Gun Safety Laws are Not Impossible. Here's How We Can Make Them Effective.
"Insanity" is a word we often use incorrectly. We use it to dismiss things we don't like or ideas that make us uncomfortable, and most of the time it's hyperbole. But when it comes to the uniquely American phenomenon of mass shootings, "insanity" is an understatement. It's insane that in American society today people face a non-insignificant risk of being mass-murdered on a random, callous basis - a reality to which we need few reminders. 20 first-graders in Connecticut. 59 concertgoers in Las Vegas. 49 people at a Florida nightclub. 17 kids in an American high school.
It's insane that these are but few of the hundreds of other public massacres that happen so frequently that it's barely news until the death toll reaches double digits. Even more insane is that every time this happens, we have the same conversations, rehash the same talking points and get in the same debates that go decidedly nowhere. In the only western country where this routinely happens, the only thing that changes is the headline of the next mass shooting that, by now, comes like clockwork. If you're old enough to read the words in front of you, you need no further elaboration of these facts.
This insanity has become a cancer on our society. I, like you, want things to change. And I'd like to devote this article towards how they specifically can.
I come to this conversation from a bit of a different angle. I personally despise the NRA and hold them in total contempt. Yet at the same time I also have an extensive background with firearms and hold deep, technical knowledge of their operation. I support the Second Amendment as both written and interpreted by the Supreme Court, yet enthusiastically reject the absolutism its most zealous acolytes often afford it. The juxtaposition of these two perspectives gives me a point of view that's apart from the polar opposites of today's gun debates, and I'm writing today to extend that in furtherance of forming solutions to this problem that are actually effective.
As I explain, I'll share a bit about my background that drives this context. I was trained to shoot at 14 by a member of the British military who worked as a counselor at a summer camp I attended. Say what you want about British food, but they train their soldiers to be excellent teachers. Six days after picking up my first rifle, I earned and still hold an NRA MQP sharpshooter rating (Bar 1). Today as a common practice exercise I shoot eggs at 200 meters and can qualify as expert with sidearm, shotgun and sporting rifle. I've built most firearms I've owned from the stripped receivers up. I've replaced gas systems, swapped barrels, upgraded fire control groups and fine-tuned springs and buffers. I can make my own ammunition. None of this makes me some badass dude or force to be reckoned with, yet I'd be lying to you if I said I couldn't strip an AR-15 down to the firing pin and reassemble it blindfolded.
I'm far from a right-wing cheerleader. I think violence is stupid and believe our cultural fetish of gun worship is highly misguided. But I am a systems analyst, and I know guns. That's a large reason why I harbor so much contempt for the NRA. I see through the games they play. I see how they play them in bad faith and I see how they pander to fear. I see how they distort facts to promote gun industry profits over public safety. I see how they remain willfully ignorant to the carnage they've helped enable with their obstruction of measures designed to keep weapons out of the hands of the criminally violent.
I support the Second Amendment. But the NRA has crossed far too many lines. They've sold out our country and our safety, they're on the wrong side of this, and they need to lose. And the way we beat them is by proving something they have unilaterally denied: that it's possible to pass legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of psychopaths while respecting our rights to responsibly bear arms. As someone with a firearms background I have ideas where this legislation should focus - and more importantly how it can minimize and bypass NRA bullshit.
And the key isn't bans, taxes, insurance or demonizing gun owners: the central, critical key is licensing.
Licensing is essential to the goal of nationwide gun reform because it doesn't just focus on guns. Rather, it focuses on access to the entire firearm supply chain.
It's all about the supply chain
The goal before us, boiled down, is to pass legislative remedies that effectively keep bad people from accessing guns while also not preventing law-abiding citizens, sportsmen and firearms enthusiasts from accessing them. It's important to remember that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are fine people with perfectly clean records. Yet we remain painfully aware that those who aren't commit heinous atrocities with them. That is the problem which needs to change.
Licensing accomplishes that because the gun isn't the exclusive part of the problem. It's also access to bullets (both factory and hand-reloaded). Magazines. ITAR-regulated optics. Non-serialized receivers. Barrel replacements. A gun is easy to build. Yet a gun is useless without a bullet. Conversely, a bullet is useless without a gun. Both have minimal utility without a magazine. All present acute risk to public safety in the hands of the mentally unstable or criminally violent. A licensing system grants access to a trusted class of person, yet restricts access from non-licensees to everything involving firearms.
