Recently, Judge Roger Thomas Benitez, a senior U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, ruled that the 1989 California assault weapon ban is unconstitutional. The ruling prompted the media to fall back on a common yet egregiously incorrect claim that the AR-15 is the “weapon of choice” for mass shooters in the U.S.
For example, CNN reporters Alexandra Meeks, Josh Campbell, and Eric Levenson wrote “Still, an AR-15 style rifle has been the weapon of choice for the most violent mass killings in modern history” in a June 5 article covering the recent court decision. Likewise, a recent CBS 60 Minutes segment by Scott Pelley asked, “What makes the AR-15 style rifle the weapon of choice for mass shooters?”
As popular as this claim may be, it is 100% false. The highly publicized and maligned AR-15 is not the weapon of choice for mass shootings. We have data on weapons used in American mass shootings. The evidence shows that mass shooters overwhelmingly use handguns, not the AR-15, or any rifle for that matter.
An analysis by a progressive pro-gun control group, Everytown USA, found that 81% of mass shootings involved handguns. The same study found that only 16% of mass shootings were committed using an assault weapon. Similarly, a review of mass shooting studies by the Rand Institute found that 10-36%(depending on the study) of mass shootings involved a semi-automatic rifle.
Furthermore, a 2018 study in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that handguns are more lethal than rifles in mass shootings. Admittedly, the debate concerning the lethality of firearm choice is far from settled. Be that as it may, there are no readily available empirical analyses to support the idea that the AR-15 is the weapon of choice for mass shooters. This common claim is pure media fiction.
To put it simply, the evidence is clear: the AR-15 is not the “weapon of choice” for mass shooters. Understandably, high-profile mass shootings have seared the AR-15 into the psyche of millions of Americans. There is an undeniable emotional aspect to this debate. Gun violence is a serious issue that affects almost every American community. However, this is not simply a case of common misconceptions. I’ve personally contacted several major media fact-checkers with credible research debunking the oft-used and fallacious claim concerning the AR-15. I was ignored.
Regardless of how you feel about gun control, facts matter even when you do not like them. Journalists have an ethical duty to provide factual analysis of current events. Their job is not to promote a preferred narrative at the expense of truth.
As trust in the media hovers around all-time lows, honesty and impartiality may go a long way towards restoring that trust. Anti-gun journalists should indulge in the pesky facts of the matter to earn back trust and influence with the other half of the country.
Raheem Williams is an economist, writer, and policy analyst. He does in fact own an AR-15 and will not be parting with it.