Firearms management

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:

  1. 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).shotgunrifle
  2. 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 rifletarget pistol
  3. 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.ar15pocket automaticsnubnosesawed-off
  4. 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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

16 thoughts on “Firearms management”

  1. It would appear that you are working with some personalized facts.

    1. The “well regulated militia” is not the National Guard. That is a fact.

    2. Category 3 guns are perfectly valuable for hunting and target shooting. It would be far more accurate – more factual – to say that they include features which are not necessary for those activities.

    3. There is plenty of overlap. The M1 Garand Vietnam-era military rifle fits the first category. And most target competition involves larger calibers which are more wind resistant than slow, tiny .22LR bullets.

    4. A gun in the home may be less likely to kill a bad guy, but a gun in a quick access gun safe has more even odds.

    5. Gun violence statistics are skewed by suicides.

    6. Category 3 guns are not designed to kill people. They are designed to eliminate threats. The military may kill; civilians may only defend themselves with deadly force. Not the same thing.

    I don’t have time to list all the other “facts” you’re relying on that simply aren’t so, but you can rest assured that they exist.

    1. Ad 5: "Gun violence statistics are skewed by suicides." So killing yourself with a gun is not an act of violence? It's as subject to the factor of opportunity as other forms of violence, such as domestic.
      Point 6 needs no refutation beyond itself.

      1. I would say that killing yourself with a gun is an act of violence, but not more so than killing yourself intentionally in some other fashion.

        For example, the US and France have very similar suicide rates, but US suicides are much more likely than French suicides to involve a gun. I do not think that, if everything else were the same, it would make any sense to say the US is therefore much more violent than France.

  2. It's worth noting that in most serious hunting countries, you can have a maximum of two cartridges loaded, as in, one in the over and one in the under of your Remington. You are not allowed to take more than two shots, or the game wardens will arrest you and fine you as being a bad shot who shouldn't be out there inflicting either cruelty on animals or death on fellow hunting humans (a la Dick Cheney). It is illegal in New Zealand and Scotland, for example, to have more than one cartridge in reserve. So any hunter with a shred of dignity and talent needs no more than two chambered cartridges. Period.

  3. 1) " 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"

    You might want to edit that sentence to avoid the implication that people who commit suicide are either "thugs, careless, or crazy".

    2) Also – why mention the militia clause? The Supremes have ruled at least three times now – I believe starting in 1880-something, that the right of individual ownership is independent of anything whatsoever to do with the militia clause. It's a popular meme to be sure, but a marker for not paying attention.

    3) Your category three is too broad. The Supremes have laid out a pretty clear precedent that individuals have the right to own popular weapons. Semiauto pistols, and ironically, semiauto assault weapons (ironic as most of them were purchased by rednecks as a statement against or in fear of gun control) – are the two most popular weapons categories now, so they are definitely protected. That they are made for killing people is precisely the point. The Supremes are very clear that individuals have protected rights to gun ownership for their personal protection, ie, to kill people with.

    Also, are sawed-off shotguns legal anywhere? Are 100-round magazines legal anywhere? Are semiauto assault rifles used in any military in the world? Are machine guns legal anywhere in the U.S. without a special licence? AFAICT, the answer to these questions is "no".

  4. To look at it from another angle, let's look a deaths (and injuries) with guns; here, too, there's a useful categorization.

    A: Suicides: 21,000 in 2014 (CDC)
    B: Homicides–total: 11,000
    Usefully divisible into five categories:
    1) Criminals (substantial, recent criminal records) killing criminals: this is the majority of deaths
    2) Domestic violence: this is, IIRC, the majority of the rest of the deaths
    3) Killings of strangers-basically collateral damage to item 1
    4) Killings of strangers: this is the category where most mass shootings belong: probably under 1000 a year
    5) Legally acceptable homicides: by police, in self-defense and adjudged as such. Also a small number
    C: Accidents–about 500 a year.

    There's no reason to think that restrictions on firearm types will affect categories A, B2, or C (suicides, domestic violence, accidents) much at all.

    Category B1 is the one where gun laws would have the largest impact; it has fallen hard over the past couple decades, due to factors other than gun law.

    Category B3 is the one that people worry about; it might be affected by restrictions on guns (although, if pump shotguns are available, they remain the deadliest close-range weapon by far, and they are in your category 1); it's critical to remember that it is 1,000 deaths a year, not 30,000.

    I disagree with the underlying premise; I think that anything that is routine issue to individual members of any group that does domestic policing is "arms" under the 2nd Amenut even without agreement on that, I can see no reason that restricting military-type weapons would affect the suicide rate.