Rather than abstract "gun control," we need a new framework to provide a single, regulated point of entry to any aspect of the firearm supply chain: guns, ammunition, magazines, reloading equipment, optics, internal components, even slings and ergonomic attachments. If someone has demonstrated themselves unworthy to own a gun, they should be locked off from all things guns.
Here's why this is important. When a criminal sources a gun unlawfully, if the gun is the only thing controlled they can buy ammunition or magazines anywhere they want. They can buy reloading equipment to make their own bullets. Even if they don't have a gun, they can buy a 3D printer or specialized CNC machines to make their own receivers that they can build their own guns from. Even without specialized equipment, guns are straightforward to illegally manufacture. Therefore, as long as the criminally violence have access to one part of the firearm supply chain they have access to all of it.
But if every part of the firearm supply chain is license-controlled, they're dependent on the black market for everything. Law-abiding citizens will be able to get a license and buy from licensed sellers, so only illegal arms dealers will be engaging with criminal elements, which naturally makes law enforcement easier. By locking down the supply chain and making possession of any firearm-related component a crime without a valid license, it creates an insular wall around firearms that's an order of magnitude more difficult to access if you don't have one. Further, as ammunition has an ultimate shelf life and can only be used once (barring the presence of reloading equipment, and, more critically, primers and smokeless powder that are prohibitively difficult to manufacture at home), it makes it harder and harder for the criminally violent to source ammunition in the future.
This model is more or less how Canada and Switzerland approach firearms. Both of these countries have extensive firearms in private hands, including millions of AR/AK style rifles (commonly referred to as "assault rifles"), but little to no gun crime. The reason why is there is an accessible yet transparently regulated framework for people to interact with guns. You need a license to not only buy a gun, but also ammunition, gun accessories, reloading supplies and everything in between. The entire supply chain is locked off to criminals, but remains available to law-abiding citizens.
That is exactly what we need in the United States.
So what would this license look like here? For starters, it should require an in-person interview with both a police officer and mental health professional that assesses the applicant's disposition. Then it would come with a written proficiency test and an accuracy demonstration at an approved firing range. This license would be renewed every few years with subsequent interviews, and would come with a few notable caveats:
First: it absolutely must be free of charge to the applicant. Liberals will decry this. But firearm ownership is a constitutional right, and charging money to access one opens up cans of worms we're better doing without. (The same is true with charging people to obtain a license to vote). Consistency is key in constitutional law, and it's important to enact measures that meet gun owners halfway even if the NRA will balk at any proposal outside of "more guns." We spend trillions of dollars on the military, a 0.5% cut of the defense budget to fund this isn't asking a lot.
Second: this license must be national (issued by state and connected to nationwide law enforcement networks). So whenever a license holder goes to any gun store to make a purchase, it scans instantly like an ID at the liquor store.
Third: as this license is free of charge, it's more or less "shall issue." That means it's given to anyone who applies for it unless the interviewing officer or mental health professional finds cause to not grant approval. Notably, "cause" in this case must be concrete, verifiable facts - not conjecture or emotional disposition. In this occurrence, it would automatically prompt a court hearing for the petitioner to challenge the refusal to grant a license. This prevents anti-gun state employees from denying firearm licenses without valid cause, yet also allows applicants who potentially pose threats to undergo greater scrutiny.
Fourth: this license should integrate with legal frameworks that allow emergency flags to be triggered by concerned persons: doctors, teachers, family members, etc. If engaged, the license can be temporarily restricted from new sales of guns or ammunition, and allow a court to hold a hearing to determine if an accused person is a danger to themselves or others. If no danger is presented, the restriction can be immediately lifted. Yet if a danger is verified, authorities can step in before that danger turns to action. As this is performed on an individual basis on individual suspicion with concrete cause, judicial due process is afforded every time.
Fifth: this license can be integrated with other firearm-related licenses, such as concealed carry permits, hunter safety verification and NFA tax stamps, presenting a streamlined framework for all of them.
