In My Words: To reduce gun violence, focus on function instead of form

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Psychology Mat Gendle makes an argument that firearms regulation should focus on the function of the firearm, not the form. The column was published in its entirety by the Burlington Times-News and Yahoo News. An abbreviated version was published by The Charlotte Observer, The Raleigh News & Observer and The Durham Herald-Sun.

By Mat Gendle

I would bet that most people would agree that automobiles engineered specifically for high-speed motorsport competition probably shouldn’t be allowed for street use. You wouldn’t want a 650-plus horsepower car crossing the finish line on a NASCAR track and then heading out onto city streets to run errands after a race.

Mat Gendle, professor of psychology and director of Project Pericles

Yet, there are no legal restrictions specifically placed on cars that have spoilers, hood scoops, aerodynamic ground effects, aftermarket bumper-mounted tow hooks, competition-grade seats, or flashy graphics, simply because they might “look like a race car.” Elements like these may mimic those seen on their high-speed counterparts, but don’t make the vehicle they are affixed to a contender on race day.

So when it comes to regulating firearms, why do some continue to advocate for cosmetic restrictions instead of focusing on those aspects that make some potentially more dangerous than others? Why the focus on the form of guns rather than the function in trying to create a safer world?

I’m no expert on firearms engineering or policy—I’m just a concerned citizen who has spent my entire life around knowledgeable and responsible gun owners. And from this personal experience, one thing is clear to me. A considerable number of proponents of gun control measures seem to know very little about the firearms that they seek to regulate, and often sound quite ignorant when they discuss regulating guns.

Those in favor of expansive gun rights are keenly aware of this lack of understanding, making it difficult for proposals to further regulate guns to be taken seriously by ardent 2nd Amendment advocates.

In my view, it’s time to stop obsessing over the nebulous term “assault weapon,” as well as the cosmetic features that are employed to define exactly what type of firearm might qualify as such a weapon. All too often, proposals seeking to regulate or ban “assault weapons” focus on cosmetic characteristics, such as the existence of flash suppressors, pistol grips, bayonet lugs, external magazines or overall “military styling.” These add-ons and designs do not meaningfully impact the firearm’s functionality or how potentially deadly the firearm might be.

The frequently-cited comparison of the Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle and sporting rifles from various manufacturers that are styled after the ArmaLite/Colt AR-15 provides a clear example of this misguided focus on form over function.

With its wooden stock and otherwise traditional appearance, the Ruger product looks like a sturdy, all-purpose utility rifle that would be at home in the back of a pickup truck on any farm or ranch. On the other hand, civilian-market AR-15 style rifles (i.e. ones that do not allow for fully automatic fire) look extremely similar to the firearms that are standard-issue to U.S. military and law enforcement personnel.

Yet, the underlying function of these two types of these civilian-market rifles is, for all purposes, identical. Both use the same cartridge (5.56 NATO) and fire semi-automatically at essentially the same rate. There is nothing about the cosmetic features or design of a civilian-market AR-15 that would make it inherently more deadly than the traditionally-designed rifle in a mass-shooting scenario. Yet, AR-15 style rifles are often specifically targeted for regulation precisely because they have a close physical resemblance to select-fire, military-grade weapons.

There is one functional feature of many so-called “assault weapons” that, if regulated, could substantially reduce injuries and fatalities during mass-shooting situations — high-capacity magazines. Unlike regulating cosmetic features such as flash suppressors, a ban on high-capacity magazines would be a functionally meaningful step to reduce the potential damage that a firearm can cause in a mass-shooting scenario.

There is no legitimate sporting or self-defense need for someone with proper marksmanship training to possess a 10-plus round magazine for their firearm of choice. Moving to create a regulatory environment where the possession, sale and manufacture of such magazines could be legally phased out over time would be a substantial advancement from a harm-reduction standpoint. Such a move could include a multi-year plan where low-capacity magazines would be made widely available to law-abiding gun owners before anything was banned outright.

Without question, the regulation of firearms is a complex topic that does not easily distill down to a short op-ed column such as this one. Common-sense gun regulations (such as extensive owner training, licensing, and perhaps the registration of all firearms) that treat guns and shooting the same way we treat motor vehicles and driving are worthy of significant discussion.

But this dialogue becomes challenged when the proponents of such regulation are fixated on the form of particular firearms, rather than their function.

Views expressed in this column are the authors’ own and not necessarily those of Elon University.