3 False Claims About Guns From Wash. Times's Emily Miller

Washington Times senior opinion editor Emily Miller offered false information about gun violence during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe where she promoted her recently published bookEmily Gets Her Gun... But Obama Wants to Take Yours.

In her book, Miller advanced the National Rifle Association's conspiracy theory that President Obama is planning to confiscate privately held firearms and offered false information about the incidence of mass shootings and the capabilities of assault weapons, while distorting academic research on gun violence.

Miller's Morning Joe appearance offered more of the same as she misled on research about the effectiveness of gun violence prevention measures and made false claims about assault weapons, including advancing the notion that an AR-15 assault weapon is “not any functionally different than a hunting rifle.”

Miller Distorts Research To Suggest There Is No Benefit To Gun Violence Prevention Laws

Miller claimed that “no gun control law reduces crime, and that's fact,” citing a “CDC study, Harvard study.” Opponents of stronger gun laws often distort a 2003 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study and a 2007 study from Harvard's Journal of Public Law and Policy to attack gun violence prevention proposals.

In Emily Gets Her Gun, Miller wrote about the 2003 CDC study at length and deceptively quoted from it to make it seem as if the study concluded that gun violence prevention laws are ineffective. Miller wrote:

There has been only one extensive government research study on firearms laws in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- an agency with a known bias against guns -- looked at the various statutes from the local to national level. The two-year investigation evaluated the following laws: bans on specified firearms or ammunition (which includes the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban), restrictions on firearm acquisition, waiting periods for firearm acquisition, firearms registration and licensing of firearm owners, “shall issue” concealed weapon carry laws, child access prevention laws, and zero tolerance laws for firearms in schools.

The final 2003 CDC report concluded, “The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes.” [Emily Gets Her Gun: ...But Obama Wants to Take Yours, pg. 47, 9/3/13]

But when quoted in full, the very next line of the study undermines Miller's characterization:

The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes. (Note that insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness.) [emphasis added]

The CDC did not conclude that gun violence prevention laws do not work, rather it called for further research on the topic, finding the current body of research insufficient to draw conclusions.

In August, conservative media trumpeted a 2007 study in the Harvard Journal of Public Law and Public Policy -- a student-edited conservative law review journal -- to attack gun violence prevention proposals as ineffective. The co-author of the study, Gary Mauser, is not a statistician and instead is a professor of business administration who earned his doctorate in psychology. His research on gun violence is suspect. In 2004, Deltoid, a publication of Science Blogs that often evaluates academic research on gun violence, noted that he used erroneous figures to claim that Canada -- which has more restrictions on firearm ownership than the United States -- had a higher violent crime rate than the United States.    

His 2007 study contained at least one significant error that undermined his conclusion that no relationship exists between gun ownership and murder rates. He wrote that, “Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of  any kind of gun is minimal, had a murder rate nine times higher than Germany in 2002,” based on his claim that Luxembourg had a murder rate of 9.01 per 100,000 individuals compared to Germany's rate of 0.93 per 100,000.

But in a later paper, Mauser quietly acknowledged that Luxembourg's murder rate was actually lower than Germany's.

More generally, his conclusions are suspect because he compared gun ownership to all types of murder instead of solely to gun homicide. He also included low-income nations in his study, which makes for a problematic comparison. Reputable research that attempts to make international gun violence comparisons typically only compares the United States with other high-income nations in order to compare the most similarly situated countries. A 2011 study in The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that the United States -- where gun laws are typically weaker -- has a gun homicide rate 19.5 times the average of other high-income nations.

Research actually conducted at Harvard, as opposed to being published in one of its student-edited journals, found that “in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”

Miller Downplays Availability Of Assault Weapons And Claims They Only Resemble Military Weapons In A Cosmetic Sense

Contrary to the commonly understood definition of an assault weapon -- a semi-automatic military-style rifle like the AR-15 style rifles used in the Newtown and Aurora mass shootings -- Miller claimed that “an assault weapon is a machinegun, which is automatic ... so you pull the trigger and bullets fire and that's what we have in Afghanistan.” She also claimed that the term was invented by opponents of the weapons “in order to mislead the public into thinking these are weapons of war.” 

In fact the term “assault weapon” was commonly used to describe semi-automatic military-style rifles by the gun industry and proponents of the weapons prior to a 2009 public relations move by the gun industry's lobby to rebrand this class of weapons as “modern sporting rifles.”

The term assault weapon was used as a marketing tool to advertise the military features of the weapon. For example a 1984 advertisement for the “HK 91 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle” played up military themes and noted that the HK 91 is the semi-automatic version of the G3, a fully automatic machinegun that was used by militaries worldwide:

Other evidence that the term “assault weapon” was commonly used by its proponents is gun expert Duncan Long's 1986 technical guide to the AR-15 rifle titled, Assault Pistols, Rifles and Submachine Guns. In that book, Long dismissed the claim that the term assault weapon only applies to automatic firearms:

The next problem arises if you make a semiauto-only model of one of these selective-fire rifles. According to the purists, an assault rifle has to be selective fire [has the ability to switch between automatic and semi-automatic fire]. Yet, if you think about it, it's a little hard to accept the idea that firearms with extended magazines, pistol grip stock, etc., cease to be assault rifles by changing a bit of metal.