By design, the license is intended to keep non-licensees out in the cold, which makes it easier to identify if and when they're unlawfully interacting with anything related to firearms. In turn, this makes it easier for licensed citizens to engage their constitutional rights without being associated with criminal elements.
This proposal takes a notably different track than most gun legislation proposed today, which tends to center on "universal background checks," bans of certain types or weapons or ammunition capacities of magazines. That's because these measures are not as effective as they sound on paper, and we'll take a minute to review why.
Refraining from the Ineffective
"Universal background checks" would be a good start. But as we discussed above, it only restricts access to guns. Once the gun is obtained, ammunition, magazines, accessories, etc, can be sourced without verification of legal access. Further, a 14-item questionnaire on the BATFE's 4473 background check form tells us little about the purchaser. It only checks to see if they were convicted of a felony or crime of domestic violence, unlawfully uses drugs, is a fugitive from justice or was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces. In short: unless the person is already on a list of people who have committed serious offenses, the background check will green-light. Most mass shooters would pass one, and many did. For gun safety legislation to work effectively, we need a more personal interview with professionals trained to flag people prone to criminal violence.
The second measure is an oft-proposed ban on certain types of firearms or firearm magazines, commonly referred to as "assault weapon bans." While people with strong opinions on this topic may disagree, this a more complicated issue than it appears at first glance. That's because it in large part misses some important characteristics of guns in general, which ultimately undermines the goal of enacting effective gun safety measures. If you're skeptical of this claim, I'd ask that you give me a minute to hear me out - and why, just as importantly, such bans are harder to achieve, less effective and ultimately have a lower cost-benefit analysis than a nationwide licensing system.
America is awash with guns. There's roughly one for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Yet much of the public has little to no direct education with them. This leads to a public understanding of guns based not on personal familiarity, but rather from external emotion based largely on their glorified use in contemporary fiction juxtaposed with their real-world use in highly disturbing events. And although we as a society might be well-served from some soul searching as to why our culture glorifies violence to such an extent, the dichotomy of our emotional approach to guns causes us to react emotionally - however understandably - towards their use in negative connotations. While it may not appear so at first glance, this ultimately presents problems towards achieving our goals of enacting greater gun safety measures. There are several reasons why this is the case:
First, the NRA is masterful at laying traps that exploit this emotion. It's their best skill. The public sees dead kids, looks at a type of rifle, calls it a "weapon of war" (which isn't necessarily untrue), and points to it as the culprit. The NRA, knowing full well that effectively any gun can be a "weapon of war" (the 1770-era musket that beat the British Army was the pinnacle of weapons development until the last 0.01% of human history), spins this to exploit the fears of gun owners by making gun safety advocates appear as if they're coming to the discussion in bad faith and seeking to ban and or confiscate their firearms en-masse. Gun safety advocates seem perplexed at this charge and how the NRA makes that leap, but if you have a background with firearms it's straightforward to see how they can pull it off.
To explain, let's get back to the assault weapon issue. When we think of the "assault weapon" question, it seems absurd on its face. Why do we have "weapons of war" freely available on U.S. streets? What civilian needs to own a gun to assault something in a military context? In truth, this terminology is misses some important nuance. Technically speaking, "assault weapons" must be "selective fire," meaning they must be capable of firing multiple bullets per trigger pull (commonly known as 'machine guns.') They're both very difficult and expensive to obtain, and have rarely been used in crime since they were outlawed in 1936 and more stringently in 1986 (hint: gun regulations can be effective). Every other "assault weapon" holding the title today are simply semi-automatic rifles (one bullet per trigger pull) that are designed to look similar to a military rifle.
If you're thinking "yes, but they fire the same ammunition that's just as deadly and hold as many bullets, so that it fires slower doesn't really impact it's deadliness" - you're not wrong. But the key is that most any rifle can present this degree of deadliness whether or not it retains the visual, aesthetic features that define "assault" weapons.
I'll explain further. Take a look at the following image of three semi-automatic rifles: a Browning BAR Safari, an Springfield M1A and an AR-15.
