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Unpacking the semiautomatic

From the U.S. to Canada and beyond — a look at why semiautomatic weapons remain controversial

The violent massacres that occurred in Newtown, Aurora, Blacksburg, and Columbine were borne of very different circumstances — but there were some similarities.

In each case, the shooter used a semiautomatic assault weapon or large-capacity ammunition magazine.

Mass shooting location, date Weapon(s) used
Columbine, Colorado, 1999 Hi-Point Model 995 carbine rifle, Savage Springfield 67H shotgun, TEC-DC9 semiautomatic handgun, Double Barrel Savage 311D shotgun
Blacksburg, Virginia, 2007 Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun and Walther P22 pistol
Aurora, Colorado, 2012 Smith and Wesson M&P15 semiautomatic rifle, two Glock 19 semiautomatic handguns, Remington 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun
Newtown, Conneticut, 2012 Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle; Glock 10mm handgun and Sig Sauer 9mm handgun;


David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute and an associate policy analyst with the Cato Institute, disagrees with critics who point to semiautomatic use in mass shootings as a reason to curtail the availability of these guns.

In Kopel’s view, the use of semiautomatics in recent mass shootings should be attributed to their popularity and availability in the market. The AR-15 semiautomatic, used in the Aurora shooting, for example, is one of the more popular guns in America and its sales are currently surging.

“The AR-15 is a standard [rifle] with a capacity of approximately 30 rounds. Americans regularly choose this gun because they see it as the best option for hunting, target shooting and self-defense,” Kopel said.

Unlike automatic guns, semiautomatics can fire only one bullet each time the trigger is pulled. However, these guns can be loaded with high-capacity magazines that can fire dozens of rounds.

Dr. Christopher Koper, associate professor at the Department of Criminology at George Mason University, argues that any new legislation attempting to reduce gun-related violence needs to include a ban on large-capacity magazines. “A large magazine is the key component to an assault weapon, because it allows a shooter to fire up to 100 rounds without reloading. Removing the magazines from these guns limits their firepower.”

Koper was the key investigator on a report conducted by University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Criminology, which tried to assess whether the federal assault-weapons ban in 1994 made an impact on gun markets or gun violence. The 1994 ban essentially prohibited the purchase of specific semiautomatic guns deemed “assault weapons,” as well as a series of military-style attachments. Koper said ultimately, the ban’s effectiveness could not be properly determined because the law expired in January of 2004.

“The impacts of the ban were still unfolding,” he said. “Any guns manufactured prior to 1994 were grandfathered in, which provided a loophole for gun distributors. Thus large numbers of prohibited semiautomatics with large capacity magazines were still being found at crime scenes.”

Wendy Cukier, President of the Canadian Coalition for Gun Control, argues there is significant evidence that 1991 Canadian legislation restricting the purchase of handguns and certain semiautomatics has been largely responsible for reduced gun violence. Her site references an Institut de Santé report, which concluded that the Firearms Act has led to 50 fewer homicides and 250 fewer suicides annually in Canada.

Canada and the United States have relatively equal rifle ownership per capita and a similar history of social development. Yet when it comes to gun-related violence, the difference between the two nations is apparent:

“When you unpack the numbers the story is quite telling,” Cukier said. “Homicides without guns occurs at relatively the same rate in both countries, yet the rate with guns is seven times higher in the United States.”

Cukier noted that the U.S. domestic policy on guns has affected crime in Canada. “Handguns are for the most part banned in Canada and a recent poll found between 75-80 percent of Canadians want them completely restricted,” she said. “However, these guns are continually found in crime scenes and as of last year approximately two-thirds originated from the United States.

In the U.S., state and federal legislation is currently pending to limit certain types of semiautomatics in the consumer market. Washington and California have proposed aggressive gun control laws — and California Senator Dianne Feinstein has taken her state’s approach to the federal level.

Last month, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health held a summit on gun policy in America. Experts from around the world attended and established a series of recommendations on U.S. gun control policy. Experts looked at the case of Australia, where government officials have sharply reduced the availability of semiautomatics by implementing a large federal buy-back program and conducting mass confiscations.

A decade after the program was implemented, a University of Sydney study found a significant decline in firearm homicides and suicides. Additionally, there were no known “mass shootings.”

Kopel, from his perspective, argues this strategy is not viable for the United States.

“There are around 300 million guns circulating in the United States. The Australian legislation led to the buyback or seizure of one-fifth of their population’s firearms. Beyond the cost of such a program, just imagine telling 60 million Americans they need to forfeit their guns.”

For Kopel, curbing gun violence will only be possible when better treatment is made available for mentally ill individuals with violent tendencies. Koper hopes for a full ban on high-capacity magazines and military style attachments. Cukier argues the availability of assault weapons needs to be sharply reduced because of their impact — not just here in America — but beyond the borders of the United States.

Editor’s note: Correction issued. As of February 26, 2013, this article has been revised to reflect the following changes: A Hi-Point Model 995 carbine rifle was used in the 1999 Columbine shooting, a Smith and Wesson M&P15 shotgun was used in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting and a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle was used in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.




