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How limiting high-capacity magazines could reduce the carnage in mass shootings

The U.S. has repeatedly observed a grim cycle around gun violence: A mass shooting occurs, prompting calls for the government to step in, but momentum dissipates before any legislative action is taken. But what specific gun regulations might change the outcomes, if not the frequency, of mass shootings? William Brangham talks to David Chipman of Giffords about the danger of high-capacity magazines.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: It has been almost three weeks since the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and President Trump has again seemingly changed his mind on what gun reforms he is willing to consider.

    William Brangham continues our periodic look at some of the proposed reforms to try to reduce the bloodshed caused by guns in America.

  • William Brangham:

    We are in the midst of a grim cycle.

    A tragic mass shooting occurs. A community, in this case, two communities grieve the loss of innocent lives. Thoughts and prayers turn to calls for action. Political leaders promise to do something, but then, in many cases, action doesn't materialize.

    We do this occasional look at the "NewsHour" at what might be done, and whether any of those proposed reforms would actually save lives.

    There's talk now of universal background checks for every single gun transaction in America. There's talk of more red flag laws, where people can alert authorities of trouble with someone who has weapons.

    But we're going to look now at the idea that some say should be on the table, to limit high-capacity magazines, which give a shooter the ability to fire off more and more rounds before they have to stop and reload.

    I'm joined now by David Chipman of the Giffords Center, the gun safety group. Chipman spent 25 years as a special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where he focused, in part, on gun trafficking.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • David Chipman:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    For people who have not been following this debate or don't under — or haven't held firearms or don't understand how guns operate, tell us a little bit more. What is a high-capacity magazine?

  • David Chipman:

    So, in a semiautomatic weapon, a weapon that, every time you pull the trigger, a round is fired, there is a metal box and spring in which rounds of ammunition are held. And so it is self-loading every time you pull the trigger.

    It also gives you the opportunity to reload really quickly. It's almost as if you press a button, a printer cartridge falls out and you can insert another one.

    This is very different than what the first gun I had at ATF, which was a revolver, or what you would see on "Westworld."

  • William Brangham:

    It's like an old, yes, six-shooter, Western-style.

  • David Chipman:

    Yes, which you have to drop individual rounds in.

    And then, if you were in a gunfight, to actually reload, we used to train for hours for that.

    So, this is sort of the 2.0 of weapons today, and it makes it very, very lethal.

  • William Brangham:

    And high-capacity means — what kind of numbers are we talking about?

  • David Chipman:

    Yes. I think the consensus has been around 10. And there are a number of reasons why.

  • William Brangham:

    So, 10 and above would be high?

  • David Chipman:

    Yes.

    Well, I think let's say 10 and below are OK or reasonable. Above would be regulated. And I think this comes basically based on a guess. It's sort of like picking a speed limit. Should it be 55 or 65?

    What we do know is, in the NYPD, they have examined over the years how many rounds are fired in a deadly encounter. And even amongst police, the number is below five on average. So you would think twice as much of that would allow any citizen to properly defend themselves.

    When I was on ATF's SWAT team, my sidearm had 15 rounds, my shotgun had six. I did have an assault rifle, which could hold 30, but I was also tracking and hunting down the most dangerous armed Americans, which really isn't the job of a civilian.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

    So why do we care in this conversation about high-capacity magazines, when we're talking about trying to limit the carnage of mass shootings?

  • David Chipman:

    I think it's like a flu shot.

    And the bumper sticker that people who are against this say, well, it won't stop a shooting. Actually, that might be correct. What it might stop, though, is a killer from transforming into a killing machine.

    Just look at the assassination attempt of my boss Gabby Giffords. She was shot with the first or second round. There — no capacity limit would have protected her. But perhaps her staffer wouldn't have been killed, a federal judge wouldn't have been killed, or a 9-year-old child wouldn't have been getting if that shooter did not have a 32-round magazine, twice the size of the magazine I had on my ATF-issued gun.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the idea is, if you limit the size of these magazines or the capacity of the magazine, it's a moment to intervene.

    If a mass shooting is going on, and that person has to stop to reload and take that magazine out and put a new one in, that's a moment for the good people in that environment to try to stop that event.

  • David Chipman:

    Yes.

    And that's what happened in Tucson. Unfortunately, it happened after 32 rounds were fired. But, in that case, those surviving people who were there tackled the shooter. In law enforcement, we're trained for that lull in gunfire. It allows us a tactical advance.

    And the reality is, despite what you see in "Die Hard" and other movies, it is really hard to reload. You have to train very hard, especially under pressure, if you're being shot at.

  • William Brangham:

    So, right now, there are magazines that go up to how big? I mean, how — you mentioned 30 in the Tucson shooter. How big are magazines now?

  • David Chipman:

    Yes, what's frightening is, is, we're seeing drum magazines at 100 now. We saw that…

  • William Brangham:

    A hundred rounds?

  • David Chipman:

    A hundred rounds, which is interesting for a rifle, because, when you buy a box of ammunition for that kind of caliber, they're only 22 a box. So this one magazine would be five boxes of ammunition.

    We first saw this in Aurora being used, and, most recently, in Dayton, we saw it used.

    Another episode was in Las Vegas. Most of the media focused on the use of a bump stock there, which allowed for the shooting to happen more quickly, but, really, one of the results and why this person was able to kill dozens of people and wound hundreds was the fact that he too had 80- and 100-round magazines.

    So it's just math. If you're firing that many rounds downrange and there are people there, you're going to hit more people. You don't have to aim as precisely. And death tolls increase.

    And so looking at magazines is kind of like a flu shot. Perhaps you don't stop the flu in every case, but you can prevent a lot of it. And I think that's what we're trying to do here.

  • William Brangham:

    So, are there states right now that are limiting magazine sales to 10?

    I mean, I understand that there are probably millions of these high-capacity magazine clips that are already out there in the population. But there are states now that are trying to limit the number of these?

  • David Chipman:

    Yes.

    And there are nine states now and the District of Colombia that do this. The first state that I was involved in this conversation was right after Sandy Hook in Colorado moved forward with regulating the size and capacity.

    And now Congressman Ted Deutch, who represents the area of Parkland, where we had the school shooting, he's introduced a House bill that would regulate the future manufacture and sale at 10 rounds.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, California, as you know, and Vermont also recently saw their own attempts to limit high-capacity magazines thrown out by the courts, arguing that it's an infringement upon the Second Amendment.

    Isn't that an obstacle to this effort?

  • David Chipman:

    Sure.

    I mean, any policy decision or way we go has to be satisfied in the courts. That's one court decision. We will have to see if other courts address it the same way.

    But it seems to me a very reasonable approach. I — talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It's not normal. And I can't think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it.

    So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can't be 100. And so I think there's room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.

  • William Brangham:

    David Chipman of the Giffords Center, thank you very much.

  • David Chipman:

    Thanks for having me.

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