If they were to be placed in order of deadliness, I'd venture that most people would place them in reverse order, with the AR-15 first and the top rifle last. Yet with certainty, the overall deadliness factor - at least in terms of damage per bullet - is in order of appearance.
The first rifle, Browning BAR Safari, chambers a .338 Winchester Magnum round (8.6x64mm) that fires a 225 grain bullet at 2,800 feet per second with a muzzle energy of 5,310 Joules - strong enough to stop a charging grizzly bear in its tracks. The M1A chambers a 7.62x51mm round (commonly known as a "308") that fires a 147 grain round at 2,730 feet per second with a muzzle energy of 3,304 Joules. The AR-15 chambers a 5.56x45mm round that fires a 63 grain bullet at 2,900 feet per second with a muzzle energy of 1,758 Joules. There are 15 grains to the gram.
As you can see, the first two rifles are 2-3x as powerful as the AR-15. Indeed, the M1A is identical to the M14 which was a primary battle rifle in Vietnam and saw extensive service in "assaulting" enemy soldiers. A main reason it was phased out is because it's too heavy and powerful for smaller soldiers and packed more punch than needed to reliably incapacitate enemy troops. The AR-15, conversely, is built for modularity - easy to configure and extend for different uses. That's the primary reason why it's so popular in our country. Reading this Atlantic article about the wound pattern of AR-15's, if the author had seen the wounds from the first two rifles above it wouldn't be the AR-15 atop their ban requests.
Now, there are of course distinctions between the AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles that are important to mention.
The first important distinction is the elephant in the room: magazine capacity. But while not meritless as an argument, there's more to it than that. Both of the first two firearms on the image above can readily accept a detachable magazine, including high-capacity magazines. This link shows a variant of that BAR that comes with a box magazine (albeit a different caliber). This link shows the M1A outfitted to look "military style" in appearance with a high-capacity magazine. Yet it's the exact same gun, firing exactly the same bullet, at the exact same rate of fire, doing exactly the same damage. That it looks "scarier" and more aggressive has zero bearing on its risk to public safety - a gun isn't any more or less deadly if you engrave a skull or smiley face on it.
Okay, fine - so could we at least restrict magazine sizes? Sure - but it's trivial to get around. This video shows a 3D-printed magazine for an AR-15, holding 30 rounds. Here's another. The links to the 3D printed files are omnipresent on the internet, found with a two-second google search. Even if magazine capacities were limited to 5 or 10 rounds, they're swappable so quickly that the ultimate purpose of the ban would be defeated. It's hard to imagine that the 1.5 seconds it takes for this guy to reload would be enough for someone running for their life to reliably turn around and tackle a mass shooter.
Okay, fine, so could we instead restrict detachable magazines altogether? Sure - but that's just as easy to get around. Any firearm receiver that accepts an internal (non-detachable) magazine has to be able to have that magazine removed for cleaning and maintenance. A gun is a mechanical device after all, it can't be built without being subject to disassembly. It would be simple to illegally modify that to add on a 3D-printed or even hand-stamped detachable magazine. (Speaking of hand-stamped magazines or rifles, the stamped-
receiver of an AK47 is itself so simple you can make one in an afternoon from scrap metal in the comfort of your garage. The "47" in AK47 stands for 1947 - the year it was invented. It's hard to restrict a 70-year-old technology made out of the ruins of post-war Soviet Russia in 2018.)
Indeed, California has a statewide assault weapons ban. This link shows a picture of an AR-15 that's California legal. Looks just like a normal AR-15, just minus a working pistol grip, right? That's because it is. It doesn't have a detachable magazine - by law, it must be loaded from the top. Problem for would-be mass shooters? Not really - that loading device is just as fast as a detachable magazine. Functionally the same, exact rifle. Reloaded at the exact same speed. Fires with the exact same deadliness. All of the time, money and political capital to pass that law was bypassed in an instant.
Okay, could we just ban semi-automatics altogether? Sure - but that's not as effective as you'd think. This link shows a high-capacity bolt-action rifle with a detachable magazine. Any 3D printer could make a 20, 30 or 40 round variant. This link shows how quickly someone can discharge a bolt-action rifle. Although the individual in this video is a competitive speed shooter, he demonstrates how quickly it's possible to discharge 13 rounds with antique, manual action guns - most of which are still legal even in highly restrictive countries like Australia. This video demonstrates how easily even a single-action revolver (which isn't semi-automatic) can be quickly reloaded to fire off 12 lethal shots.