In 2009, however, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry's lobbying group, issued a “media resource” in anticipation of legislation to ban assault weapons that said the firearms should instead be called “modern sporting rifles.”

Miller also claimed that assault weapons “aren't military weapons” but instead “are semi-automatic rifles [that] have cosmetic appearances.” Many proponents of assault weapons claim that semi-automatic assault weapons only resemble military weapons in a cosmetic sense.

This theory ignores that the AR-15 assault weapon is a direct derivative of the military's M-16. In 1962, the military began field testing a rifle called the AR-15. Once it was accepted for use in the military, it was renamed the M-16. In 1963, Colt purchased the design and began selling a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle on the civilian market.

Unsurprisingly, the features of an assault weapon serve a purpose and are not mere cosmetics. As Miller herself explained in Emily Gets Her Gun, the pistol grip feature of an assault weapon allows for “better control”:

I've shot several modern sporting rifles and standard shotguns, and the rifles are significantly easier for me to control. They are lighter, so I can hold them up to aim with the sights. The pistol grip on the bottom helps me to hold up the gun by using my left hand for better control. [Emily Gets Her Gun: ...But Obama Wants to Take Yours, pg. 49, 9/3/13]

As Violence Policy Center explained in a 2011 report, assault weapon features including the pistol grip and ability to accept a high-capacity ammunition magazine “meet specific combat needs” and are intentionally designed “for laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone”:

The world's armies developed assault weapons to meet specific combat needs.  All assault weapons -- military and civilian alike -- incorporate specific features that were designed for laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone.  This is sometimes known as “hosing down” an area.  Civilian assault weapons feature the specific military design features that make spray-firing easy and distinguish assault weapons from traditional sporting firearms.
The most important of these design features are--

  • High-capacity detachable ammunition magazines that hold as many as 75 rounds of ammunition.
  • A rear pistol grip (handle), including so-called “thumbhole stocks” and magazines that function like pistol grips.
  • A forward grip or barrel shroud.  Forward grips (located under the barrel or the forward stock) give a shooter greater control over a weapon during firing.

Miller Claims That There Is No Functional Difference Between Assault Weapons And Handguns Or Hunting Rifles

Miller claimed that an assault weapon “doesn't shoot any differently than the handgun you see on the cover of my book or your uncle's hunting rifle,” over host Joe Scarborough's objection that assault weapons fire with a “much different impact.” Miller added that assault weapons are “not any functionally different than a hunting rifle.”

In fact, the features of assault weapons distinguish that class of guns from both handguns and a traditional hunting rifle in important ways.

While a substantial number of handguns are designed to be semi-automatic and accept a detachable high-capacity magazine like an assault weapon, the assault weapon fires a round with much greater velocity compared to even a powerful handgun, meaning that it produces a more devastating injury.

According to a 2011 report by doctors who performed autopsies on soldiers killed by gunfire in Iraq, “The velocity of the missile as it strikes the target is the main determinant of the wounding capacity” and "[t]he greater energy of the missile at the moment of impact the greater is the tissue destruction."  Indeed, the study found that rounds with a velocity exceeding 2,500 feet per second cause a shockwave to pass through the body upon impact that caused catastrophic injuries even in areas remote to the direct wound.

An AR-15 assault weapon can fire a .223 caliber round with a muzzle velocity of 4,000 feet per second. The 1911 pistol -- known as a high powered handgun for its use of .45 caliber ammunition -- fires at a muzzle velocity of no more than 1,055 feet per second.

Assault weapons differ  from traditional hunting rifles in their ability to fire a much larger number of rounds in a shorter period of time.

All assault weapons are semi-automatic, while a traditional hunting rifle is operated by a bolt- or lever-action. On a semi-automatic firearm, pulling the trigger not only causes a round to be fired, but also sets in motion a process that places the next round to be fired into the chamber. The result is that every time the trigger is pulled a new round is fired, until the magazine that holds the rounds is exhausted. On a bolt- or lever-action firearm, the operator must work the bolt or lever with her or her hand after each round is fired in order to move the next round into the chamber.

As a practical matter, this additional step means that a semi-automatic assault weapon can be fired at a rate much faster than a traditional hunting rifle. Indeed, a 30-round magazine can be fired from a semi-automatic firearm in five seconds. Assault weapons can also be equipped with a Slide Fire stock that allows the weapon to be fired at a rate equal to an automatic machinegun.

Assault weapons also accept a detachable magazine, allowing for a much faster reload time compared to the internal magazine commonly found on a hunting rifle.

It is no surprise that when used in mass shootings, firearms with assault weapons features cause more fatalities and injuries. According to a report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns on mass shootings that occurred between January 2009 and September 2013, shootings involving assault weapons or high-capacity magazines resulted in 151 percent more people shot and 63 percent more fatalities: