Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gunfacts: AR-15s: Mostly Harmless with regard to Homicides

The AR-15, allegedly the most popular consumer rifle in the United States, has become the poster child of the gun control industry.

But from a homicide statistics standpoint, they are mostly harmless.

Main Take-aways

  • AR-15s constitute maybe 4% of all American firearms.
  • AR-15s are used in 0.4% of firearm homicides, maximum.

Just How Many AR-15s Are We Talking About?

There is no doubt the AR-15 is a popular rifle. The firearm industry notes this. Users note this. Even the gun control industry notes this. Knowing how many are out there is crucial for understanding if they are a problem or not.

The AR-15 has been around since 1959, but the last eight years has seen a significant increase in its popularity.

And no wonder. The rifle is lightweight, meaning anyone can shoot it (YouTube has a bunch of videos of tiny young girls firing them). They don’t recoil much due to the mechanical design as well as the relatively anemic rounds they shoot. And, well, they are fun.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never owned, not do I want to own an AR-15. Just not my thing.

Given that AR-15s have been around for nearly 60 years, knowing just how many are in circulation requires guesswork. According to one compilation of manufacturer records 1 over five million have been made since the year 2000. The NRA once estimated 2 there were about 15 million in circulation as of the end of 2017. Triangulation we did from BATFE reporting 3 makes us believe that total is a reasonable one.

But what does 15 million AR-15s really mean? Based on estimates of the number of guns and various types of guns available, AR-15s are maybe:
  • 12% of all rifles
  • 4% of all guns (including handguns, shotguns, etc.)
From a pure market penetration standpoint, AR-15s are not that big of a deal. But when you look at AR-15s and murder …

AR-15s Used in Mass Public Shootings

… they become even less of a problem.

Let’s start with mass public shootings (MPSs) like the recent tragedy in Parkland, Florida. Because AR-15s were used in both the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings, they appear to have an outsized role in MPSs. But, the numbers betray this a bit.

AR-15s in Mass Public Shootings
AR-15s Involved 11%
AR-15s Minus Terrorist 9%
AR-15 and Other Guns 6%
Mother Jones database, normalized to FBI definition of MPS

Of the MPSs since 1982, at worst AR-15s were used in a mere 11% of those events. But one of those MPSs was a terrorist attack (San Bernardino), so the effective policy number is that 9% of MPSs involved AR-15s.

But even this is overstating the case. In most MPSs, the attacker carries in more than a few guns (and the enduring fact is, most MPSs are committed with handguns and shotguns). So, if we discount AR-15 involvement due to someone shooting up a room using his handguns, shotguns and AR-15, then the effective number of AR-15-specific MPSs drops to 6% of the total.
Mighty slim pickings for MPSs. But, the case against AR-15s  gets even weaker when one looks at all homicides, not just MPSs.

AR-15s Used in All Homicides

Common estimates for the number of guns in circulation 4 is between 270 million and 357 million. For our analysis we’ll use the high end because until the mid-1970s, nobody was really tracking this stuff. The stockpile of farm weapons, hunting rifles, war trophies, and so on is likely much larger than most prognosticators allow for.

Guns in Circulation 357,000,000
% Guns that are Rifles 125,565,332 5
AR-15s – % of Rifles 11.9%
AR-15s – % of all guns 4%

Combining this estimate with the percentage of new guns entering the national stockpile every year 6 we see that AR-15s make up at most 4% of all the guns in the United States. This number is way high given that the AR-15 was not introduced until 1959 and did not enjoy a massive market uptick until 2012–2017. But, we’ll stick with the very high 4% number as it makes the final figures that much more interesting (in other words, we are stacking the deck against the AR-15).

Rifles are not the homicide weapon of choice. Handguns are. Sixty-eight percent of firearm homicides are committed with handguns 7; and most of those are inner-city, gang related shootings. Rifles are used in 3% of homicides (soak that up for a moment – handguns 68%, all rifles 3%).

AR-15’s in Circulation 15,000,000
Homicides by Rifle 252 8
Homicides by AR-15s (max avg five years) 0.1
Rifles Used in Homicides 3%
AR-15s Used in Homicides (inferred) 0.4%

Since we can estimate what fraction of the number of rifles in circulation are AR-15s, we can then calculate how often they are used in homicides. All in all, AR-15s account for 0.4% of firearm homicides at worst.

NOTE: The FBI data used was from their most recently available dump, covering years 2012-2016. This, the number of rifle homicides includes the Sandy Hook Massacre where all the school victims were killed with an AR-15.


What Not to Worry About

It has been claimed that members of the gun control industry don’t care about facts, just imagery. Their fixation on AR-15s is a case in point. One type of firearm, which accounts for 0.4% of firearm homicides, is their poster child, their scary image for the nightly news. If they really wanted to ban something to make America safer, they should start with their own rhetoric.
  2. America’s rifle: Why so many people love the AR-15, NBC News
  3. Firearm Commerce in the United States, 2017
  4. There are now more guns than people in the United States, Washington Post, October 2015
  5. Inferred via BATFE commerce reports
  6. For this analysis we used the BATFE Firearms in Commerce report and averages the years between 1986 and 2015
  7. FBI Expanded Homicide Data Table 4, 2016
  8. FBI Uniform Crime Reporting

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