Taking Your Guns

The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year.

– Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968

Today is the March for Our Lives.

I’ll be participating, and the media will no doubt cover it well. Something must be done will be today’s message. I have written about this problem before. And again. And again. And again.

But even if I want to stick it to the NRA, I’m not interested in more legislation regulating guns unless it has an impact on violence. We have to think about more than just increased regulation, but how to do it. We’re not going to remove all firearms from society–it’s not politically possible, nor is it really desirable. Here are policies I think would actually have an effect.

Broadly, federal action. The oft-cited counterpoint is that states and cities with strong regulations actually have a lot of gun crime. That’s true–and that’s why to a large extent state legislation won’t change fundamental facts on the ground and prevent shootings, because people can just bring weapons across state borders. As one elected official told me, “But that’s illegal.” As I discuss below, a law has to be enforceable; this hasn’t stopped a thriving interstate black market. A large number crime guns in Chicago, for example, can be sourced to Indiana.

Universal background checks: DUH. The key word here is “universal.” Background checks–admittedly cumbersome–currently take place at retail gun sellers, but are not uniformly required at gun shows, for transfers, and over the internet. This is about more than safety; it’s about consistency. There is no reason not to have this regulation–other than speeding up the sale of more guns–which is why is it’s the most popular gun safety measure among the American public.

A ban on assault weapons, maybe. The principles behind an assault weapons are well-grounded. Most of the shootings to have grabbed headlines involved AR-15s or similar weapons. They pose an unacceptable risk to law enforcement; something that’s overlooked is that broad access to these weapons leads to an arms race between criminals and police; see the 1994 Hollywood shootout for an illustrative example. While these weapons are used in a low proportion of total gun crime, they have a disproportionate impact; as a feature of major mass shootings, they are instruments of terror and ought to be regulated as such.

We did try this before: in 1994 Congress passed a law–supported by presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan–which lapsed after ten years. Studies on its effectiveness–and to be sure, there’s no reason to think that 1994-2004 had the same underlying factors of gun crime as now–have been mixed, with many finding a limited impact because of loopholes–specifically, gun manufacturers were able to circumvent the ban. While that suggests better written legislation might ensure better results, it also suggests caution in the efficacy in outright bans with questionable enforcement.

A ban on large capacity magazines. This is the signature ask of parents of Sandy Hook. The magazine (“mag”) is what a user must change out to reload; this makes a big difference in combat situations and of course, in mass shootings. In the Parkland shooting, the shooter’s weapon may have jammed, ending the shooting earlier than intended. Even in that case, he chose to use 10-round mags (the max in the most restrictive states) because bigger ones wouldn’t fit in his bag. I don’t think we should bet our safety in the next incident on the size of someone’s backpack.

Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws. These basically allow family and law enforcement to obtain court orders to remove weapons from people at risk of harming others or themselves. Unlike many of the above, this has some power at the state level since it empowers local law enforcement; New Jersey is considering one such bill at the moment.

I can already hear gun rights’ advocates moans: These laws are susceptible to abuse. An ancient but relevant historical event: the British troops at Lexington and Concord were on orders to destroy “military stores” at Concord, Mass., and they had legal authority to do it. But even if gun rights’ advocates aren’t worried about tyrannical government, but about the government’s ability to protect citizens–and Broward County’s law enforcement response didn’t reassure–then ERPOs could do a lot if exercised judiciously. Perhaps there should be limits on the number that governments can use at any given time–and let’s not forget these go through a court system–but they’d likely be effective in preventing suicides, domestic violence, and mass shootings.

Strengthening law enforcement. This about more than just laws and regulations. Something’s been going on with the way background checks and other regulations are enforced, and over the last several years I’ve been trying to figure out why. A lot of this relates to the ATF, which since 2002 has fallen under DOJ, and faces a persistent “identity crisis” and scarcity of resources. For example, the ATF doesn’t even keep the $200 transfer taxes–which ought to be much higher from inflation since their introduction in 1934–as they go to the Treasury’s General Fund. Moreover, the agency is too often in the cross-hairs of politics:

In 2006, the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbied U.S. Representative F. James Sensenbrenner to add a provision to the Patriot Act reauthorization that requires Senate confirmation of ATF director nominees. (Prior to that, ATF directors were simply appointed by the administration.) After that, the NRA lobbied against and effectively blocked every presidential nominee, leaving the agency in the hands of acting directors for seven years.

On top of that, we recently learned that gun lobbyists had direct control over the agency’s rulemaking and enforcement, or lack thereof.

One proposal to empower enforcement is to fold the ATF into the FBI. Another is to better fund the agency. But as this last problem shows, it will also involve ensuring proper oversight.

Data and technology. All of the above involve political will, and in lieu of that there are innovative solutions, such as this tracing platform based at Harvard, and other cooperative agreements, such as the coalition among northeastern states to share gun safety data.

This isn’t about whether this is finally the moment that our government decides enough is enough, whether the NRA prioritizes life over weapons, etc. Maybe today will be a turning point; maybe momentum will be lost as in the past. But for the day when enough is there, knowing the problem well and having solutions at hand will be what brings the change.

Image credit: BSTK7255, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Barry Stock’s photostream

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