I would also say that since our American hierarchy has been pretty consistent in urging additional gun control, we as American Catholics ought to not dismiss out of hand their words. Rather, we should look closely at what they said and give their recommendations the serious consideration they deserve.

A Ban on “Saturday Night Specials”?
So let’s look at the specific suggestions made by the hierarchy. In 1978, the USCCB Committee on Social Development and World Peace wrote:

We support the development of a coherent national handgun control policy that includes: a several day cooling-off period between the sale and possession; a ban on “Saturday Night Specials”; the registration of handguns; the licensing of handgun owners; and more effective controls regulating the manufacture, sale and importation of handguns. We recognize, however, that these individual steps will not completely eliminate the abuse of handguns. We believe that only prohibition of the importation, manufacture, sale, possession and use of handguns (with reasonable exceptions made for the police, military, security guards and pistol clubs where guns would be kept on the premises under secure conditions) will provide a comprehensive response to handgun violence.

In this essay I want to focus on “hardware” issues—the banning of particular types of firearms or firearm accessories. So let’s start with the hardware issue specifically mentioned by the bishops, namely the proposed ban on Saturday Night Specials. If you’re not up to speed, the “Saturday Night Special” is a name for a cheap handgun. You ask: why should cheap handguns be banned?

There’s no answer to this in the document. The cynical read is this. Because they are cheap, and hence easier for poor people to afford. Banning cheap guns makes it much more difficult for poor people to buy any guns.

But poor people often live in the most dangerous neighborhoods and so have, if anything, a much more serious need for a self-defense firearm than a rich person living in a gated community. And the argument that they should be prevented from having guns has a pretty objectionably elitist feel to it. The idea that poor people can’t be trusted with guns should go down, among Catholics, about as well as does the idea that poor people can’t be trusted with children. No question, this kind of elitism lies behind a good deal of current public policy, but how could a Catholic even think of supporting it?

So I hope that the reason that’ll actually be advanced for supporting such a ban is that inexpensive guns are disproportionately used in crime. That avoids the ugly implication that poor people shouldn’t be allowed to protect themselves. But it opens itself up to fact-checking. And the facts don’t seem to bear it out.

A 1977 statistical survey of the ‘Saturday night special’ concept by the FBIBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and several police departments across the nation showed that there is no clear statistical relationship between the price of a firearm and its likelihood to be used in a crime. While inexpensive weapons made up a large portion of the handgun market in 1974, 1975 and 1976, high-end weapons were represented by a ratio of almost 2:1. A survey of incarcerated felons in 1983 by the US Department of Justice showed that criminals use small-caliber, small-frame, inexpensive handguns in less than three percent of violent crimes.

You can find conflicting information out there, yes. But some of what’s said on this issue is clearly wrong. Take, for example, this article, which covers guns confiscated by Chicago police, and claims that “the city’s criminals […] generally seek out cheap junk guns.” Based on the data presented in the article itself, this claim is obviously false. The only guns in the list that are really cheap are the Lorcins and the Ravens (traditional Saturday Night Specials), along with the Hi Points. Whether Hi Points are junk is a subject of much debate amongst gun aficionados. But these brands account for 330 of the 1779 guns on the list! So do the city’s criminals generally seek out cheap junk? No. In fact, 1155 of the guns on the list are from top-rank gunmakers like Smith & Wesson, Colt and Glock. 294 are from middling makers like Taurus, Rossi and Bersa.

The motivation for the proposed ban, then,—if it had something to do with the prevalence of Saturday Night Specials in crime—appears to have been baseless. And, whether it is intentional or otherwise, banning Saturday Night Specials does make guns harder to get ahold of for the people who are most likely to need them. As such, it’s hard to see why a Catholic should think there’s any good basis for this suggested ban.

Maybe for that reason, we don’t hear a lot about this issue anymore. We’re on to other suggestions. Substitute “assault weapons” or “high capacity magazines” for “Saturday Night Specials,” and you will have modernized the debate. Let’s turn to these contemporary issues, then.

Do Bans on “High Capacity” Magazines Make Sense?
I don’t think we should sugar coat this. “Assault weapons” bans, as such, are simply foolish. All but one of the features that get semi-automatic rifles listed as assault weapons have nothing to do with the ability of the rifle to kill people.

Put aside this talk of banning assault weapons. Rational people should have no use for it. The single feature that is really relevant is the ability of the rifle (or pistol, for that matter) to accept detachable box magazines of “high capacity.” In pistols, high capacity magazines might hold on the order of 15-19 rounds. The Glock 19, for example, which is an extremely popular pistol, has magazines that typically carry 15 rounds. In carbines, high capacity magazines normally hold 30 rounds. (Terminological quibble: these magazines really aren’t “high capacity,” they’re actually “standard capacity.” That is, a 30-round magazine for an AR-15 is the norm. A 60-round AR magazine would be high capacity. But leave this terminological worry aside.)

