In case you're just tuning in to the conversation, the president of the United States, certain members of Congress and several state-level government officials are currently pursuing the enactment of several anti-gun laws and regulations. This set of maneuvers against legal gun ownership in the United States has been deemed immediately necessary by these leaders in order to curb gun violence, like the tragic school shooting in Connecticut and the killings in urban areas, including the president's home town of Chicago.
The goal of stopping needless death and violence in this country is based on the most noble of human ideals. Good-hearted people on both sides of the gun debate share it. But legal gun owners are deeply concerned by the tremendous urgency with which dubious regulations are being pushed through legal processes. Not only does the proposed legislation contain measures that have not been effective in reducing crime past, but they also contain new language that will cause real problems for gun owners living on the right side of the law.
The Assault Weapons Ban, Part II
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was passed in 1994 as part of a package of regulations signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. This included provisions restricting the manufacture and importation of specifically named semi-automatic firearms after the date the ban was established. It also included a point system used to identify a gun as an "assault weapon" if it had more than two proscribed cosmetic features, including flash suppressors, pistol grips and bayonet lugs. After 10 years on the books, the AWB was allowed to sunset in 2004. Why were these provisions not reinstated? Because reports regarding the effectiveness of the ban in reducing gun-related crimes contained statements like this one from investigator Christopher S. Koper: "In general we found, really, very, very little evidence, almost none, that gun violence was becoming any less lethal or any less injurious during this time frame. So on balance, we concluded that the ban had not had a discernible impact on gun crime during the years it was in effect."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who spearheaded the 1994 legislation, is working to re-instate this failed ban. But it won't be the watered down bill that passed 20 years ago. She says the ban will reduce crime this time because she has teamed up with like-minded individuals to draft a new-and-improved Assault Weapons Ban with all of the supposed problems and weaknesses of the previous bill weeded out. These so-called improvements include the removal of the sunset provision, a longer detailed list of specific gun models to be banned, safe storage requirements and more background checks.
With a souped-up engine and a new coat of paint, Feinstein's 2013 bill will be no more effective in reducing gun crime than the 1994 ban. This is because the large volume of semi-auto rifles this legislation will affect — including the AR-15 — are rarely used to commit crimes. According to a comprehensive Congressional Research Service report on gun control legislation, the so-called "assault rifles" named in the ban are used in less than 2 percent of all gun-related crimes. By comparison, over 30 percent of murders are committed without the use of any type of gun at all. Add to the narrow crime-busting scope of this bill the fact that Feinstein herself has acknowledged the ban is intended to reduce the number of proscribed semi-auto rifles over an extended period of time. That could mean waiting decades to see the already minute rifle crime rate drop another fraction of a percentage point.
However, what would make passing of Feinstein's new legislation so dangerous are all of the legal hooks and traps it contains in the fine print to trip up law-abiding gun owners. For example, the bill requires common AR-15 rifles to be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) under the National Firearms Act (NFA). This registration includes paying a $200 transfer tax per firearm, the submission of the owner's photograph, fingerprints, and address to the ATF, and a requirement to obtain the BATFE's permission to transport the firearm across state lines.
Such burdensome restrictions on law-abiding citizens will not reduce gun crime. In a recent interview with Frontline, Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), said, "It becomes something where, I hate to say it because it's been bandied about, but incrementalism. You give people who are truly anti-gun an inch, and they will take a mile." Don't forget what Sen. Feinstein said during her 1995 interview on 60 Minutes: "If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States, for an outright ban, picking up everyone of them (every gun) Mr. and Mrs. America, turn 'em all in. I would have done it."
Magazine Capacity Limits
A facet of the gun control debate that has taken on a life of its own is the ammunition capacity of semi-automatic magazines. The anti-gun argument is that "high-capacity" magazines allow mass shooters to fire large volumes of ammunition quickly. Therefore, in order to limit the amount of damage mass shooters can do, magazine capacity should be limited. This has a nice "common sense" ring to it that some voters feel good about. But the logistical issues surrounding magazine capacity are more complicated than they first appear.
To start, what exactly constitutes a high level of ammunition capacity? Lawmakers don't share a common consensus. Feinstein is sticking to the 10-round limit of the previous ban, but the State of New York just imposed a seven-round limit, and the Colorado state legislature is willing to let gun owners keep up to 15-rounds in their magazines. This jumble of numbers reflects the fact that the proposed limits are purely arbitrary with no hard data to support them.
