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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.