Now it's of course true that the people handling these manual-action guns are well-versed in their use. It's further true that an out-of-the-box rifle with a high-capacity magazine that fires a high-powered round with low recoil can enable a firearm novice to kill more people in a mass shooting than a rifle that requires more skill to use. But addressing that aspect of the problem doesn't get us to an effective solution to mass shootings - it at most might reduce the effectiveness of the low-hanging fruit who won't bother investing the time to be more effective in their last public act before death or life imprisonment. People who are truly invested in mass carnage can easily bypass a ban on firearm features commonly associated with "assault." Any firearm can be turned into a tool for mass death, and all firearms are deadly. Are the ones in the image above immediately as deadly as an AR-15 for mass shootings, all things considered? Perhaps not out of the box, but a weekend of modifications could certainly make them deadlier.
To be sure, modifying guns or manufacturing high capacity magazines in defiance of a ban would be extremely illegal. But what deterrence is that to someone who has given up on life and wants to commit mass murder as their last public act? Maybe a lazy mass shooter won't go that route because it's harder for him to easily source weapons. Possibly true, but you'd have to control tens of millions of magazines and semi-automatic rifles in as many hands in hopes that you'd dissuade that one person by way of individual laziness. That's not exactly a recipe for success, and it further walks right into the NRA's ambush.
When we try to identify a "weapon of war" to ban - meaning a weapon that could reliably be used to kill scores of people by a person dedicated to that task, the honest truth is that we'd need to ban and confiscate most of the 310 million guns in private hands. The NRA knows that. Any person familiar with firearms knows that. In 1966, a guy in Texas used a bolt-action deer rifle to kill 16 people and wound 31 others - three more than Columbine. He may have been a former Marine, but most deer hunters possess similar marksmanship skills. It's not special. That's the reality of the inherent deadliness of guns - any gun.
In reply to this reality and the intractable obstacles that come with facing it, Australia is often mentioned as a remedy. In 1996, some psychopath killed 35 people in a mass shooting, which prompted a gun ban and mandatory buyback of guns in private hands. Australia had experienced 13 mass shootings in the past 18 years. Since their ban, they haven't experienced one (although they've had at least three arson attacks that each have killed more than 10+ people).
Suggesting we go Australia's route is not necessarily ridiculous, but it glaringly ignores a totally different scope and scale of effort. Australia bought back 600,000 guns from a population of then 18 million. The U.S. today has 310 million guns in 100+ million hands, nearly all of which are unregistered. State-level registration mandates have fared notoriously poorly, and the idea of the federal government chasing down 100 million gun owners (many anonymous) to get 310 million guns and buy them back at fair market value while avoiding the constitutional and P.R. debacles that come with it (saying nothing of individual state opposition) is a fantasy in the best of cases.
Once again: the NRA knows this. Any person familiar with firearms knows this. That's why whenever gun safety advocates propose "bans," the NRA's machinery is in place to discredit, obfuscate and oppose any legislation from Congress, and further instill fear in gun owners that any gun safety legislation is a thinly veiled smokescreen for gun confiscation. That's why they beat us. That's why they win.
A nationwide licensing schema avoids all of this from the onset. Instead of embarking on a massive endeavor to quantify types of guns, ban them, ban the workarounds to the first ban, the second workarounds to the bans of the first workarounds and then some ad nauseum, force registration, and so on - all of which expend massive political capital and risk equally massive drawbacks from the gun-owning contingent of society, we simply pull the right out from under the NRA. We stop feeding their propaganda machine when we take a hands off approach and simply say "we don't care what kind of guns you own. You can keep and buy your guns as you always have, but we're going to require you get a free-of-charge license so we can restrict criminals from sourcing arms."
When we think of the level of effort, the cost-benefit analysis, which honestly will give us the greatest return of investment of political capital to stop the scourge of gun violence in our nation? The NRA operates by playing on fear. The less fearful they can make gun owners, the more likely we can find common ground towards greater gun safety. If our goal is to be effective, this is the strongest path we have to achieve that common ground.