If the goal is to reduce the lethality of mass shootings, then limiting magazine capacities from this day forward is unlikely to make a tangible difference. As the old saying goes, you can't un-salt a pot of soup. In other words, millions of standard-capacity magazines are already in circulation, and literally millions more are being constructed and distributed as the legislation is reviewed. Even if all manufacture and sales of magazines that can hold more than seven, 10 or 15 rounds ceased this minute, and the possession of one was made a crime, the magazines would not simply vanish from existence. Planning and carrying out a mass shooting violates a whole slew of laws, so a mentally unhinged killer is unlikely to flinch at a magazine capacity restriction.
Secondly, and more importantly, mass shooters are careful planners by nature. The perpetrators of these heartless crimes have a pattern of carefully laying out their attacks and arriving on the scene of the crime with multiple devices and redundancies in place in order to do the maximum amount of damage possible. This includes extra magazines and ammunition. If one gun fails or runs dry, they just move on to the next gun or destructive device. But as the urban mythology goes, if a mass shooter only had access to 10-round magazines, even if they had a whole bunch of them, they could be tackled and stopped because they have to reload more often. Unfortunately, this what-if thinking has not proven to be true in real life situations. Mass shooters are almost always stopped by a bullet — from someone else's gun or their own — not by a magazine exchange.
Universal Background Checks
Those who are against gun ownership are often quite vocal about how easy it seems to be to legally obtain a firearm. It's a more complicated process than they might think. Since 1986, anyone who sells firearms for a living is required to possess a Federal Firearms License (FFL). When a customer enters an FFL's establishment to purchase a gun, the buyer must fill out BATFE Form 4473, answering legally binding questions related to their residency, legal status and mental health. Lying on this form is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison with additional fines, even if the transaction is not completed. The gun seller uses the information on this form to call the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Launched by the FBI in 1998, the NICS system is linked to the National Crime Information Center, the Interstate Identification Index and other databases to determine if the buyer is prohibited from buying a firearm under the Gun Control Act of 1968. Depending on the state a person lives in, there may be additional fees, registration and waiting period requirements imposed. For better or for worse, the NRA supported the NICS system at its inception because it allows gun buyers and gun dealers to be exonerated of any wrongdoing right at the point of purchase.
So if background checks are good, wouldn't the proposed Universal Background Checks be a good thing? The answer is no, and for two important reasons. The first reason relates to how checks are conducted. As the system exists now, criminal records are scanned for red flags against a buyer. If none appear, the check is complete and the record of the scan is destroyed within 24 hours. In other words, the FBI does not maintain a database of who was checked, which preserves gun owners' privacy.
The Universal Background Check, on the other hand, would call for a federally maintained database containing the personal information of every gun owner in the country. It would be the same kind of information that is currently kept on hand to track the activities of sex offenders. This kind of registry gives sensible gun owners chills because of its similarities to systems instituted — and abused — in other countries.
The second reason Universal Background Checks — or any background check for that matter — is useless in curbing crime should be blatantly obvious: Criminals do not subject themselves to background checks. Instead, they obtain guns by theft or purchase on the black market. Expanding background checks to encompass every single legal gun sale, trade or transfer, and creating a database of law-abiding owners will do nothing to deter criminals who already live and operate outside of the law.
Resolving the social issues driving violent crime in this country is no easy matter. Politicians would have to take a hard look at implementing complex, expensive and long-term programs to address election-campaign killing problems like poverty, education, drug addiction, gangs and the treatment of the mentally ill. They would have to do the hard work of enforcing the common-sense laws we already have on the books. Dealing with such mundane issues in the media age is boring. Waving scary looking guns around in front of the camera and demanding immediate action to ban, regulate and restrict them is a quick, inexpensive way to get their voters' eye off of the real problems and focused on something, anything, that will allow them to "doing something" right now.
"What I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced."
— President Barack Obama
"Well, as President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons."
— Attorney General Eric Holder
"We've got to ban these things once and for all. There are no more excuses for inaction."
— Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
"I, as a senator, and I, as an elected official, have been on record as supporting
-- and we did originally have an assault-weapons ban in place."
— Vice President Joe Biden
"I think the widespread view is that somebody who is that unbalanced will find some way to do harm. And we have many areas of the country that have very strict gun control laws and it seems not to have had any impact on the incidences that are in question. So I don't sense any movement among either Democrats or Republicans in the direction of thinking that stricter gun control laws would likely have prevented this horrible occurrence in Colorado."
— Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"Yeah, I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal"
— Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 Republican presidential nominee
"On that score, I think we need to enforce the laws we have right now. I think it's clear the Bush administration didn't do that."
— House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., quoted while serving as Speaker of the House
"We need to create a national consensus that restraints on the availability of weapons that can kill a lot of people very quickly are appropriate."
— House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.