  5. Those citing legal precedent might be troubled to provide specific cases. The claim that "the Supremes have ruled at least three times now – I believe starting in 1880-something, that the right of individual ownership is independent of anything whatsoever to do with the militia clause" is not supported by anything I can find. The Supreme Court held in D.C. v. Heller, in 2008, for the very first time that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual right to fire-arms. I don't know what 1880-something case Mr. Lambert is referring to, but the Court held in U.S. v. Miller in 1939 as follows:

    "In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a "shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length" at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense."

    You could look it up.

    1. You didn't look very hard, then.

      1) Pre Constitutionally, English law provided the basis for the widely accepted right to individual ownership. The right to individual ownership was the law of the land, was spoken of many times by the Founding fathers and by preeminent lawyers and justices like Blackstone, Rawle, and Tucker. The Federalist papers has many statements about the right of individual people – not the collective people or States – to own firearms.

      2) A number of State Supreme Court rulings during the 1800's rely upon "the right of the People" to own guns for their own protection and liberty.

      3) The Dred Scott case contains a mention of the individuals right to own.

      4) United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876) "the court recognized that the right of the people to keep and bear arms existed prior to the Constitution by stating that such a right "is not a right granted by the Constitution … [n]either is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence." 92 U.S. at 552." []

      5) Presser v. State of Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886) reaffirmed Cruikshank

      All this is not to say that the case law is all one way – it is NOT. It's a bit of a mess. But, one can say that the interpretation that the 2nd applies only to State militias and not individual people is one which has been contradicted since even before the Constitution was written. It is an interpretation that was never practiced or even contemplated before and after the Constitution (people have always had the right to own guns in the U.S.) And it is an interpretation that has been contradicted by a long history of State cases and Federal cases. And, it is an interpretation rendered completely moot by the last three U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

      So, when the OP talks about "a well-regulated militia" having any relevance today, he is mistaken. That boat has sailed.

  6. Hm, where to start.

    1. The rules differ depending on what you're hunting. If you're hunting feral pigs, (A big thing down here in the South.) depending on circumstances, any weapon it's legal to own is ok. AK-47 variants with night vision gear, and large magazines? Fine, perfectly acceptable. They're hard to kill, travel in groups, tend to respond to being shot at by attacking you, and are an invasive species, anyway. Kill as many as you like, please. Try not to let them kill you, and having a lot of firepower helps with that.

    Further, just because you're required to have an absurdly small magazine in the gun while hunting some species, doesn't mean that you have to while practicing or just plinking with it.

    2. What the others said; Small caliber and small magazines? Nope, not actually a required feature of target shooting guns. The .50 BMG round rifles, a popular target of gun controllers a few years back? Developed by target shooters, only afterwards adopted by military snipers.

    3. You seem to have airbrushed out any mention of self-defense. Further, the point of the 2nd amendment appears to have been exactly to keep category 3i arms in civilian hands. As recognized by the Court in US v Miller.

    Also, you seem to be overly impressed with these categories, treating them as some kind of natural feature of guns. Most firearms are multi-purpose: Hunting/self-defense, Hunting/target shooting, self-defense/target shooting. Guns are fairly expensive, after all. You don't keep separate cars for grocery shopping and commuting to work, do you? Same principle here.

    "The “gun problem” is about category 3 items in the hands of civilians."

    No. The "gun problem" is about any sort of gun at all in the hands of a small subset of civilians, mostly career criminals. Seriously, as Sam notes, almost all homicides are committed by criminals, against criminals. The problem, of course, is that these are people who are very strongly motivated to get guns, as they are tools of their livelihood, and who have good access to black markets. They are, as any criminologist will tell you, both the most likely to do something wrong with a gun, and the least likely to be disarmed by gun control.

    James: Suicide IS an act of violence. It is, like self-defense, an act of violence one is legally entitled to engage in. So, why lump it together with crimes?

    Roger: Where'd you get the idea that 100 round magazines are generally illegal? In fact, only 8 states and D.C. (Of course!) limit magazine capacity. I've got 100 round magazines in the closet for my Calico, and I assure you, perfectly legal.

    Sam: I seriously doubt gun laws can have much impact on B1: You're talking about people who by definition aren't law abiding, and who have access to black markets. As I like to say, gun bans are likely to be as successful as drug bans.

    The whole category thing seems to fail to appreciate something: This is a civil liberty! Imagine breaking books up into categories, and deciding who can possess which sorts of books based on this: Chemistry textbook? Not unless you're studying chemistry in an approved college! Vampire romance novels? No redeeming social benefits!

    It's the usual: Treating a civil right as though it were a privilege subject to intense and arbitrary micro-management by the government.

    Finally: General note: Mark has banned me from making more than one comment per post, (Says he appreciates the diversity I bring to the site, but apparently not enough to let me comment on the same basis as anybody else.) so don't expect a reply if you ask me something, in this or any of the threads. I'm adding my email address to my profile if anybody does want a reply.

