Tom Gabor – A New Approach to Regulating the Most Dangerous Weapons.

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Much has been said of late about the need to ban “assault weapons” (AW) or “weapons of war”. Polls show unprecedented support for a nationwide ban on these weapons.[1]  When used in the context of legislation or bills, these terms have been defined in a variety of ways, needlessly offend certain gun owners, and may even serve as impediments to effective laws.  In this article, we propose a different approach and one that avoids the pitfalls of previous AW bans as well as bills filed since the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.


The Problem:  Unless one has lived in a cave over the last 20 years or so, it has become apparent that mass shootings have become an increasing concern in the US.  The largest massacres have almost always involved the use of weapons like the AR-15 and its relatives in Las Vegas (with the aid of bump stocks), at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, Virginia Tech, Aurora Century Theater, and Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as in Parkland. One analysis has found that an average of 9 more people are shot and 3 more people are killed in mass shootings in which these weapons or high-capacity magazines (HCM) are used, illustrating the emptiness of the slogan:  “Guns don’t kill, people do.”[2]

An analysis conducted for my book, Confronting Gun Violence in America, shows that the number of public mass killings by firearm more than doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s and 2000s.[3] Between 2010 and 2015, the annual number of incidents has again increased sharply, at over four times the frequency observed in the 1980s.  More than half of the 30 deadliest mass shootings since 1949 have occurred since 2007.  The average number of deaths per year resulting from mass public shootings also has increased and, since 2010, was almost four times that of the 1980s.  It is worth noting that the acceleration in the number of large-scale mass shootings occurred following the expiration of the national AWs ban.


The increasing annual number of fatalities is especially noteworthy because great strides have been made in the management of bullet wounds over the last 15 years or so due to lessons learned on the battlefields of Afghanistan.  Thus, despite higher survival rates, we see an increasing toll from mass shootings, reflecting the greater lethality of weapons and an increasing proportion of victims who incur multiple bullet wounds.  This makes sense as we know that there is a growing number of military-style weapons in the civilian market.  The gun industry introduced these weapons into the civilian market in the 1980s in response to the saturation of their core market (white, rural males) with conventional firearms.


The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994:  The federal AWs ban, in force between 1994 and 2004, prohibited the manufacture, transfer, and possession of those semi-automatic firearms designated as AWs.  The weapons subject to the ban were characterized by features (see below) suitable to military and criminal applications rather than sport shooting or self-defense.  Over one hundred firearm models, including certain pistols and shotguns, were covered by the ban.  The ban also covered HCMs holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.   This aspect of the ban extended beyond designated AWs as it applied to many non-banned weapons that could be equipped with these magazines.  At the time the ban took effect, it was estimated that 1.5 million AWs were privately-owned in the US along with about 25 million HCMs.[4]  Millions more of the HCM’s manufactured before the ban were imported into the country by 2000.


The ban yielded mixed results with regard to its effect on violent crime.  While there was no discernible reduction in gun crime or gun homicide, in six major cities—Baltimore, Boston, Miami, St. Louis, Anchorage, and Milwaukee—the share of gun crimes committed with weapons covered by the ban declined by between 17 % and 72 % during the ban.  Nationally, traces of guns used in crimes were 70% less likely to involve AWs during the ban.  Louis Klarevas, author of Rampage Nation, found that gun massacres, defined as incidents involving six or more fatalities, were nearly cut in half during the ban in comparison with the ten-year period preceding it.  In the decade following the ban’s expiration, fatalities again increased dramatically, more than tripling the deaths seen during the ban.[5]


The reduction in crime by assault weapons was, in part, offset by the substitution of military-style firearms that technically did not qualify as AWs. Also, during the ban, a study of four cities indicated that guns with HCMs actually rose as semi-automatics were being equipped with them.  In addition, the grandfathering provisions of the AWs ban, which allowed weapons and HCMs already manufactured to continue to be sold, undercut its effectiveness.  Approximately 25 million of these magazines remained in the country and millions more were available for import from other countries.[6]  In fact, manufacturers took advantage of the grandfathering provisions by boosting production of designated AWs in the months leading up to the ban, creating a large stockpile of these items.  By contrast, in Australia’s well-known and successful ban, pre-ban weapons were bought back rather than exempted from the ban.


