How misinformation overturned California's assault weapons ban

How misinformation overturned California's assault weapons ban
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Misinformation is deadly. That has become acutely obvious in Judge Roger Benitez’s ruling last week that overturned California’s 1989 assault weapons ban, in which he argues defensive gun use with an assault weapon “surely happens a lot” and “seems to be more common” than mass shootings with such weapons — both of which are blatant falsehoods.

From January 2016 to May 2021, assault weapons were used 2.7 times more often to perpetrate mass shootings than they were used defensively against any type of attack. According to data contained within the Gun Violence Archive, a national gun violence database, there were 126 mass shootings (in which four or more people were shot) involving an assault weapon during that period, an average of 25 per year. Our analysis of Gun Violence Archive data over that same period identified only 47 cases in which a person used an assault weapon against an attacker, an average of nine per year. Those 126 mass shootings took 402 lives and injured 1,157 people.  

When examining all shootings that involved an assault weapon (not just mass shootings) during the same time period, Gun Violence Archive data identified 4,869 incidents that killed 1,127 people and injured 2,108 people (not including suicides).

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That’s 1,127 lives taken by an assault weapon. 

Shootings with assault weapons in the United States are less frequent than other forms of gun violence; however, my research on mass shootings found that from 2013 to 2019, shootings with an assault weapon were four times more lethal than shootings with any other type of firearm. These findings are in line with a 2018 study led by Eric Goralnick that found active shooter incidents with assault weapons were substantially more lethal. 

Contrary to Judge Benitez’s statements, multiple academic studies have found that assault weapons bans have been successful. A 2014 study of mass shootings between 1982 and 2011 conducted by Mark Gius found that state assault weapon bans were effective at reducing mass shooting fatalities. A 2019 analysis led by John Donohue found the federal assault weapon ban was associated with a 25 percent decrease in mass shooting deaths and a 40 percent reduction in fatalities over 10 years compared to the previous decade. In the decade after the ban expired, mass shooting deaths increased by 347 percent. A 2019 study led by Charles DiMaggio examining mass shootings from 1981 to 2017 found that more than 85 percent of public mass shooting fatalities were caused by assault rifles and were 70 percent less likely to occur during the federal assault weapons ban (1994 through 2004).

The data also casts substantial doubt on Judge Benitez’s characterization of California’s assault weapon’s ban as a “failed experiment.” According to Gun Violence Archive data, California experienced 7.1 percent of the country’s mass shootings with assault weapons, and 5.7 percent of the deaths from such shootings from January 2016 to May 2021 despite having 12 percent of the country’s population. In 2020, California had the seventh lowest overall gun death rate in the country. 

Judge Benitez’s decision also cites debunked testimony from pro-gun researcher John Lott who claims that “...there may be from 760,000 defensive handgun uses to 3.6 million defensive uses each year.” This widespread myth originates from surveys conducted in the early 1990s. Validity tests reveal that the cited numbers are mathematically impossible and the surveys themselves suffer from methodological problems that render their figures useless. Instead, the best empirical evidence from the Gun Violence Archive reveals that there are approximately 2,000 verified DGUs annually. When that number is compared to the nearly 40,000 Americans killed by firearms in 2018, it becomes obvious that guns are far more likely to harm than protect. 

We cannot continue to allow misinformation and myths to seep into our courtrooms and legislatures. Judge Bentiez made a serious miscalculation that will impact the lives and safety of Californians. Facts and data matter. It’s time to start paying attention to the truth about gun violence.

Devin Hughes is the President and Founder of GVPedia, a non-profit that provides access to gun violence prevention research and data.