Common-sense gun control. It’s a broad term. It generally includes bans on assault weapons (like the AR-15) and other military-type paraphernalia (see: bump stocks), universal background checks and reform to the background check system, restrictions on those with a history of violence or mental illness, possibly some kind of mandatory training before purchasers are allowed to take their gun home, maybe a national gun registry.
Common-sense gun control is a term that’s been bandied about a lot recently, primarily following the recent spate of horrific school shootings. There’s good reason to believe that it won’t do a whole lot to prevent those in the near term, as was argued in another article this week. But, just because gun control wouldn’t avert one type of tragedy does not mean that it wouldn’t avert others. Each year 33,000 Americans die from guns. 73,000 are wounded non-fatally. On average, 19 kids are treated for gunshot wounds everyday. That's too many. Even if mass shootings are the most publicized and politicized, the vast majority of those deaths and injuries occur in other contexts.
If you could wave a magic wand and prevent a significant percentage of those tens of thousands of gun deaths without infringing upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners would you? No-brainer, right? Even the staunchest gun rights advocate would surely agree to that. Well, hear me out, because there's a way to implement gun control that would do just that..
Why A Ban is Not The Way
When liberals talk about gun control following mass shootings, we generally start with an assault weapon ban. We tend to think it’s obvious that regular people shouldn’t have access to military-style weapons. Giving civilians access to that kind of firepower seems pointless at best–why would anyone ever need an AR-15? It’s not a hunting weapon and it’s not great for personal defense. It's certainly not necessary for either. It’s essentially a weapon of war. Thus, following a mass shooting, Democratic legislators will generally pursue an assault weapon ban as a reasonable measure that we, gun owners and gun skeptics alike, can get behind. I’m in favor of such a ban. But, I understand why law-abiding gun owners reject it.
Enacting sweeping new bans on any type of gun usage would almost-certainly help rein in gun deaths. But, it would also piss off law-abiding gun owners. If you’re a well-trained, meticulously-safe gun owner who loves legally firing your AR-15 at the range and you hear that your law-abiding use will be outlawed like a common criminal's, you might very well wonder why you're being punished for others' crimes. Bans restrict safe behavior from regular gun owners just as much as they curtail dangerous behavior from criminals. Indeed, many gun owners would argue that a ban would harass them while failing to prevent criminal activity–criminals don’t follow laws anyway. The empirical support for this last claim is weak at best, but the broader point remains.
A Practical Approach
So what is to be done? I’m going to present a federal gun control regimen that I think everyone, gun owners and gun skeptics alike, could get behind. It allows law-abiding gun owners to purchase as many firearms as they like and to exercise their Second Amendment rights to their heart’s content. At the same time, it would keep guns out of the hands of those that shouldn't have them.
This is how it would work. Let’s say you want a gun. First, you go down to your local police station. You fill out a form. Law enforcement officials carry out a background check on you through a new comprehensive, up-to-date federal database. If you have a history of violent crime, domestic violence or mental illness that would impede your ability to operate a weapon safely then you will have to go through more extensive vetting. You’ll probably be denied a permit. Luckily for you, like most gun owners you are not a violent criminal or domestic abuser and you don’t suffer from a debilitating mental illness. You take a two-hour training course on firearm safety, maintenance, and operation from law enforcement officials. After a weeklong waiting period that reduces the risk of an incomplete background check (and impulsive violence against yourself or others), you are granted a permit. With your permit in hand, you go to your local gun store to purchase a gun. They verify your permit and sell you the gun of your choice. When you buy your gun, it is entered into a new comprehensive, up-to-date national gun registry. The registry will never be used to take your gun (that's against the Second Amendment). Selling your gun to someone without a permit is a crime. Selling your gun to someone without entering the sale into the national registry is a crime. Strict enforcement of those two measures will reduce the risk of guns falling into the hands of criminals. This will undermine the black market.
The Weeklong Path To Purchase
Are there any objections to such a practical regimen? I can think of three, and each can be rebutted easily.
Objection #1: It might prevent law-abiding people who once committed a violent crime or suffered from mental illness from getting a gun.
Rebuttal: False. People who have committed violent crimes or suffered from mental illness would merely have to go through additional vetting. If truly law-abiding and competent they would ultimately be able to purchase a weapon.
Objection #2: These measures would do nothing to prevent criminals from purchasing weapons on the black market. They'd simply infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
Rebuttal: This is probably the most common objection to any gun control measure, so I think it deserves the strongest rebuttal. My response is fourfold. The first three responses address the claim that this regimen would not impact criminals. The final response addresses the claim that such a regimen would infringe upon anyone's rights.
First, this regimen, if correctly enforced, would reduce the supply of firearms to the black market. In turn, buying a gun on the black market would be significantly more difficult and expensive. That’s simple economics. In the U.S. right now, buying a firearm on the black market costs $200 above retail. In Australia, where there are much more stringent gun laws, buying a firearm on the black market costs a staggering $15,000. The conclusion is simple. Gun control + enforcement = fewer black market guns = skyrocketing prices = fewer criminals with the will and means to purchase a firearm. This kind of gun control would thus make it much more difficult for criminals to get their hands on a gun, even if doing so was still technically possible.
Second, by introducing permits and a national gun registry, police officers would be better able to quickly determine if a firearm is illegally owned (e.g. if it’s not registered in the owner's name or they don’t have a permit for it). Law enforcement officials would be better equipped to bring those with illegal firearms to justice.
Third, even less rigorous permit-to-purchase (PTP) measures than I propose have been empirically shown to reduce homicide rates (implying that they reduce the risk of would-be killers getting their hands on guns). When Connecticut introduced a PTP law in 1995, the homicide rate dropped 40%. When Missouri repealed its own PTP law in 2007, the homicide rate climbed 14%. Incidentally, the states’ suicide rates dropped 15% and rose 16% respectively.
Fourth, get out of here with that “infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners” crap. That may be a legitimate critique of certain gun control measures (e.g. bans, as I discuss above). But, here, no law-abiding gun owner would be prevented from buying a firearm or using it as they saw fit. This proposal protects the Second Amendment. Gun buyers would merely need to put up with the minor inconvenience of driving down to the police station, taking a two-hour training course, and waiting a week before they could purchase their gun. If even one less person would be killed as a result of us enduring these minor inconveniences, we'd be assholes not to. Thousands would likely be saved. Anyone who’s whimpering about this type of rights-protecting gun control should think twice before they call anyone else a snowflake. Toughen up.
Objection #3: There might be some non-compliance if these measures are introduced. (This is a real argument that smart people have made against background checks that could save lives. As if a handful people not following a law is a rationale for torpedoing it...)
Rebuttal: This objection could be deployed against any law. If all laws were systematically obeyed, we wouldn't need police officers, courts, prisons. That sounds pretty divorced from reality to me. My idea has clear benefits that I’ve outlined above–it reduces the risk of guns falling into the wrong hands and makes it easier to bring criminals to justice when they do, even as gun rights are protected. If there is some non-compliance, then my proposal will be imperfect like every other law. I’ll take pretty damn good over nothing at all any day of the week.
The gun control debate has become emotion-driven and irrational. Understandably so. Lives and ways of life are at stake. But, let’s take a step back. I believe that much of the partisan disconnect on this issue has to do with talk of bans, so I’ve avoided those. I believe that my proposal would reduce gun violence and hurt criminals while preserving the rights of gun owners. If anyone can think of a substantive reason why we shouldn’t pursue this policy then please hmu. For all those who truly love this country, it's time to take smart and lawful action to save American lives.