So what now?
In saying all this, I'd be remiss for not recognizing that any proposal we put forward - no matter how well-reasoned - is going to be opposed by the NRA, the politicians they arm-twist and the most fervent of their supporters. Their goal, distilled to its core focus, is to maximize gun sales. If they were truly into respecting our Second Amendment rights, they wouldn't resist proposals that would better screen dangerous people from possessing guns they might use to kill us or the people we love. It's ludicrous on its face when they suggest you somehow don't respect that we're a self-reliant culture which affords its citizens a right to own weapons if you support any restriction to make the exercise of that right a little more responsible. I don't even think they truly believe that. But as greater gun restrictions lead to fewer gun sales - and shrill histrionics lead to booming business, they shift the spotlight from common sense to common greed.
It's further true that many gun owners simply do not agree with me. They've been spoon-fed the NRA's paranoid bullshit for years and honestly believe that all gun safety measures are a slippery slope to nationwide disarmament, followed perhaps by forced interment at FEMA camps and a government takeover by an inexplicable marxist-fascist dictatorship. Alongside the politicians who are beholden to the NRA's lobbying machinery, they present a formidable point of resistance to any proposal we'd consider. But that wall is cracking. Like any large group of people, firearm owners are a diverse demographic and many do share the perspective I've shared here. They, too, resent and disgust the absolutism of the NRA and agree that our nation should stop pretending like this is a normal, unsolvable problem. They, too, would have preferred we did so they day after a deeply troubled young man murdered 20 first graders in an elementary school classroom. But better late than never. We don't need every gun owner to change their minds. We just need enough of them to realize that gun safety laws and gun rights are not mutually exclusive. I'm in that boat, and I'm not sailing alone.
Messaging is important here. It becomes harder and harder to sustain the narrative that gun safety advocates are "coming for your guns" if it's clear we aren't doing that and maintain the counter narrative that we respect Second Amendment rights and aren't out to confiscate people's property. But in order to show that we respect those rights, we actually have to respect them. That doesn't mean you start to love guns or create a church to facilitate their worship, but it does mean that we don't want the messaging of gun reform to be heralded by people who clearly despise gun rights and those who own them.
I can't speak personally to the character of Dianne Fienstein, Hillary Clinton or Martin O'Malley. But rightly or wrongly, these people have staked their careers on being rhetorical counterweights to the NRA. As such, their standpoints appear nothing short of hostile to communities that would celebrate firearm ownership - who happen to be the very same people whose support we'll need to enact effective legislation. The people leading the gun debate can't expect to have collective legitimacy if they represent the alternate extreme in perception or reality. If we want to pass gun safety legislation, it's prudent to have it championed by people who actually know something about the item they're seeking to more closely regulate, who themselves respects and engages in the pastime - and who further would be personally affected if sensible gun safety legislation was passed in bad faith. We need centrist leadership that honestly respects both sides yet can take the extremes of both sides to task when they perseverate hyperbole and histrionics in front of microphones. Political piousness rarely leads to effective policy, and the captains of our messaging can't be acolytes of ideological hackery.
If we can get our ducks in a row on this front - something the Parkland High students have seen more success with in two months than two decades of political grandstanding - maintaining the consistent message will eventually gather supporters as time goes on. Once younger generations reach voting age and we (hopefully) make headway on fixing the cesspool of our legally bribed political dynamic and its gauntlet of gerrymandered districts, we might be able to pass an overhaul once Congress changes hands.
Should this opportunity arise, it's imperative on us to keep focused on a truly effective measures as opposed to base-rallying measures that do little and divide more. What might earn the loudest applause in our ideological strongholds can in turn give the NRA all it needs to torpedo whatever modest progress we could make with the realities of our national cultural identity. We only have so much political capital - let's use it to make something that actually works.
It should be enough to know that we're the good guys on this, and that most people who may disagree may well not if we can demonstrate that we're coming to this compromise in good faith. It will take time, dedication and consistent messaging, but as actions speak louder than words the more actions we undertake and better explanations we offer as we do so will afford the opportunity to build more bridges, which may well prove inversely relational to our exchange of bullets.