The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office has investigated more homicides involving frying pans in the past three years than firearms labeled as “assault weapons” in proposed federal gun bans.
Of the 27 homicides in Dayton last year, handguns were the preferred murder weapon — one case involved an assault rifle — according to an analysis of local crime data by the Dayton Daily News.
But the handguns used in local killings mostly share a feature that is part of the debate on gun control: large-capacity magazines.
“The majority of our crimes are committed with handguns,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer.
A handful of proposed bans have been submitted in Congress in the aftermath of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman wielding an assault rifle massacred 20 young children and six adults at an elementary school.
Some proposed bills define and ban “assault weapons.” Some ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds. One of the most discussed was submitted by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. It does both.
“If they did limit (magazines) to 10 or under, then that would have an impact as far as the ones used here in the recent past. That would make a big difference,” said Dayton homicide detective Sgt. Dan Mauch, emphasizing that would happen only if a ban were enforced.
The way of the gun
The most popular tool for killers in Dayton is a semi-automatic handgun — mostly 9mm and .40 caliber pistols — which were used in 24 shootings last year, according to city police. Four revolvers and one semi-automatic rifle were used. The weapon in one shooting is still being investigated.
Three people were beaten to death last year, and one was killed with a knife.
Of the dozen homicides investigated by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office since 2010, all but one involved handguns, according to detectives. The only other weapon used was a frying pan.
This matches national statistics that suggest assault weapons play a minor role in gun crime. A 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice found that assault weapons were used in about 2 percent of gun crimes, according to most studies, and no more than 8 percent.
“If you are looking for high numbers, they are just not there,” said Dayton Assistant Police Chief Robert Chabali.
He and Plummer both said gun violence is a “complex issue” driven at least as much by a lack of access to mental health treatment as by access to semi-automatic rifles.
But the federal study did find that up to 26 percent of gun crimes involved the use of a “large-capacity magazine,” defined in the 1994 assault weapons ban and new proposals as a magazine holding more than 10 rounds.
This is a trend that holds true on the local streets, according to investigators. Mauch, Dayton’s homicide detective, said the vast majority of the weapons he sees on the street are semi-automatic handguns with magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
“I cannot say if that (limiting magazine size) would make a difference in our homicide rate,” he added, because it’s usually not clear to detectives if it’s the first 10 rounds that do the killing, or the ones after.
But if – and it’s a big if – a ban could be successfully implemented, “It would make a huge difference as to how many times people are shooting,” he said.
Gun-rights advocates say it’s misguided to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens in order to punish a handful of criminals who likely will not be deterred from obtaining illegal weapons.
“The focus should not be on the tools or the objects, but on the violence or the criminals that are perpetrating this violence,” said Joe Eaton, southwest Ohio chairmain of the Buckeye Firearms Association.
“At that point that (criminal) has that handgun, that rifle, that frying pan and is looking to hurt someone you care about, is there any law or any restriction you can put into place you know would help your family member be safe?” he said. “Give the victims the choice of any tool they need to protect themselves or their families.”
Local law enforcement officials said stiffer penalties are needed for people who commit gun crimes. Sheriff Plummer said this is more important to him than banning guns.
“We’re going to punish citizens who like to own guns over a few clowns who commit crimes?” Plummer said.
But gun control advocates say the public has seen the damage these weapons can do and is ready to try to keep such damage from happening again.
“When does a few become enough to do something about?” said Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “The difference is an assault weapon has the characteristics that you can hold on to it at your hip and you can spray fire, and you have a clip on it that has 50, 60, 100 rounds; you can do a lot of damage in less than a minute. Nobody needs that kind of firepower.”
Hoover agreed that limiting large-capacity magazines would have more of an impact than banning assault weapons.
“If you have to rate them in importance, first would come universal background checks, the second thing is the magazine and the third thing is the guns themselves,” she said.
But Eaton said this will only lead shooters to carry more magazines: “Would we be able to reduce alcohol-related fatalities if we’re able to sell only by the bottle instead of by the case?” he asked.
He said limiting magazine size would especially impact law-abiding people as well, because the standard-size magazine for most handguns is more than 10 rounds.
Guns used in mass shootings
While assault weapons rarely surface in local crime, they have featured prominently in several mass shootings.
Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was armed with two handguns and a Bushmaster AR-15 with a 30-round magazine, according to Connecticut State Police. A 12-gauge shotgun was found in his car.
