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The United States doesn’t require gun registration.
So, when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., claims private citizens have more assault weapons than members of the military do, how does he know?
"There are more assault rifles, as I understand it, in the hands of private citizens than in the hands of the United States military," the 2020 presidential candidate said in the wake of the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. "We're talking about 5 (million) to 10 million assault weapons in the hands of private citizens."
Sanders’ claim suffers a bit from comparing private and military weapons, which are different. Plus, he has to rely on wildly varying estimates, although his seems on the lower end.
We’ll sort out the facts for you.
In both shootings, assault-style weapons, legal in both states, were used. Each weapon was semiautomatic — the gunmen could fire as quickly as they could pull the trigger — and carrying enough ammunition to potentially kill dozens of people in minutes.
The New York Times reported that the El Paso shooter used a semi-automatic Kalashnikov-style rifle (also known as an AK-47-style rifle), which typically uses a magazine that has 30 rounds; and that the Dayton shooter used an AR-15-style pistol, modified to act as a rifle, with a drum magazine that can hold up to 100 rounds.
We’ll note that "assault weapon" does not have a universal definition. For example, a bill called the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018 defined an assault weapon differently than the federal law that banned assault weapons from 1994 to 2004, before expiring.
"None of the so-called ‘assault rifles’ legally owned by U.S. civilians are assault rifles as the term is used in military contexts," said Florida State University criminal justice professor emeritus Gary Kleck, who has done research on large-capacity firearms used by mass shooters.
"Assault rifles used by members of the military can all fire full automatic, like machine guns, as well as one shot at a time, whereas none of the so-called ‘assault rifles’ legally owned by U.S. civilians can fire full automatic."
But Kleck agreed that semiautomatic weapons evolved from earlier military weapons, many look like military weapons, and they can kill people rapidly.
Sanders campaign policy director Josh Orton acknowledged to us that the precise number of a particular type of weapon in civilian hands is not known, given there is no national gun registration. In fact, federal law prohibits there being a national registry.
But Orton argued that Sanders’ figure of 5-10 million of semiautomatic rifles, such as the AR-15, is a conservative estimate.
Harvard University gun researcher Deborah Azrael told us that her latest survey of gun owners showed there were about 90 million rifles in private hands in the United States in 2015. The survey did not ask about about AR-15s, but 5-10 million is plausible, said she and her colleague on the survey, Matthew Miller of Northeastern University.
As recently as June 2019, the NRA called a reported figure of more than 11 million AR-15s "an arguably lowball figure."
Gun researchers including Kleck, Miller and Philip Cook of Duke University, cautioned us on relying on estimates made by the NRA or the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade association. Those figures could be inflated with the aim of making assault-style weapons appear common.
"The fact is, we just don’t know" the actual number, Miller said.
Aaron Karp, a senior consultant to the Small Arms Survey and a political science lecturer at Old Dominion University in Virginia, told us he believes Sanders’ estimate for private citizens is "very conservative."
Karp estimates there are 15 million to 20 million assault-style weapons in the hands of Americans.
Gun researchers we consulted told us they are not aware of any counts of assault-style weapons held by members of the military.
Sanders’ campaign pointed us to an estimate of 4.5 million from the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva, Switzerland. That is for all U.S. military-owned firearms, not assault-style weapons. But it would be exceeded by the estimated 5 million or more assault-style weapons in private hands.
Sanders said: "There are more assault rifles, as I understand it, in the hands of private citizens than in the hands of the United States military. We're talking about 5 (million) to 10 million assault weapons in the hands of private citizens."
There are no official counts of assault-style weapons, either in private hands or in the U.S. military.
But estimates that the civilian figure could be 5 million or more appear to be conservative and would exceed the estimated number of all weapons in the military. At the same time, those are semiautomatic weapons, not fully automatic like those used in the military.
We rate Sanders’ statement Half True.
Twitter, Bernie Sanders tweet, Aug. 5, 2019
Interview, Bernie Sanders campaign national policy director and senior advisor Josh Orton, Aug. 7, 2019
Email, Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center associate director Deborah Azrael, Aug. 6, 2019
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Which is higher: The number of people, or the number of guns, in America?" Feb. 20, 2018
PolitiFact, "The facts on guns in 6 charts: A 2018 midterm report," Sept. 30, 2018
Email, Duke University professor emeritus of public policy studies Philip Cook, whose research specialties include gun control, Aug. 6, 2019
U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, "Firearms Commerce in the United States, Annual Statistical Update, 2018"
Email, Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at the University of Chicago, Aug. 6, 2019
Email, State University of New York-Oswego criminal justice professor and mass shootings research expert Jaclyn Schildkraut, Aug. 6, 2019
PBS Newshour, "What we know about the El Paso and Dayton shooters’ guns," Aug. 6, 2019
National Shooting Sports Foundation, "NSSF MSR Production Estimates 2017," accessed Aug. 7, 2019
NRA-ILA Institute for Legislative Action, "‘60 Minutes’ ‘Research’ Discovers Bullets Can Cause Damage," June 28, 2019
Interview, Florida State University criminal justice and criminology professor emeritus Gary Kleck, whose research suggests that use of large-capacity magazines by mass shooters does not affect the number of victims they kill or injure, mainly because nearly all mass shooters use multiple guns and/or multiple magazines, Aug. 7, 2019
New York Times, "How State Laws Allowed Military-Style Guns Used in Dayton and El Paso Shootings," Aug. 5, 2019
ConcealedCarry.com, "Are Guns Registered in a National Firearms Registry?" June 18, 2018
Email, Northeastern University health sciences and epidemiology professor and co-director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center Matthew Miller, Aug. 6, 2019
McClatchy, "Nobody knows exactly how many assault rifles exist in the U.S. – by design," Feb. 23, 2018
CNBC, "Owned by 5 million Americans, AR-15 under renewed fire after Orlando massacre," June 14, 2016
Interview, Aaron Karp, Old Dominion University political science lecturer and senior consultant to the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, Switzerland, Aug. 7, 2019
Small Arms Survey, "Estimating Global Military Owned Firearms Numbers," June 2018
The Trace, "How Many Assault Weapons Do Americans Own?" Sept. 22, 2018
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