Brief Note on Gun Control

by Reihan Salam

I was struck by the resonances between a post by my colleague Robert VerBruggen, who has forgotten more about the regulation of firearms than I’ll ever know, and a post by Ezra Klein. Robert is generally speaking skeptical about the wisdom, or rather the utility, of more stringent federal gun laws while Ezra is strongly supportive. Yet a few common themes emerge. Robert, for example, observes that assault weapons account for relatively few gun deaths in the U.S.:

Simply put, so-called “assault weapons” are nowhere near the root of the American violence problem. According to FBI data, of the two-thirds of murders that involve firearms, about 69 percent involve handguns rather than rifles or shotguns of any kind. Most estimates place the contribution of assault weapons to gun crime at around 1 or 2 percent. These numbers should not be surprising: Rifles are difficult to conceal, and a criminal who decides to use a rifle has little reason to prefer an assault weapon over any other semiautomatic option. Contrary to popular myth, assault weapons fire only once for each pull of the trigger; they are not machine guns.

Robert suggests that a limit on magazine capacity would be unlikely to have much of an impact, and that it might not withstand constitutional scrutiny:

A limit on magazine capacity (which was also part of the federal ban) is by far the more plausible of the proposed measures, seeing that Gabrielle Giffords’s shooter was tackled while reloading his gun. However, other shooters (such as those at Columbine and Virginia Tech) have had no problem reloading, and still others (such as those at the Aurora movie theater and possibly the Oregon mall) have experienced jams while using high-capacity magazines. The net effect of such legislation would almost certainly be statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Ezra, to his great credit, has written a post detailing why various popular gun control remedies would be unlikely to have an appreciable impact on gun deaths. Drawing on the work of Mark Kleiman, author of When Brute Force Fails and a leading expert on crime control, he endorses more targeted strategies, e.g., closing the federal private-sale loophole and strengthening waiting periods.

Back in 2008, Jim Kessler wrote a short article for Democracy Journal calling on the federal government to “Deepen Gun Ownership.” Kessler advocates, among other things, new restrictions of gun trafficking:

Trafficking should be redefined as selling multiple guns out of a home, car, street, or park that have two or more of the following characteristics: obliterated serial numbers, are stolen, are new in the box, or are sold to underage buyers or people with felony records. This would still allow individuals to privately sell firearms to people they know or trust, and it would put the onus on sellers to demand a background check for those they don’t.

Beyond the new law, finding traffickers isn’t that hard. Investigators can readily aggregate the crime gun trace data that we now have–data that identifies the original buyers and sellers of hundreds of thousands of guns later used in crime. They will discover that about 1 percent of the nation’s gun stores are the source of more than half of the nation’s crime guns. And they will discover that a select group of individuals repeatedly turn up as the original purchasers of guns later linked to crimes. This is not a quirk of fate; these people are gun traffickers.

This seems like a narrowly-tailored approach that would have far more of an impact than a new assault weapons ban, and it is the kind of proposal that defenders of gun rights might be willing to get behind. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.