After some initial trampling of the grass, I am going to suggest a new framework for gun control. Nothing wrong with the president’s idea that a lot of gun sales are slipping through cracks nearly everyone wants closed, but I think background checks through bureaucratic databases is the wrong approach.
First, let’s do some naming of parts. Firearms can be divided into four classes with very little overlap, and they’re not all that hard to distinguish:
- Sporting arms, including rifles and shotguns suitable for going after game. These are shoulder weapons, with long barrels, and hold about seven or fewer cartridges (you don’t get to shoot at a deer, or a duck, a hundred or even ten times). They can be semi-automatic (chamber the next round themselves when the trigger is pulled) or repeating (requiring operation of a bolt or lever or pump between shots).
- Guns for target shooting. These are shotguns for trap and skeet, interchangeable with shotguns for game, and rifles or long-barrel handguns with small magazines or even single-shot, chambered for low-power rounds (usually .22LR). “Varmint rifles”, for shooting woodchucks from very far away, and some high-power rifles for national match shooting at 1000 yards, could be classed here.
- Guns for killing people, usually many at a time, at close range. These are (i) military shoulder arms with large magazines (as many as 100 rounds), relatively short barrels and semi-automatic actions (one shot per trigger pull with no other action needed) or actual machine guns, (ii) handguns, including those with short barrels, often streamlined for quick access, almost always semi-automatic, (iii) sawed-off shotguns. These items have no value whatever in taking game or precise fire at a target: they are for killing people, especially close up.
- Exotica like large-caliber sniper rifles, mortars, and antique muzzle-loaders.
The “gun problem” is about category 3 items in the hands of civilians. Group 3(i) are relevant to a “well-ordered militia” and I’m fine with National Guard members, whose names and addresses we know, having theirs in a gun locker at the armory, or even at home in a safe in the Swiss style. Police misuse of their handguns is an issue, but not a gun issue. I don’t worry about people with deer rifles, duck guns, or even .50 cal rifles even though they are occasionally tools of lethal behavior and tragic accidents.
I don’t even worry about most people who own people-killers. Some perfectly trustworthy folks get off shooting combat handguns at paper targets, and others live under the illusion that their pieces are more likely to protect them against a home invader or street assailant than to kill members of their family, but they keep them away from kids and burglars. Most of the sad cases who think they are going to protect America from a tyrannical government that has tanks and Apache helicopters aren’t actually going to do any harm, either. But enough thugs, careless people, and crazies remain to author a national bloodbath of suicides, accidental shootings, and murders, and to justify demanding that anyone who possesses anything in category 3 needs a license. The idea that that license is a dive down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which the government is using the information to take away everyone’s gun is fever-swamp nonsense; no-one is going around confiscating dogs or cars with a list of licensees. Nothing in the constitution says you’re allowed to secretly have a device for killing people; neighbors have a right to know what toxic chemicals DuPont is messing with in the plant down the street, who owns a two-ton iron projectile scooting down the road at sixty miles an hour…and who is equipped to shoot a lot of people.
American culture and tradition demands that the license be easy to get. But how should we figure out who is safe to have such a license? Well, all those law-abiding gun owners don’t go around shooting people for the same reason most of us behave ourselves, because of social and peer influence: friends don’t let friends drive drunk. So let’s ask the people who know them. Mark Moore, years ago, floated the idea that if you needed a license from the NRA to own a gun, the NRA would suddenly rethink the idea that anyone who asks should have one, or many. I like that idea, but I think it would be even better to simply require a notarized statement every year in support of your application for a license to own any handgun or military weapon, from each of three adult non-relatives, whose name on your license application would be public record. All members of your play-guerrilla militia club? OK with me. Don’t know three people who are willing to have their names come up should you do something crazy and dangerous? Then you can’t be trusted with a category 3 firearm. Try archery, or Tai Chi, or computer games; very challenging and fun; no license required.