James Holmes entered an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012 armed with a Smith & Wesson AR-15 fitted with a 100-round drum, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and a .40 mm semi-automatic pistol. He fired all three weapons – first the shotgun, then the rifle until the drum jammed, then the pistol – killing 12 people and wounding 58.
But in the deadliest recent shooting, in 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech University using two semi-automatic pistols and a backpack full of 10- and 15-round magazines.
Jared Loughner, who shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others — killing six — in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, used a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol with a 33-round magazine. He was subdued by bystanders when he stopped to reload.
Hearst Newspapers analyzed the 12 worst mass shootings since Columbine High School in 1999 and found that of the 335 people killed or wounded in those attacks, 177 victims were shot with handguns that would not be banned under proposed legislation.
New ban vs. old ban
Sen. Feinstein’s proposed ban is tighter than the one that was the law of the land from 1994-2004. It would ban the sale, transfer, manufacturing or importation of civilian semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with one “military feature” such as a pistol grip, detachable stock or barrel shroud. The previous ban required two features.
It also would ban the transfer of magazines capable of accepting more than 10 rounds.
While it exempts weapons lawfully possessed before the ban, it prohibits the transfer or sale of large-capacity magazines, even if they are lawfully possessed. It also prohibits the importation of assault weapons or large-capacity magazines, unlike the previous ban.
“We must balance the desire of a few to own military-style assaults weapons with the growing threat to lives across America,” she said. “If 20 dead children in Newtown wasn’t a wakeup call that these weapons of war don’t belong on our streets, I don’t know what is.”
Feinstein points to the 2004 Department of Justice study to argue the previous ban’s effectiveness. But the findings of the study were mixed.
The report’s author found assault weapon use in gun crimes indeed decreased during the ban. But these weapons were rarely used in gun crimes. And their decline was offset by the steady rise of other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines, which were in abundant supply because there was a massive stock before they ban and imports of the magazines were still legal.
“It is premature to make definitive assessments of the ban’s impact on gun crime,” the report concluded.
But the study did say a successful ban “could have non-trivial effects on gunshot victimizations.” It said semi-automatic weapons with large-capacity magazines “result in more shots fired, more persons hit, and more wounds inflicted per victim than do attacks with other firearms.”
A study of handgun attacks in one city found 3 percent of gunfire incidents resulted in more than 10 shots fired, and those attacks produced 5 percent of the gunshot victims.
Unlike in some states, Ohio law does not allow local cities to set their own gun laws. The General Assembly in 2006 passed a bill — over-riding a gubernatorial veto — stripping cities and village of such power, negating 80 local ordinances in more than 20 communities. Dayton, for instance, required a firearm owner identification card and banned transferring ownership of any assault weapon.
People use guns to kill people
The FBI tracks gun usage in crimes, and reports that of the 12,664 people killed in 2011 across the country, 8,583 fell to a bullet. The runner-up, knives, took 1,694 lives.
Of the gun deaths, 6,220 — 72 percent — involved handguns. Only 323 people were shot to death with a rifle that year, fewer than those killed by a blunt instrument or someone’s bare hands.
The FBI only tracks whether handguns, rifles, shotguns or “other” kinds of guns were used. Any of these categories can include assault weapons, though that’s not tracked.
It’s difficult to track with complete accuracy how often assault weapons are used in crimes, because there is no universal definition of the term. Two weapons with the same firepower and capacity can be classified differently based on whether one has an attribute such as a pistol grip or a bayonet attachment.
The 2004 federal study looked at guns recovered by law enforcement in sample locations around the country.
An ‘uphill battle’
Feinstein calls getting the measure through the Republican-controlled House an “uphill battle.” Others say it will be impossible.
Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has expressed skepticism that the assault weapons ban could get through Congress. Some advocacy groups are focusing their attention instead on expanding background checks, which is seen as more doable politically.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was tasked with a gun control task force after the Newtown shooting, said recently that he’s more concerned about limiting the number of rounds in a gun magazine than about banning assault weapons that account for a small percentage of gun deaths.
Biden argued that the shooter at Sandy Hook could have been slowed down if he had fewer rounds in each magazine and had to change clips more often.
“Maybe if it took longer, maybe one more kid would be alive,” Biden said during an online video chat on Google Plus.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.