Further thoughts on gun policy

My post from Tuesday elicited some pertinent responses, which I appreciated.

I’ve corrected the inaccuracies in the military calibers 5.56 and 7.62.

In response to my suggestion that Congress consider using the National Firearms Act framework and create a new category for certain military caliber weapons and large capacity ammunition, one person pointed out that the gun industry could game the ammunition and make new calibers. This was the kind of manipulation that undermined the first generation assault weapons ban. However, the changes required here would be far more costly as they go to core aspects of firearms and not merely cosmetic features.

If this is a concern though, an alternative would be to add any semi-automatic rifle, shotgun, or handgun to the NFA. Then we would be back to revolvers, and bolt, pump, and lever action rifles and shotguns. That would make sense.

I’ll close by posting an email from a friend who is a hunter. He takes a much stronger position than the one I’ve put on the table, making me question whether my proposals go far enough. However, my NFA proposal goes much farther than a prospective assault weapons ban. My friend starts with the topic of safe storage, and moves on to what should be banned and to licensing of firearms and their owners.

From my friend: Though I own and use sporting guns, I agree that there are plenty of weapons that are legal today for which there is no legitimate civilian use or need. One of Susan’s points that has gotten far too little attention is gun storage: in the past 20 years I have lived in and been licensed in three US jurisdictions that are known for stringent firearms regulations (New York City, DC, and MA), but I have been shocked at the lack of tough requirements for secure gun storage. (I follow the UK standard, where I have also been licensed, which calls for a locked safe bolted to the wall.) As for large-capacity magazines, possession should simply be banned.

The UK is, in my view, appropriately stringent on the subject of secure storage. Before issuing or renewing a license, the police will visit your house and inspect the safe where you’ll be keeping firearms. There is a British Standard for gun safes that is quite specific in terms of the type of lock, construction, etc. It’s all common sense and frankly should be welcomed by the gun owner for prevention of theft.

The Clinton-era assault weapons ban was a deeply flawed piece of legislation, and I suspect that the NRA knew from the outset that it wouldn’t work. As I recall, the definition of “assault rifle” was that it was semi-automatic with a detachable magazine plus two or more features from a long list. At the time, I remember being both amused when Clinton hailed it as a victory for gun control and terrified that Congress could be so easily hoodwinked. Under the law, anybody could buy a semi-automatic with a detachable magazine – and it’s those two features alone that make it extremely lethal! The other features included things like pistol grips and flash supressors, which are utterly irrelevant to the extreme danger of a high-capacity semi-automatic weapon in the hands of a lunatic. I think that something could suddenly become an assault rifle if someone added a bayonet mount – really completely ridiculous.

The issue then, as now, is that semi-automatic weapons with large magazines are extremely dangerous. In the 1990s, the gun lobby presumably broke open the Champagne when they got those two things and then spent weeks arguing about pistol grips, bayonet mounts, and other relatively unimportant features that could be “gives” to the other side.

I think that the caliber argument, which I’ve seen mentioned frequently in recent days, is similar: if you ban the .223, then people will just use civilian rounds like .22-250 or .243 – the difference is irrelevant to a human target. There are so many calibers available today that the whole discussion about which ones to allow and which ones to ban is a red herring. Many calibers that are commonly used today for hunting and target shooting are “previously or currently used by a foreign or domestic national military force.” The .30-06, which is probably the most common deer cartridge today, was the primary US Army cartridge for 50 years, and the standard 12-gauge shotgun cartridge, used by duck hunters, trap shooters, and Olympic competitors, is also used by virtually every military and police force in the world. Even the .22 rimfire, which is the summer camp standard for target shooting, has military uses. This seems to detract from the bigger issues, which are magazine size, storage, background checks and training, and armor-piercing bullets.

Frangibility is also something that is tricky to legislate. Many target ranges, for example, understandably require the use of highly frangible ammunition: it is far less likely to ricochet (which can be very dangerous) because it breaks up into smaller pieces when it hits a backstop. Likewise, hollow-point ammunition is considered more humane for hunting deer because it reduces the chance of a crippling (but non-lethal) wound. (I believe that hollow-point is required in the UK for deer for that reason.)

This time around, I would hope that the discussion centers on the few critical issues and avoids the many distractions that can be thrown in. My straw man for the critical ones:

• Background checks for possession (both initial and upon renewal)
• Required passage of a certified safety course prior to licensing (which is already the case in MA)
• Licensing of both the person and the gun (which is not the case in many jurisdictions)
• Secure storage
• No large magazines (“large” is certainly >10 and maybe >5), semi-automatic or otherwise – mere possession of a large magazine is a felony
• Make it retroactive (which the Clinton law wasn’t) – if you have a semi-automatic rifle, you can keep it but not have a large magazine; there are design features that manufacturers could incorporate to prevent new guns from accepting large-capacity magazines

What policymakers can do about gun violence

The deaths of so many children and their teachers and school officials at Sandy Hook Elementary, and of a mother at the hand of her killer son, have caused me to re-visit the subject of national firearms policy, which I thought about night and day for nearly seven years from the fall of 1994 to January 2000.

We must begin by recognizing that the rare problem of rampage or spree shooters who may be suicidal is different from the problem of youth gang violence in inner city neighborhoods that we were primarily focused on during the 1990’s when youth gun homicide rates went through the roof and the primary firearms policy goal was to keep guns out of the hands of teenagers.  In responding to one more shocking shooting of innocents by a deranged young man wielding a military caliber semi-automatic assault weapon, we must build on progress in firearms violence reduction that has continued since President Clinton left office, and pick up where politics halted the Clinton era initiatives. We also must think freshly and strike out in new directions.

Continue reading “What policymakers can do about gun violence”