    Please, report the correct information, Newtown, Ct. not one victim per the coroner,s report where shot with AR-15 all where shot with “hand gun” no AR-15, 223

  • Tiberius

    Criminals and the mentally disturbed are behind most and probably all mass shootings. Since our elected leaders can’t come up with solutions focusing on criminals or the mentally disturbed, they turn their attention to law abiding citizens and their right to own rifles or hand guns. Makes sense. It gets those politicians re-elected by the uninformed who believe their safety in now assured. But the problem continues and more restrictive laws are passed. Want a solution? How about this: Anyone possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony would receive a life time prison sentence and no parole. I bet that would slow the death rate in Chicago. But wait, that kind of legislation would probably be overtuned by liberal judges as cruel and unjust punishment. Also, those that support politicians in cities such as Chicago would be against it. A lot of their friends and family would be going to jail.

  • Alan John

    you have a copy of the report stating that?

  • joe

    The sick + violent person will always find a way to acomplish there goal.Our culture is the problem starting with family values and education.

  • Johnny

    Does the writer of this article not have Wikipedia? Here are a few errors I noticed in reading.

    Hi-Point, not High Point

    TEC-DC9, not TECD9

    It should be noted the Savage 311D had sawed off barrels making it an illegal weapon unless licensed with the ATF under the NFA (National Firearms Act of 1934).

    The AR-15 was a Smith & Wesson model M&P15 (not Smith and Westin), the shotgun was a Remington 870 pump

    Sig Sauer, not Saur

    The AR-15 is a rifle, not a handgun, (though technically the receiver can be assembled as a very large pistol) and the “standard” part of it is the 30 round magazine. As stated it is a very good firearm for self-defense, and yes everyone, also for hunting. However the standard .223 caliber cartridge is a bit small so several states prohibit that round for anything deer sized or larger. In that case there are many larger cartridges available for the AR platform that have been designed specifically for hunting larger game.

    Magazines are not high technology so if you think the solution is banning them you are mistaken. A magazine consists of a body (the box shape), a bottom plate, a spring and a follower (which rides on the spring like an elevator with the rounds of ammunition on top of it). These could be easily made (even “printed” on 3D printers, search “distributed defense”) and there are already billions in circulation.

    The 1994 ban was a failure because it was written by people who didn’t know a thing about guns other than guns scare them. People who understand guns knew that and the manufacturers just worked around the “rules”. The AR-15 used in Newtown was manufactured during the last AWB (or so I’m told but it certainly could have been). The pejorative term “assault weapon” is completely made up by gun control advocates. Assault rifle is a real term but it has specific criteria including the ability to fire fully automatic which the AR-15 or any other so-called “assault weapons” do not have. Trying to ban something on the single criteria of “I don’t like the way it’s looking at me” is the real “uphill push”.

    Finally I would like to say anytime you hear someone say they have a statistic or a survey then you’re about to hear a lie. That applies to any side in any issue. You can manipulate data to say whatever you want it to say. You can also phrase a question in a survey to get people to give the answer you want. Then just interpret that answer in any way you like when referencing the survey in articles in interviews. It’s just that easy.

  • Johnny

    He does not because the report supposedly won’t be out until June. At least that’s what I’ve been reading online but then “online” is the same place people get their information about the coroner’s report saying this, that or the other thing.

  • Rudy

    A determined criminal armed solely with a “Single Shot” shotgun , which is a candidate for the most popular firearm in the US ,holds only one cartridge at a time and must be manually reloaded by hand and is the slowest to reload of any other firearm ; combined with 10 of the “correct” cartridges could possibly kill and maim more individuals within a crowded room than a semi-automatic rifle with a 30 round magazine.

  • dj

    It is as though there are no other aspects to this problem,
    why is it that we overlook or bury our heads in the sand regarding the

    One of the most popular TV shows is The Walking Dead – just the latest in a
    long line of creative dehumanizing programs from Hollywood. Message: It is okay
    to shoot people if we call them zombies or ghosts or aliens… From the looks of
    it, this show uses designer weapons. Movies – most are hyper-vengeance
    fantasies. Long, long way from TV’s more innocent days when Leave it to Beaver ruled. Hollywood – training videos for mass murderers?

    Video games, Hollywood’s little brother. Even more effective, the individual gets to pull the trigger and the story runs for as long as you can stay awake.

    Staying awake! That takes caffeine and sugar loaded power drinks. Just a guess but they might make people moody!

    Authors including the internet – vengeance killing, the bookend to the training video… the training manual.

    150 Million Antidepressant prescriptions per year in the US. Better not stop taking them like the Columbine and theater killers did just before their killing sprees.

    The news media glorifies the killers, from the killer’s point of view. You know the news cliché, if it bleeds it leads. The media is always full of advice – what to eat, how to exercise… how about some segments on gun safety, you know to make sure single moms raising screwed-up, fatherless boys know enough to secure their weapons. I have not heard the media talk much about any of the contributing factors. Including this PBS article. Just ban guns so our guilt goes away.

    When the kids make it to 18 years of age what does the government do? Hand them an automatic weapon and some grenades and send them to the desert to be maimed, killed or worse.

