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

36 thoughts on “Further thoughts on gun policy”

  1. I like this list. I might want to add two more items:

    1. Ban all sales of semiautomatic rifles and pistols. You can keep what you have, but can’t sell it. (The technical meaning of “inalienable right.”) If you die or want to get rid of of it, you would sell it to the government (price set at a bit more than fair compensation.) If you want to pawn it, that’s fine, but the pawnbroker can only either return it to you when you repay the loan or sell it to the government if you can’t. There is no need for semiautomatic rifles for hunting and target shooting. Semiautomatic pistols are technically better than revolvers, but revolvers are fine for self-defense. (I’d prefer a shotgun myself, but German Shepherds are better yet, don’t get weird when you get drunk, and you can’t scratch a shotgun between the ears.) Semiautomatic shotguns are another category. I’m not sure about the tradeoff between legitimate use and harm here.

    2. As a transition rule, allow people who own large clips that will become illegal to sell them to the government. (This might not be workable, depending on whether magazines have serial numbers.) Also allow people who own guns with illegal large magazines to sell them or perhaps trade them in. This would be workable, for rifles, pistols, or shotguns.

    Note that these additional rules would, at least in the short run, increase the market for gun manufacturers. This is a feature, not a bug. You always want to toss a bone to the nomenklatura, if you can afford to do so.

  2. You’re going to put the majority of firearms in the US on the NFA list? Don’t you see any little problems with this? What happens when almost every gun owner in the country suddenly finds themselves owning a banned gun? Is the back ground check for getting those licenses capable of handling an influx of several tens of millions of applications the first week, instead of maybe ten thousand a year? Are you prepared for dealing with utterly massive non-compliance? How were you planning on squaring this with the Heller decision?

    I’ve said before, the utility of threads like this, is that they demonstrate what gun controllers mean by “reasonable”, and that it’s what most people mean by “freaking insane”.

    1. “What happens when almost every gun owner in the country suddenly finds themselves owning a banned gun? ”

      I am wondering what you think happens that would be so awful?

      1. I’m wondering how making criminals of a quarter of the population overnight is somehow NOT supposed to have awful consequences.

        Do you understand that no nation on the face of the Earth has the capacity to enforce the law against a population which no longer accepts its legitimacy? That passing a law against something understood to be a civil liberty doesn’t change people’s opinions about the civil liberty, but instead about the government?

        Have you completely forgot the militia movement of the late 80’s, early 90’s? You want that back times ten?

        1. I haven’t forgotten. I hope that if there is a future problem with these militia groups that the government will act more appropriately. That means not allowing these lunatics to strut around the Capital like heroes. Even amongst that bunch of nutters, the vast majority will probably obey the laws. The minority will either go to prison or die when they run out of family members to use as human shields. These lunitcs should not be able to hold the country hostage.

          If these groups of people can’t live without their military style arms and high capacity magazines, they can go to someplace like Somalia or they can go to prison or they can go to hell. All the same to me.

          1. “I hope that if there is a future problem with these militia groups that the government will act more appropriately.”

            That’s the irony of these arguments; Gun controllers commonly accuse their opponents of being violent maniacs, but who is it that fondly hopes for a slaughter of their enemies? Why, the gun controllers themselves, who figure that they’ll barely pass a law, and then kill anyone who resists it being enforced. Well, no surprise, we saw that on display during Waco. You can literally burn people alive, and if it’s done in the cause of gun control, liberals will think it was ok.

        2. Why didn’t gun owners and libertarians stand up for the rights of blacks in the Jim Crow South, instead of murderig blacks and civil rights workers, Brett?

          1. My, aren’t we ignorant of history… The NRA armed and trained the Freedom Riders. While, who was pushing gun control? The KKK.

    2. In a normal country, with normal, reasonable citizens, a gun-homicide rate of +/-30,000 per year would be considered “freaking insane.”

      But we have a gun lobby called the NRA who, similar to Philip Morris regarding smoking, have created a situation where a fact is not a fact.

      1. Thankfully, good criminal-focused police work got the gun-homicide rate down from 30,000 a year to it’s current rate of 10,000 or so a year. (I thought it was about 14,000, but the post above has it at 10,000.)

    3. I assume that because most Americans are decent, law-abiding human beings they’d turn the banned weapons and magazine in to the government as required.

  3. “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.”