Why should magazine capacity be limited to, let’s say, 10 rounds or fewer? (Some places with such limits have gone with 7 rounds or fewer.) Well, the idea is simple. Mass murderers prefer guns with high capacity magazines for obvious reasons. They can fire a lot of rounds quickly and easily before they have to reload. In the mass murder where Gabby Giffords was injured, the murderer was taken down during a magazine change. The idea, then, is that if the murderer had needed to change magazines sooner (i.e. if he’d had a lower capacity magazine), fewer people would have died.

That’s a powerful point.

It tends to be buttressed with the thought that nobody really needs a high capacity magazine, anyway. People will say, if you really need 30 rounds to kill a deer, the problem’s with your aim, not with your magazine. Of course, the people who say this typically don’t have any idea what a hunter might need. But the idea is simple: there’s no good reason for people to have high capacity magazines, and there is good reason for people not to have high capacity magazines. So they should be banned.

Often, gun rights advocates will counter the first point by saying that high capacity magazines don’t really make a difference. A gun can be reloaded so quickly that it isn’t relevant whether the shooter has a 10 round magazine or a 30 round magazine (the Giffords case is a freak in that respect: these active shooters are almost never stopped by unarmed people). I must admit, though, that this defense strikes me as slightly disingenuous. There’s no doubt that other things equal, someone about to go into a gunfight would always pick the higher capacity magazine over the lower. You’d be a fool not to. (Other things being equal, mind you.) And many advocates of, say, the 9mm pistol cartridge base a good part of their case on the fact that a 9mm magazine can hold more rounds in the same space than the 40 s&w or the 45 auto. It’s a common argument in favor of 9mm: greater capacity. Well, if greater capacity is a help to the good guys, it follows that it’s a help to the bad guys, too. Gun rights advocates should admit, I think, that higher capacity magazines do indeed make it easier for murderers to kill more people.

What they should question is whether that fact really matters. Again, the Giffords case appears to be an extreme anomaly in that regard. For comparison, the murderers in the Columbine massacre fired a Hi Point carbine 96 times, using only 10-round magazines. That’s a lot of reloads. Perhaps if “active shooter” training programs can successfully convince more people to fight back rather than cower and wait, cases like Giffords would become more common. In that case, lower magazine capacity could conceivably be helpful in increasing the opportunities for people to rush the shooter while he reloads. It seems possible.

But are there any legitimate needs for high capacity magazines? It’s well-established that gunfights in the US tend to occur within about 3 yards, run about 3 seconds, and involve about 3 shots. They are quick, close, and low round count affairs. Statistically, that is. This includes police gunfights as well as civilian gunfights. But police departments nevertheless outfit their officers with high capacity magazines. They tend to carry guns like Glock 19’s, or possibly 17’s, which come standard with 17 round magazines. Evidently, our police forces see the need for high capacity magazines. Why?

Well, for the very same reason I’ve just spoken of. Anyone going into a gunfight would be a fool to choose a lower capacity magazine, other things being equal. A fool. Police officers don’t find themselves in gunfights very often. But they know it’s always a possibility. And, wanting to be prepared for such eventualities, they see to it that they are as well armed as they reasonably can be.

But why should civilians who buy guns for defensive purposes be prevented from similarly preparing themselves? Is it very likely that the gun will actually ever be used defensively? Thankfully, no. But still, other things being equal, the civilian would be a fool to buy a gun that holds less ammunition. Do we really think the law should make fools of us?

Any support for a ban on high capacity magazines must involve a reasonable consideration of this point. Simply asserting that civilians “don’t need” high capacity magazines is not a reasonable consideration. It’s just grandstanding. (It’s also self-defeating, really. Since when does the law get to tell citizens that they can’t have something simply because they don’t need it? Do you need a TV?)

The Giffords case can be counterbalanced, in other words, by cases where civilians have needed high capacity magazines. Massad Ayoob describes one such case, where a civilian was attacked by 7 murderous criminals, and survived, because he owned guns with high capacity magazines. It happens.

The truth is that when we banned “assault weapons” in 1994 the ban did no good. It just didn’t make a difference. High capacity magazine bans are an emotionally appealing step, but they are not part of a rational program to limit gun violence.


  • Patrick Toner

    Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas … and Norman Rockwell. He earned his Masters in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...