    I do not think everyone should own an AK-47 we are not a third world country… yet. But I find it amazing that since Mr. Obama took office that 63 million guns have sold. What do your psycho analysts make of that?

  • Edward Dongres

    The sadest part is that while any mass shooting is going on MORE kids are killed by drug overdose. EVERY DAY. But it doesn’t make the news. Because if it bleeds it leads.
    In Canada for example, most homicides do not involve any firearms. But the word GUN is far more powerful magnet for TV ratings than say crowbar, pipe or brick, which also are useless to hype calls for registration/confiscation of firearms. We hear of “gunmen” but I have yet to hear of “knifemen”.

  • Anonymous

    What about Oklahoma City and McVeigh?

  • John Donaldson

    The effect of all this talk about gun control has resulted in winfall profits for the gun industies. Americans who never considered purchasing an assult weapon are lining up whever they are sold and paying whatever they cost. I watched one gentleman who probably never purchased a gun buy a S&W AR-15 .223. The NRA could not have developed a more effective stratagy if they tried. How many industries do you know that can produce winfall profits when innocent children are slaughtered by a madman?

  • ZZ

    There was no AR rifle used in Newtown. Out of all the shootings listed only the one at Aurora had an AR. Why are you trying to make it look like all the shootings use an AR? Stop spewing propaganda against the 2nd amendment. Stop public money for the propaganda machine of PBS!

  • ZZ

    How come you guys don’t mention all the killing of black on black in Chicago, the gun control paradise of the left? Gun control doesn’t work. End the Killing Fields called: “Gun Free Zones”

  • ZZ

    AR: America’s Rife, get over it. The AR is staying until something better comes along.

  • Rudy

    For several days after the Newtown tragedy I heard reported repeatably from multiple news sources that Adam Lanza was found dead with the 2 handguns he’d used in the shooting beside him and additionally there was “A” semi-automatic rifle was found locked INSIDE the trunk of his car.

    Then one day the story changes to all the deaths were caused solely by the “Assault” weapon.

    Now I saw the video of the police removing the rifle from the trunk of the car, it’s all over the internet.

    I also listened to the Coroner state that the only weapon used was the “Assault Rifle”.

    How was the rifle found in the trunk IF it was the weapon that Adam used to kill himself ? Why weren’t the handguns used?

    Then the media focus shifts from keeping our children safe in school to Banning Assault weapons and high capacity magazines .

  • OnTheEdge

    82% of all handguns are semi auto you say. I say 83% of all statistics are BS. I’m sure you got your statistics from someone who magically added up all those revolvers made from the 1800s to 2013. Thats quite impressive taking into account the view gun owners had about semi auto’s jamming that lasted all the way up into the 1970s. I’m sorry, this article is so flawed it’s simply not worth commenting on. You touch on the port arthur massacre but you fail to mention how that gun buy back backfired and now there are 3 million more guns in australia than there was before the buy back, and the reason because violent crime went way up and people had to protect themselves. All I can say is I hope you get paid by the word because you would starve based on content.

  • Matt

    The problem is incredibly more complex than that. If we had a world with absolutely 0 guns, obviously no one would die from the gun. Gun free school zones have actually helped. The big problem in Chicago is that the police are massively outgunned by gangs and groups that have access to and then carry ‘illegal’ guns there. Sure you can’t buy a weapon in Chicago, but what’s to stop you from buying it somewhere else and bring it there? This is a massively complex problem–if it started with somehow removing all of the guns on the streets and starting over today, we could make a lot more progress with whatever laws and controls that could be implemented.

  • Anonymous

    Rwanda was a “world” pretty much free from firearms. Did the lack of firearms there save lives? NOOOO! 800,000 were slaughtered, mostly with hoes, shovels, and machetes.The problem might even be more complex than you think At one point a large group of victims was viewing the oncoming butchery and begged the UN (peacekeepers?) for a single firearm to shoot all of their own kids. It was denied. The children died by being chopped up. Simiar mass killings take place in Mexico, where private firearms are also outlawed.

  • Alan John

    thank you johnny, the 4 handguns report came from ABC reporting on the day, couple that with suggesting that the sherif found the rifle in the trunk of the car AND ask no more questions or listen to any other reporting contradicting your theory and you have a conspiracy,

  • NTK

    Hi Rudy. Thanks for your comment. Here’s an article that reaffirms that the AR-15 (Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle) was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. – NTK Editor

  • ntk

    Hi Zz, thanks for your comment. Here’s an article that reaffirms that the AR-15 (Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle) was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. – NTK Editor

  • ntk

    Hi, all. Thank you for your comments. Here’s an article that reaffirms that the AR-15 (Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle) was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. – NTK Editor

  • ntk

    Thanks for your comment, Johnny. We’ve issued the following correction to this article. – NTK Editor

    Editor’s note: Correction issued. As of February 26, 2013, this
    article has been revised to reflect the following changes: A Hi-Point
    Model 995 carbine rifle was used in the 1999 Columbine shooting, a Smith
    and Wesson M&P15 shotgun was used in the 2012 Aurora movie theater
    shooting and a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle was used in the 2012 shooting
    at Sandy Hook Elementary School.