The manner in which weapons covered by the ban were defined also undermined its effectiveness.  The federal ban and current state laws define “AWs” by their features, some of which are irrelevant to the harm the weapon can produce.  Under the 1994 ban, an assault weapon included semi-automatic rifles capable of accepting detachable magazines and possessing two or more of the following features:

  • Folding stocks for concealment and portability;
  • Pistol grip protruding conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
  • A bayonet mount;
  • A flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; or
  • A grenade launcher.


Definitions based on these features create a loophole by allowing manufacturers to circumvent the law simply by making minor modifications to a weapon.  For example, removing flash suppressors and bayonet mounts makes a weapon no less dangerous but can get around a features-based definition.


Overall, the 1994 ban showed some promise but the potential effectiveness was reduced by the grandfathering provisions and the features-based definition of “assault-style” weapons.  In addition, those evaluating the law made the point that the ban’s exemption of millions of AWs and HCMs manufactured before the ban meant that the impact of the law would be gradual and would not be fully realized for several years beyond its expiration, especially as HCMs made before the ban kept pouring into the market.[7]


A New Approach Focusing on Weapon Lethality: The first AW ban in the US, The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, was enacted in California following the massacre of schoolchildren by a drifter who fired 106 rounds of ammunition in three minutes with a semi-automatic military-style weapon.  The law defined an AW as one with “a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.”  Unfortunately, the law failed to explicitly define such terms as ‘high rate of fire,’ and ‘capacity for firepower”.   Instead of defining these terms and banning weapons that met these definitions, the law listed over 50 specific banned guns, and added some cosmetic features (collapsible stock, flash hider, etc.) which have no impact on a gun’s lethality.

When the Federal Government enacted its AW ban in 1994, it borrowed the list of California-banned guns, included the various design features but dropped any reference to lethality; i.e., no mention of ‘high rate of fire’ or ‘capacity for firepower’ at all. This opened the door for gun rights advocates to claim that, functionally, there is no real difference between an AR-15 and any other kind semi-automatic rifle.

To address this void, I propose identifying the most dangerous firearms and regulating them, not on the basis of what they look like but on their ability to kill and injure as many people as possible in the shortest time frame.  National gun expert Mike Weisser proposes a method of scoring the lethality of a firearm on the basis of five factors:[8]   This system is an objective one which is not influenced by cosmetic modifications intended to circumvent regulations.

  1. Caliber – Larger and faster projectiles tend to cause more damage to human tissue, although the design of bullets and the materials used to make them are also important;
  2. Capacity – The number of cartridges that can be fired without reloading;
  3. Loading mechanism – The speed at which a rifle can be reloaded;
  4. Action – Time required to fire a single cartridge and bring the next cartridge into the breech;
  5. Design flexibility—the ability of a firearm to accommodate accessories, some of which increase lethality (e.g., lasers, electronic aiming devices, fore grips).

Once a scoring system is in place, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has the expertise and facilities in place to evaluate each firearm on the market and give it a lethality score.  This will allow for a classification of firearms on the basis of their lethality, with regulation increasing with the growing lethality of the category in which a firearm belongs.  Restrictions that might be considered can vary from complete bans to special licenses and vetting for owners of more lethal weapons, registration requirements, special taxes, longer waiting periods, increasing penalties for noncompliance, and storage requirements for more dangerous weapons.  One option for semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 is to regulate them under the National Firearms Act, as is done with fully automatic firearms.


Thomas Gabor, Ph.D. is a criminologist, sociologist and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America






[1] Quinnipiac Poll, February 20, 2018;

[2] Everytown for Gun Safety, Analysis of Recent Mass Shootings;


[4] Christopher S. Koper, America’s experience with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.  In D. Webster and J. Vernick (eds.),  Reducing Gun Violence in America.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, p.161.





[7] Christopher S. Koper, America’s experience with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.  In D. Webster and J. Vernick (eds.),  Reducing Gun Violence in America.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, p.166.

[8] Mike Weisser, Measuring Gun Lethality;

23 thoughts on “Tom Gabor – A New Approach to Regulating the Most Dangerous Weapons.

    • Thanks Khal. People need to know that the options are not binary. they also need to know that there were serious flaws with the 1994 ban.