    Hell, everyone knew it wouldn’t work, including the people advocating for it. The VPC knew it wouldn’t address firearm homicide and they said as much at the time. The point wasn’t to reduce gun crime. The point was to get people okay with the idea of banning guns based on cosmetic features.

    “The issue then, as now, is that semi-automatic weapons with large magazines are extremely dangerous.”

    Nonsense. The issue then, as now, is that there are nasty people out there and they’re going to do awful things. You can focus myopically on how they do awful things instead of on the more difficult question of “How do we identify & help them before they do bad things?” if you like. But in the end, you’re not going to help solve the problem.

    Ebenezer – Thank you oh so much for conducting your analysis and determining what my needs for self-defense, hunting & recreation are. In return, I plan on drafting a report as to what your legitimate needs for self-expression, publishing and blog commenting are and I will have available to you shortly. In the meantime, you may wish to pack up your laptop as we’re going to have to ask… well, tell you really, to sell it to the government for an above-market price.

    And no, your proposals most certainly are not “workable”.

    1. Semper,
      Why don’t you actually read your beloved Heller decision before ranting away? Scalia took exactly the same kind of “reasonable” approach to gun control that you just decried, using First Amendment examples. Scalia, along with the Supreme Court, is much more of a First Amendment absolutist. You’re equating apples with oranges.
      Sorry, you don’t get to make Second Amendment law.

    2. “… there are nasty people out there and they’re going to do awful things.”
      As in Tombstone in 1881, when the town adopted Ordinance No. 9 “To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons”. The definition did not deal in fine distinctions:
      “All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.” As the Clantons found out, this was enforced expeditiously.

      Maybe Bhutan doesn’t have bad guys and lunatics, but they can be found in most countries. Where it’s difficult for anybody to get hold of guns, gun deaths are lower. Britain has a serious gang gun crime problem (by its standards), but criminals don’t SFIK use automatic or semiautomatic weapons. Even, curiously, when their gun supplier has them. Draconian penalties – 10 years for simple possession – and the extreme difficulty of getting hold of lots of ammo may explain it.

    3. First, is seems to me that a fairly significant number of those nasty people wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if they didn’t have military style weapons and high capacity magazines. Certainly, massacres like Sandy Hook would be far less likely and even less lethal if mentally ill people couldn’t get their hand on such weapons.

      Second, I’m at a point where I really care very little about what you and others like you think are you self-defense, recreational or hunting needs or wants. I suspect a growing majority of the people feel the same way. I just don’t care any more. These weapons are inconsistent with a civilized and civil society. If I have to choose between your “need” for powerful weaponry and being forced to spend my life in your reenactment of a Chuck Norris movie, you’re going to have to give up your guns or fight the law (just like every other criminal). I know that sounds harsh but I think we’ve got to have some change in this country on guns.

      1. Congratulations: We arrived at the point where we didn’t give a damn about your opinions years ago. We’ve got an irreconcilable conflict here, there’s no basis for compromise between gun controllers and gun owners, there’s only one of us winning, and the other losing. It’s always like that, there’s no compromising between slave owners and abolitionists, between censors and those who like freedom of expression, between anyone who’d attack a civil liberty, and anyone who’d retain it.

        You might win in the end, but there will never be respect between us. Each of us stands for what the other despises, and that’s the honest truth.

        1. That is indeed the truth, Brett. Not everyone is blessed with the combination of brains and testicular fortitude that walking around unarmed often requires.

          The views of those who are skeptical of the government’s ability to protect them and their families and who take reasonable measures for self-protection are worthy of respect. The views of those who worship or fetishize deadly weapons and regard the loss of innocents’ lives as mere collateral damage, in Timothy McVeigh’s memorable phrase, are worthy of cold contempt.

          I believe that Garry Wills has said it best: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/dec/15/our-moloch/

  4. Why not ban guns on the basis of design? Since the gun lobby likes to present itself as representative of hunters and target shooters, take them at their word. If the weapon it’s clearly designed for these purposes then it’s legal. If, on the other hand, the weapon was designed to kill humans then it’s banned.

