Why the Focus on Assault Rifles?

Unfortunately, in the wake of the Vegas shooting, the topic of gun control has come up again. My views on gun control are nuanced, and typically receive criticism from all sides (I’ll likely cover this in a later post). What I want to do with this post is point out an example of how human nature leads us astray.

But first, it’s important to note that, even though the Vegas shooting was a tragedy, it’s only a blip in the gun death statistics. Contrary to Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional tirade, you cannot make good policy by simply by looking at these mass shootings.

If a Vulcan landed on earth, he might be a little confused. He would take a passing glance at the statistics, and note that most gun homicides are committed with handguns, yet most gun control advocates focus on assault rifles, even though these constitute a small fraction of total deaths. From a rationalistic perspective, this makes no sense. Banning assault rifles would do far less good than banning handguns, so why focus on assault rifles?

From a “humans are just big monkeys” perspective, like mine, this makes perfect sense. Handguns are small, unintimidating, and typically only kill a single person. Assault rifles are big, scary looking, and (though much more rarely) kill multiple people at a time. If you’re intent is not to stop gun deaths, but to signal that you care about gun deaths, going after assault rifles make much more sense than going after handguns. Because a big scary assault rifles holds much more emotional value in our minds than a small handgun.