The Agenda

The New Wave of Gun Regulation

Gun regulation is back. For over a decade, Democrats have been repositioning themselves on gun rights, having recognized that calls for restricting gun rights had proven a serious political vulnerability and that the Heller decision limited the constitutional scope of gun regulation. Yet the changing composition of the Democratic electorate has led to a subtle shift. White working class voters are a declining constituency in Democratic primary battles while ideologically liberal voters are ascendant. And so a number of Democratic presidential aspirants, including Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have sought to strengthen their embryonic candidacies by championing gun regulation. Josh Kraushaar is skeptical that this strategy is likely to yield political dividends, and I think he is right to be skeptical:

The intensity on gun control is still on the side of the opposition, with only 4 percent listing it as their most important issue in the latest Gallup survey. More important, defining one’s candidacy by being the biggest gun restrictionist in the field is a surefire strategy for general-election problems in the Rust Belt swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Even battleground Colorado, filled with the diverse, well-educated voters that gravitate toward Democrats, is a state where “liberal Denver lawyers own handguns, and the Democratic governor takes his son to hunting safety classes,” as The New York Times put it.

But the more interesting question is whether the new wave of gun regulations would likely make a dent in gun violence. The Center for American Progress has released an extensive list of proposed gun regulations, including the reregulation of assault weapons and the banning of high-capacity magazines, neither of which seems likely to have an appreciable impact, symbolic resonance notwithstanding.

There are, however, two steps that might make a difference. President Obama is planning to take executive action on a number of fronts, including “directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence,” according to Michael Shear and Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times. Gun rights advocates have passed legislation that seeks to limit federally-funded researchers from explicitly campaigning for gun regulation, which seems fair enough. But high-quality epidemiological research on gun violence has the potential to do a lot of good, particularly if it points towards harm mitigation strategies that do not unduly restrict the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners.

Another more controversial step that might prove valuable is the use of universal background checks for gun buyers, an idea that my colleague Robert VerBruggen has recently explored:

Universal background checks would help us hold people accountable for giving guns to criminals. When the police traced a gun to the original buyer, that person could no longer simply say he didn’t have it anymore; unless he’d documented a sale and conducted a check (or filed a police report claiming it was stolen), he could be investigated for an illegal transaction. This would make straw purchases more risky and prevent criminals from buying guns freely from private citizens.

Of course, this wouldn’t completely stop criminals from getting guns. Some people would file false police reports, saying their guns had been stolen when in fact they’d sold them, though this would look suspicious if it happened more than once. Some people, facing an accusation that they’d sold a gun illegally, would say it had been taken without their knowledge (for example, by a criminal boyfriend) and they didn’t notice it missing. Further, this system obviously will not be as effective when it comes to guns originally sold before the date of enactment (the original buyer could say he sold it without a check before it was illegal to, even if he sold it after). Guns last a long time.

VerBruggen is not exactly enthusiastic about the idea, and he points to potential implementation challenges. Yet he suggests that universal background checks could prove a constructive step, particularly if they are made cheap and convenient. This latter concern brings to mind a recent post by Tim Carney in which he offers a theory as to why Wal-Mart, one of the leading retailers of firearms in the U.S., favors universal background checks:

If you make it harder for people to buy guns in private-party sales, you drive more business to Wal-Mart. 

Tim sees this as part of a larger, pervasive phenomenon in which powerful incumbent firms use regulation to defend themselves against smaller competitors and new entrants, and he makes a strong case. This effect can be mitigated by making universal background checks “cheap and convenient,” but that of course is very challenging. The most straightforward reply to Tim is probably that facilitating the consolidation of the gun-selling business, as distasteful as that might be, is preferable to allowing private sellers to skip background checks.

Update: The president has just released his gun control proposals. There is much to disagree with in the president’s gun regulation agenda. My concern, however, is that gun rights advocates risk getting outflanked: by focusing on the dangers of gun trafficking and embracing the idea of universal background checks, provided these checks are cost-effective, gun rights advocates would be on much stronger footing in the debate to come.


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