    As a European I am always perplexed by the concept of a “legitimate” reason to own a glock or an AR-15. These are tools that were made specifically to kill human beings. What buyers are effectively saying when they purchase these things is ‘Hi, I’m contemplating a future need/desire to kill someone. What do you have that would require the least effort from me and possibly keep my clothes blood-free?’ The horrible truth is that Lanza, Loughner, Holmes and all the other nutjobs did not misuse their guns. They used them for the exact purpose that the manufacturers intended and base their advertising on. Rational normal people who go to a range and plink at targets with their berettas are misusing their guns.

    I believe that a comprehensible ban on all weapons other than target or hunting guns should be enacted. When people start bleating about the 2nd amendment and what the holy Founding Fathers meant, call their bluff. Use the 1792 Militia Act to define exactly what the founding fathers meant by ‘arms’. They can loose the glocks and keep the shotguns or they can loose everything and then acquire a ‘good musket or firelock’ with 24 cartridges.

  5. Is there some reason no one is recommending significant taxes on bullets (in addition to, not in lieu of, the other measures advanced)? Sure, the power to tax is the power to destroy but states have been taxing newspapers for years without running afoul of the First Amendment; surely they can tax ammo without running afoul of the Second. Naturally, someone would have to run an analysis to determine at what point such taxes would exacerbate the already-existing black market in weaponry; but even at the cost of expanding that black market, taxing ammo should 1) discourage its use by young people, including those in gangs, who are exceptionally price-sensitive; and 2) produce a fair amount of revenue to be plowed into health care made necessary by gun violence and public health initiatives which test ways of reducing that violence.

    1. Last time I bought some, bullets were subject to the same sales tax anything else was. Now, if you, by “significant”, meant much higher than other articles are subject to, I think you’d find the courts wouldn’t permit that for newspapers, either.

      Bottom line, it’s a civil right, you can no more violate it by hook or by crook, than you can directly.

      1. It’s a civil right to use the public highway, isn’t it? Gasoline taxes are much higher than those on food, even in the USA. Why? Because driving imposes particular costs on other citizens – road building and maintenance, accidents, policing, pollution, and congestion. Gun ownership imposes proportionately much higher external costs.

        1. No, actually it *isn’t* a civil right to use the public highway. There don’t have to be public highways at all. It’s a civil right to equality under the law with respect to public highways, but they could raze every public highway in the nation tomorrow, and there would be no civil liberties implications.

  6. Also, it should be necessary to be POST qualified to purchase or carry a handgun and to requalify at least semiannually.

  7. Brett,

    It would seem that one of us studied history in an alternative universe. The Freedom Riders didn’t carry weapons and went through rigorous training on passive nonresistance as a response to violence. Many of the Freedom Riders were trained in the discipline of nonviolence by Martin Luther King, Jr. Also there was training by the Rev. James Lawson, who was one of the main coordinators. Rev. Lawson had studied the techniques of nonviolent protests used by Mahatma Gandhi and worked with the carefully selected Freedom Riders to make sure that they were committed to the principles of nonviolence as a response to violence.

    1. Your “developing consensus” looks pretty unimpressive in the polls, I think “momentary blip” might be a better term.

      “It is unquestionable that had these crazy people surrendered to law enforcement they would have received fair trials in the criminal justice system.”

      Like the fair trial Randy Weaver got, with falsified evidence used against him in the court? Where he only got off because they were able to show from press photos that the feds had altered the ‘crime scene’ before taking their own photos?

      No, the Davidians had no reason at all to suppose they’d get fair trials, if they surrendered under circumstances where the government had control over the evidence before it was seen by third parties. And, in fact, a lot of evidence the Texas Rangers said was present DID vanish after the feds took over. The appeal was somewhat better, even after all the destruction of evidence, but the first trial they got was more of a show trial than an effort at justice.

      But, thanks for your help in demonstrating that gun controllers can be counted on to swallow the government’s version of events when gun owners are slaughtered, even if it fell apart in the courtroom.

      1. Pew has it at 49% for gun control. 42% against. So the numbers are on our side and going up. The NRA’s sickening, cowardly charade yesterday will likely help.

        By the way, using isolated anecdotal evidence (Randy Weaver, the Davidians) is a terrible basis for policy. But the fact of +/-30,000 American gun homicides per year is very hard to argue against.

        Once again, it’s hard to argue against this irreducible fact: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/index.html

        And you cannot continue pushing your (and Wayne LaPierre’s) pet argument that more guns somehow stop crime. They do not–they cause more of it: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/gun-threats-and-self-defense-gun-use/index.html

        1. Yeah, that’s the difference between a “blip” and a “trend”; The time frame. If the trend continues for a few more years, THEN you’ll have cause to crow.