      • Sen. Martin Heinrich recently was quoted in the Albuquerque Journal as saying he would define a new AW ban on the basis of magazine size and gas operated semiauto design, which would corral not only popular models but, I think, the WW II era M-1 carbine (unless it was exempt on the basis of muzzle energy), Mini-14 (which would bring tears to Mike and my eyes…) and M-14. I think that is pretty broad definition but also tries to get around the problem of defining rifles on the basis of do-dads instead of rate of fire, cartridge, ease of firing, and storage (magazine) capacity and ease of reloading.

        I would prefer a discussion of “graduated licensing” rather than having the government suddenly try to ban things in common use at the time (to quote a certain legal document). Rather than getting into molon labe land with people, we need to treat these things seriously. That in itself might cut down who has what.

        But it would be easy to have a slippery slope or confusion here. That’s the problem with thinking about regulation fifty years after the fact.

        Just one old grumpy guy’s opinion.

  1. I was under the impression that muzzle velocity has as much, or more, impact on the damage a bullet can do to the human body as caliber. Am I incorrect in this assumption?

      • Khal, This is great. Would you have access to the full article?

      • Just winging it for a minute over my first coffee, I think velocity and bullet size/structure paramount. High velocity heavy bullet will go right through soft tissue. I think it will also do a lot of damage with large transient shock wave cavity. Small bullet might divert or tumble more and that adds length of damaged tissue to transient cavity. I think that has been discussed in terms of the M16. Of course, a hollowpoint makes a bigger hole, if that is the case. We used to hunt ground hogs when I was a kid using a 225 Winchester and 52 grain hollowpoints at about 3200-3400 fps. Made a real mess of the animal and I found it disturbing as there was no way to eat it whereas a clean kill with a 22 LR left the animal intact.

        Most rifles throw out a round at 2000 (a slow cartridge) to well over 3000 ft per second (sorry, I can’t think guns in metric yet) whereas most garden variety handguns are lucky to break 1000-1500 fps especially if concealable, i.e., short barrel like an LC9 gives the combustion gases less time to do work; unless you are out west, people generally are not packing long barrel 357 Magnums. At much lower velocity the transient cavity is not much of a consideration compared to a rifle round.

        There was a recent article in the Atlantic, I think,by a trauma surgeon about this. But there is a fair amount of ballistic wound literature if Mike or Tom or I can find it.

        Frankly, I wish some of the GVP people in my neck of the woods would read this blog rather than shout out about “dirty, blood soaked organizations”. All that does is raise the battlements a little higher.

    • Mary, Mike placed velocity under the Caliber category. Those are broad categories that subsume a number of factors and I assume would be included in the scoring of lethality. Perhaps it should go in its own category. Please note that his is just the beginning of a conversation about classifying guns rather than the final word. Good point though.

      • What I like about Mike is he distinguishes on the basis of capacity and ease of reloading, so you see the difference between the Browning hunting BAR or M-1 and the AR15 or AK47 with a big mag that can be changed fast. I posted that difference on my own blog once but it gets lost in the shouting.

        There was a recent article about mag capacity by Gary Kleck that posited a big vs. smaller mag doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in an active shooter situation. In warfare, someone is shooting back whereas in Parkland, no one is attacking the shooter so he has time to flip smaller magazines. This doesn’t do Gary justice but might be worth a second read. I gotta go as today is my day to drive the carpool.

        The article is here:
        Justice Research and Policy, 2016, vol 17(1), pg. 28-47.

  2. Sounds like a good start, but I’d suggest that the Number One factor of caliber needs to be rethought, else an equivocal and evasive and pointless discussion starts about the simple and nearly identical numbers .22 and .223.

  3. Tom, what is the level statistical significance of the percent changes you refer to. The numbers they are based on must be very tiny indeed.

  4. Khal, thanks for the good info and thank you to the others as well. I’m having trouble keeping up with my mail but will catch up.

  5. I hate to be a wet blanket here, but we’re talking about weapons. They are SUPPOSED to be potentially deadly. And all of this “points system” crap is shuck-and-jive aimed at depriving those of us who follow the law of firearms that are the most effective. Do you REALLY think that gangs, drug dealers and other criminals are going to hand over their standard capacity (misnamed “high capacity” by an arbitrary number) magazines? Or their scary black rifles?

