I think about guns a lot.
I grew up with them. I own them. Several of them.
But I believe that at this point in our nation’s history, they own us.
Many intelligent people have talked about ways to address this problem. The President recently spoke eloquently about it. He talked about ‘smart’ guns, and background checks on sales, etc. I agree with all of the steps he proposed, none of which threaten me as a gun owner. Over the years, I’ve listened to the experts and I’ve learned much (including some of the pieces of what I’ve included below). But I haven’t heard anyone offer what I believe is a comprehensive approach that could actually work, by addressing the concerns of gun owners, yet reducing the access to high-capacity firearms to those who would misuse them.
So, I’m taking a crack at it here.
First, nobody who’s talking about ‘gun control’, or who really wants a solution seems to deal with the fact that there are already 300 million guns in America, on average one for every man woman and child. So, measures on ‘smart’ guns, background checks on new weapons, etc. miss the mark by failing to address existing guns, which are largely off the government’s books. And though most of us agree that we have the right to defend ourselves with a firearm, the second issue that’s not addressed by advocates of ‘gun control’, is that restricting the sale of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, etc., will never be tolerated by many law-abiding citizens who feel the need to be be equally armed against a perceived threat, regardless how unlikely that threat may be. So, any gun control measure that seriously addresses the phenomenon of American gun deaths, and has any hope of passage, must allow for existing guns, and it must accept that there needs to be legal access by a ‘good guy’ to a weapon that’s equal to the one being carried by the ‘bad guy’. Okay, we’ve laid out the tough part.
So what tools do we have at our disposal? Well, we have the marketplace, and an existing tradition of taking personal responsibility. Looking elsewhere for guidance on how to manage guns, like others who’ve considered this issue, I looked at cars. Out here in the country, a car is a necessity. We all know you can buy a cheap used car for essential transportation, or you can pay much more for one with more bells and whistles if you feel the need. The choice is yours on how much you wish to spend. If you want to drive the high horsepower, gas-guzzling muscle car, you have to be willing to spend more money on gasoline. And more on collision insurance. Still continuing the car analogy, if as the operator, you are deemed to have driven that vehicle improperly, you have to pay. You are penalized either by having your liability insurance rates raised, and/or by paying fines or doing jail time. I know this comparison has been used before, but please bear with me for a few more paragraphs…
Here’s my approach. Yes, we would require that each gun be covered by liability insurance. And yes, I know it’s been talked about, and that many, many, many people won’t buy it, especially the very ones we’re worried about abusing guns. We’ll get to that hurdle in a minute. First, the policies would vary significantly in price, based on the type of gun. A policy on a hunting rifle like a shotgun or a .22 caliber would be cheap, because such weapons are rarely used in the crimes we consider our main concerns. However, a policy on a high-capacity ‘assault’ rifle would be much more expensive. But it’s your choice. You’re free to own either. Just like the car. Similarly with pistols, a policy on a revolver, would be much less expensive than one on a semi-automatic pistol capable of using a high capacity magazine. (And yes, I’m reading your mind… So far, this is ludicrous. Right?)
So here are the twists which I think could make this work.
First, it brings one money-making behemoth (the insurance industry) up against another one (the gun manufacturers). The insurance company will work to be damn sure that their policy holders are law-abiding types or the company will have to pay out to the victims. (Remember the auto liability insurance analogy?) In addition, the often-mistrusted federal government will be largely out of the loop, once the system is in place, as they are in car insurance today.
Second, and by far the most important….
You have to show proof of insurance to buy ammunition. If you don’t have the card that shows you own an AR-15, then you can’t purchase 5.56 x .45 ammo. Period. Anywhere. (And for you non-gun types out there, the ammo for military style ‘assault weapons’ is largely distinct from that used to hunt deer, etc.) First, this approach addressees the 300 million guns in circulation. Without ammunition, a firearm is harmless. No, this is not an overnight fix, not even close. But ammo gets used up and doesn’t keep forever. (Think of bullets as gasoline.) Second, each ammo purchase can now be tracked to the specific buyer who was issued the policy. The result is that ‘straw buyers’ will eventually be found as their ammo purchases pile up, in the same fashion that excessive credit card purchases result in that phone call from the card company today. Another huge benefit would be that individuals with newly manifested mental health or violence issues would have their insurance revoked, drying up their ability to buy ammunition, and rendering their gun impotent. Third, although we are restricting access to ammunition and likely encouraging black market purchases, the mentally ill, or suicidal, or even jihadist individual is likely unfamiliar with obtaining black market goods. More importantly, unlike or other historically-prohibited items like alcohol and drugs, cartridges are really difficult to make privately from scratch. Even folks who re-load their own ammo have to have a source of industrially manufactured primers, casings, etc. Thus controls on the manufacture and subsequent sale to distributors should be able to have a major impact.
Does this approach require as yet demonstrated political will? Absolutely. Am I encouraged by the political logjam in Washington? No.
But such an approach could tip the balance by assuring law-abiding gun owners that they can own any gun now deemed legal. No one will ‘take their guns’. If they fear that criminals will be more heavily armed, the homeowner can pay to replace their cheap 12 gauge with an AR-15. It’s the American marketplace at work. Furthermore, by targeting ammunition, such an approach focuses on the buyer’s mental state/criminal record in real time, rather than only at the time the weapon was purchased, which could have been years in the past. And most importantly it addresses the issue of the sea of firearms that already exist in this country, by depriving non-compliant owners from the ammunition that makes their weapon a weapon. Again, this is a long game solution. But in time it could have a major impact on reducing the number of those weapons specifically designed to kill large numbers of people, while having a minimal impact on those used to put food on the table or protect one’s home.
While there is a mental health component to many crimes, focusing on that instead of guns is a distraction. Americans are no crazier than the rest of the world, except perhaps in our fixation on firearms. On this issue, we must rejoin the civilized nations of the world, by getting this uniquely American genie back in its lethal bottle. But as the President said, our government will only take action if we tell them to. Please join me by contacting your representatives. Let’s take steps towards solving this.