    1. Lots of things are "civil liberties." There are still limits, f.e. yelling "fire," blah blah blah. And the legal "right" to own a gun is *still* a restricted one that was really very recently created out of whole cloth by Scalia and four of his friends. (Whereas, as previously discussed, I think people do have an inherent ethical?, natural law? (can't believe I just said that, but I did… for the love of God don't ask me what other ones we have … well except privacy, obviously… oh and btw, this would include ex-cons, too… unless we are going to pay to relocate them to safe neighborhoods after they serve their time? But boy, you never hear anyone speak up for them!) right to self defense *in the home,* (the only place where you don't have a duty to withdraw, under equitable history, I *think,* can't quite remember) which does mean some sort of gun, but it doesn't come from the Constitution, doesn't necessarily mean you get to own an Uzi, etc etc.)

      In short, your "right" to guns is, legally, a bleep of a lot smaller than you seem to think. Not that I really care since you don't seem like you're going to shoot anyone. And you live too far away for it to be me anyway.

      I hope the reply ban won't last long. We are lucky this site has lasted so long. So many get ruined by trolls. I wouldn't put you in that category, but maybe he is hearing a lot of complaints from other people? Some of my lefty brethren can be sensitive. It's a new year. "Can't we all get along?" (my favorite quote ever. and I think I'm misquoting it…)

    2. Regarding civil liberties, I don't see how that gets in the way of regulation. Each civil liberty is different and we are sophisticated enough to be nuanced and not resort to slippery slope, all-or-nothing arguments. This nuance includes being able to have a debate about what goes too far and what doesn't. The supreme court isn't the be all end all, either, as we can argue and decide as a people that constitutional law is misinterpreted, and appoint judges that reflect changing values, or outright change it through amendment.

      1. Worth adding here that the gun rights crowd cannot at the same time appeal to the SCOTUS ruling in Heller that the Second Amendment creates an individual right to own guns, and simultaneously ignore the obiter dicta in the same case defending reasonable regulation of its exercise. Majority opinion: "nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

        If, like me, you are prepared to say that the Second Amendment was a mistake and Heller is rubbish, we can argue on abstract libertarian grounds that everybody should be free to buy machine guns and armour-piercing ammunition, or conversely on utilitarian ones that private gun ownership is not a civil right and should be severely restricted as in say the UK. But Americans are very fond of their strange Constitution.

  7. I'd like to gently point out that much of the debate over guns ignores a critical factor that is apparent when one looks at a different use of modern metal machinery by everyday people: Cars. {sarcasm} There's a constitutional right to travel, too… {/sarcasm}

    One must have a license to drive. And getting that license does not involve merely mechanical competence at operating the vehicle (equivalent: load, fire at a target on a safed range). It involves — at one stage or another, and in the US perhaps only once in a lifetime — a supervised examination on use of a vehicle in a real-world environment, ordinarily after pretty extensive and supervised practice/training in what are the acceptable ways to use a vehicle in a real-world environment.

    Firearms… not so much. Indeed, "proper target acquisition" and "evaluating potential collateral damage" are not even in the basic "gun safety course" syllabi, objectives, or anything else (I, family members, et al. have gone through several).

    Methinks there's an obvious problem here, with an obvious solution: Require the same number of hours of properly-supervised, well-simulated natural-environment target practice before a first firearm purchase as we do before a first driver's license. At least then there'll be a greater chance that "unintended shootings" are a consequence of a choice rather than utter ignorance.

  8. Getting away from the usual gun arguments and definitions and onto the meat of your license proposal:

    One presumes that you could get three people from the local gun store to co-sign that license with every sale, which weakens your setup considerably. Certainly for some people, embarrassment isn't a concern so much as protecting their fellow citizen's 2nd Amendment rights.

    But, depending on the wording of the notarized statement, would it be possible to set it up that the co-signers would then be liable in some way, as in a surety bond or a license and permit bond? Would the signers open themselves up for perjury charges if the licensee doesn't act within the boundaries of the law? Is it even possible that a case could be made for criminal conspiracy, acting in concert to get him a license which was then used to commit crimes?

    One would think that opening oneself up to a felony charge of perjury would cause most people to be very careful about who they license, which over time becomes self-enforcing and regulating. It takes out the dealers; it's far too many people to vouch for without risking your FFL. It even becomes a way to help monitor the police; if you can't find three people on the force to vouch for your gun usage, you're on desk duty.

    What am I missing here?

  9. In a national debate over gun violence shows that; many people kill themselves with a firearm in every year than are murdered with one. So it becomes a common phenomenon nowadays. But we should get right of this kind of things. So what should we do?

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