    I would also point out that most mass shootings are NOT committed by people using ARs or other variants. Of all shootings, all long guns make up only about 4%, making handguns the prime weapon of choice some 96% of the time. Of those by rifles, so-called “assault weapons” make up a small subset of that 4%. The deadliest school shooting in the U.S. was Virginia Tech, where the shooter used two pistols. He used a lot of standard capacity magazines, which he simply changed when he ran out of ammunition. No one was able to intervene; reloading takes mere seconds. No AR or AK was used at Columbine. In fact, going back all the way to the University of Texas clock tower shootings in 1966, the majority of mass shootings did not include them.

    Like the gun control/gun ban/anti-gun crowd, the whole focus here is wrong. You don’t stop mass shootings by neutering weapons. (Note how police always demand exclusion from any new restrictions, yet they operate under the EXACT SAME rules of engagement that citizens do!) What needs to be done is far more vague, messy and difficult: crisis intervention. Finding out why some among us decide one day that killing a bunch of classmates or strangers is okay. Teaching conflict resolution and de-escalation in public school classrooms. And yes, easing access to counseling/mental health providers.

    It’s so easy to demonize rifles and other weaponry, and frankly, I wish the antis were more honest about it. Instead of paying lip service to “respecting the second amendment” while doing everything they can to ban one more gun at a time, they should just decide once and for all if guns shall be allowed to remain a right for Americans or not. THAT is the true decision. During the LA riots, the now infamous Korean store owners stood atop their shops wielding their so-called “assault rifles,” and those businesses were some of the few not torched and looted; the only reason some neighborhoods could buy groceries in the days and weeks that followed. Remember that when someone tells you that “nobody needs” such a thing.

    • ‘Crisis intervention’ needs a place to start. There is one place where I think we can start. CDC can now can do more gun research if they get more funding. We need more research on the connection between young men on the autism spectrum and mass shootings. Some preliminary research (I also posted this elsewhere on this site) said ”
      Among all the 239 eligible killers, 28.03% (N = 67) had definite, highly probable or possible ASD.” About one in 68 (only about 1.5%) of boys are on the autism spectrum but 28% of the ‘eligible killers’ in the sample were. There must be a connection here in need of more research before we can say anything conclusive but the numbers are striking. The prelimary research sounds sloppy. Here is a link if anyone wants more information

    • “He used a lot of standard capacity magazines, which he simply changed when he ran out of ammunition. No one was able to intervene; reloading takes mere seconds.”

      The magazine capacity argument seems to come from the shooting of Mrs Giffords and others outside of a Safeway supermarket. Someone grabbed the gun when the gunman swapped magazines. Ergo, reducing magazine size saves lives.

      Except, that’s not what actually happened. Nobody was close enough to grab the gun. The gunman dropped the fresh magazine, and it was this that was grabbed. As a subsequent occurrence, the gun was grabbed.

      I think it’s worth noting that under the UK system many things are regulated. Magazine sizes isn’t one of them.

      ” Instead of paying lip service to “respecting the second amendment” while doing everything they can to ban one more gun at a time, they should just decide once and for all if guns shall be allowed to remain a right for Americans or not.”

      There are two broad interpretations of the Second Amendment. The first one comes down heavily on ‘shall not be infringed’, and in the most extreme versions believes background checks to be unconstitutional. The second acknowledges that there are restrictions, that not all of the people can have guns because they have failed the background check, that not all kinds of arms are available, and that there are restrictions on how someone can keep and bear. The Californian regulations are an example of the second interpretation.

    • Well said. We can go after so called more lethal guns but frankly, any gun is lethal and by focussing on the black rifle and a points system, we don’t do anything about the underlying issues that drive street crime, domestic violence, drug crime, or that switch a few people flip in their head when their voices tell them to shoot up their own school or place of work. I’m more than willing to have a difficult discussion on where to draw a line on civilian guns, but it takes away from a much more difficult and needed argument about why people go off the rails, whether with a Combat Masterpiece or an AK-47.

    • Glockslinger, Australians gave up prohibited weapons because they really cared about preventing massacres. All the solutions you mentioned are important in prevention, as well as the type of guns that enable massacres.

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