  8. Brett,

    There is a consensus developing that civilian possession of these weapons are destructive to a civilized and civil society. No civilian needs such weapons and their continued possession by civilians can no longer be tolerated. There are limits to individualism even in this society and we are way past those limits already.

    I do not advocate violence against people who have these types of military style weapons. My assumption is that most Americans will turn in their military style weapons and high capacity magazines. There will be no violence unless it is made necessary by those who places themselves outside of the law. In which case, they will be treated as common criminals and dealt with accordingly.

    The criminals in Waco could have resolved the situation peacefully instead of precipitant a violent standoff and using innocent children as human shields. It is unquestionable that had these crazy people surrendered to law enforcement they would have received fair trials in the criminal justice system. They had no more right to dictate whether they would stockpile weapons or ignore various laws than did the Symbionese Liberation Army or do the Mafia or the drug gangs. None of these militia idiots should have been allowed to parade around our nation’s capital or been honored by the Republicans for killing or trying to kill government officials and members of law enforcement.

    The basic problem here is that you and your ilk have spent years creating what is essentially a binary choice. We remove these weapons and high capacity magazines from society, eliminating or at least limiting the number and severity of these gun rampages. Or we can live in your world—the brutal and violent world of maximum guns. There isn’t any in-between because nobody wants to be the only unarmed man in Dodge City on a Saturday night. I just don’t want to live that way. Almost nobody outside of a few idiots does. Therefore, we must do whatever is necessary to remove these weapons from society. There is no alternative.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates linked to an article in the The American Conservative magazine by Alan Jacobs and he makes this point far better than I can. Here’s the key passage:

    “But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly. 

    Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)”

  9. Some people have different conceptions of “civil society”, I guess. Central to my conception of a civil society is that, if you’re not hurting anyone, you get left alone. Other people seem to think “civil” society requires pounding down the nail that sticks its head up.

    1. Brett,

      The problem is that it’s sort of a binary. The incredible proliferation of civilian ownership of military style weaponry has lead to a radical increase in the frequency and intensity of these horrific shooting incidents. My solution is to remove these weapons from our society and to treat noncompliance very harshly. If crazy people can’t get these weapons, these massacres won’t be nearly as frequent and might not happen at all. Certainly, the death toll with be much lower.

      Your solution, on the other hand, is not only to allow these weapons to proliferate but to arm everybody. The is the inevitable solution if we can’t remove these weapons from society. The problem is that the vast majority of Americans really don’t so to live your bleak Hobbesian world with its Second Amendment solutions for everything.

      Maximum guns override everything else. Your world of maximum guns is bleeding over into civil society and destroying it with these massacres in schools and public places. Yet, clearly if we can’t get rid of military style weaponry and we’re forced to endure these massacres as though they were natural disasters, then it will indeed become necessary for everybody to live your way—to be heavily armed and ready to kill every minute of the day.

      There are only two choices: Either I and the majority of the people will have to live in an America of maximum guns or you will have to live in one where civilians can’t have military style weapons and high capacity clips. I don’t think most Americans want to live in a world where you need to arm yourself before you drop your kids off at school or when you go out to dinner or to the supermarket.

      I think the writing is on the wall. After another two or three more of these massacres, the pressure will be to great to ignore and a comprehensive ban prohibiting possession of these weapons will be passed and enforced. Then it will be for your and your fellow gun nuts to choose. I hope you choose wisely.

  10. “The problem is that it’s sort of a binary. The incredible proliferation of civilian ownership of military style weaponry has lead to a radical increase in the frequency and intensity of these horrific shooting incidents.”

    A radical increase from… rare to rare? In a nation of 300 million, publicizing something nation-wide for weeks every time it happens anywhere can make something look common, but doesn’t make it genuinely common, just hyped. There hasn’t been a radical increase in the frequency and intensity of these rare events. There’s been a radical increase in the amount of media coverage they get.

    I say it once again: There are places in this country where most people own guns, and you can leave your house unlocked at night. There are places where most people don’t own guns, and they’re about as safe. Then there are the places like war zones, and they don’t have any more guns than the first set of places.

    You can’t blame guns for a murder rate that varies by a huge extent independent of gun ownership. Or rather, you can, but you’re not being rational.

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