I’m a gun owner. I live in Vermont, the state which has probably the most permissive gun laws in the US. I’ve used and owned guns since I was very young. I got my first BB gun when I was 5, my first .22 when I was 12. I was taught to shoot, safely handle, and respect guns by a former Green Beret. I like to think of myself as a responsible gun owner. As such, I want to see change in our nation’s gun laws. I want to be able to continue to own my guns, I want to see fewer guns in the hands of criminals, and I never want to see another tragedy like Parkland on TV again. I don’t have a magic wand, but I do have a brain. I sat down for five or six hours the day after the Parkland shooting and asked myself “If I DID have a magic wand, how would I fix this so that there’s a chance it would stay fixed, and not be repealed by partisan politics from one side or another?”. This is what I came up with.
`First off, we have to get past partisan stances on gun control. This means that any bill which would change existing firearms laws will have to make sense to both sides, and be balanced enough that neither Republicans nor Democrats will have cause to shoot it down. Next, we need to address REAL issues. Cosmetic changes to firearms like adjustable stocks, flash hiders, pistol grips, and bayonet mounts have no appreciable effect on the lethality, rate of fire, or ammunition capacity of a firearm. We also need to address the personal accountability of the gun owning public. As Uncle Ben\* said to Peter Parker “With great power comes great responsibility”. As gun owners we have the literal power of life and death in the palms of our hands. This must never be taken lightly, and we must neither abuse that power, nor allow it to be abused by others if we’re to demonstrate we’re worthy of possessing it. Lastly, we must preserve the Constitution and the sovereignty of the people. I did a little research, spent some time on gun blogs, read and watched a lot of news, and this is what I suggest. There are six pretty simple parts. I’m not a lawyer or a congressman, these are just my ideas and I hope folks with better ones will feel free to chime in.
The most crucial part of any effective gun control in the United States is universal, federally mandated background checks with absolutely no exceptions at all. Personal responsibility and accountability go hand in hand. We need to have universal background checks so that the ownership of guns used by criminals can be established, and the irresponsible people who provide those guns can be held accountable for putting our safety, and our rights as Americans in jeopardy. Right now, in Vermont, I’m able to shop on the internet for guns available in my neighborhood, for sale by private parties. If I decide I want to buy a pistol, all I have to do is email the person in question, agree to terms, decide on a meeting place, and do the deal. A background check is not required since the sale takes place between two individuals. This is despite fact that the ability to run a background check on another individual is widely available and relatively inexpensive. Generally it just means meeting up at the local gun store, paying about $25 and running the potential buyers name. While Vermont law is very permissive, the same scenario could happen in about 30 other states. The number of states who don’t regulate the transfer of rifles or shotguns, only handguns, is even higher. This is irresponsible. This is why we need universal federally mandated background checks with no exceptions. No exceptions means if I want to give my wife a gun I can buy it for her and take possession, but if she wants to carry it for protection without being under my direct supervision she has to legally take possession by going through a background check. This means that if I die, and want to pass down a beautiful, fully engraved, checkered, and silver chased estate grade double barrel 12 gauge shotgun to my niece, she has to go through a background check. This means that if I send a gun to a repair shop to have it fixed I need to undergo a background check to make sure I’m still legal to own it before it can be shipped back to my local gun store where I can regain possession. No exceptions means no exceptions, full stop.
Once we’ve gotten universal background checks in place the next step is to scientifically examine the type of gun violence that occurs here in the US. I spent some time doing this and found out that in a typical year in the United States there are about 35,000 gun deaths. Of these deaths, Suicide represents about 65%. In our hypothetical year that would be 22,750 suicides by firearm. I absolutely do not wish to denigrate the tragedy this represents in any way whatsoever. However for the purposes of gun safety suicide is a personal choice, so for the moment I’ll set this number aside. This leaves us with 12,250 firearm deaths from Murder and Non-Negligent Manslaughter, and Accidents. According to the LA Times, in 2015 accidents made up 1.3% of total US shooting deaths. In our hypothetical year that would mean 455 accidental deaths. So as not to be guilty of under-reporting, or be accused of bias, I’m going to round that number up to 500 deaths. We now have 11,750 Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters in our typical year. Extrapolating from the FBI “Expanded Homicide Data Table 8” from 2014 I was able to figure that of the Murders committed with a known firearm in 2014, about 91.5% were committed with a hand gun. In order to avoid sensationalism, and statistical anomalies, let’s reduce that by 5% and say that only 86.5% were committed with a handgun in our hypothetical year. Of the 11,750 hypothetical Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters, that would mean that 10,164 were committed with handguns. Since this is a hypothetical year we can say that ALL of the remaining Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters were committed with assault rifles. That’s 1,586 deaths. Even if we had banned and confiscated all assault weapons at the beginning of our hypothetical year there would still have been well over 10,000 intentional killings with hand guns.
If my numbers are even remotely accurate then “assault weapons” are not the problem. Handguns ARE the problem. To have any chance of meaningfully reducing gun deaths in the US we’re obliged to return to personal responsibility and accountability. Responsible gun owners like me will hopefully recognize that if we fail to act, if we fail guard against malice and evil intent, then we must hold our own selves at least partially accountable for each and every handgun death here in these United States. I’ll try to say it in a way that will hopefully resonate with folks like myself. “If you’re a sheep dog, and the wolves come into the fold, and you do nothing, and the wolves kill the sheep, you’re a failure. At best.” If you consider yourself a responsible gun owner, doing nothing is not an option. What we need to make a difference is federal registration of handguns.
The combination of universal background checks and federal handgun registration will establish where responsibility lies. When a hand gun is used in a crime, law enforcement will be able to know who that hand gun came from. When ownership of a registered hand gun is transferred to a buyer who has passed a background check, law enforcement will be able to see this. This will put the responsibility for the lawful use of those hand guns where it belongs; squarely on the shoulders of the owners. If we fail to act in a legal or responsible manner, we should be held accountable.
The combination of universal background checks and hand gun registration obviates the argument “What about the criminals? They’re not gonna register their guns!”. That’s right; criminals won’t register their guns. What this does is close the loopholes that allow criminals to get guns in the first place. There will still be large numbers of illegal guns in criminal hands in the US. There will still be people willing to take the risk and provide guns to criminals for profit. We cannot legislate human nature, only behavior. What registration and background checks will do is increase the cost of illegal guns, increase the risk of selling illegal guns, and increase the penalty for selling guns to criminals. The effect will likely not be immediate. However as time passes guns will break, be lost, confiscated, taken into evidence or bought back. Replacements will be expensive and the overall number of weapons in criminal hands will decrease. Universal background checks mean that even if criminals would seek to purchase rifles or shotguns to replace the lost handguns they will not be able to do so from any law abiding source. This is the beginning of gun owners taking responsibility for themselves.
230 years ago Alexander Hamilton wrote “If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens”. Since the writing of The Federalist Papers much has changed. We are now, as a nation, possessed of what is probably the most formidable standing army in the world. This is why I believe that if we are able to achieve universal background checks and handgun registration, we must do it in a manner which shows respect to the sovereignty of the people, and respect to the Constitution of the United States in which that sovereignty is enshrined. This is why I propose that during the period in which hand guns are federally registered, and for a period of five years after the last date of federal handgun registration, there shall be no federal registration of long guns, whether rifles or shotguns.
Again, this is from a purely pragmatic point of view. Going by the numbers, long guns are responsible for less than 10% of Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters in a typical year. Additionally, most sensible gun owners will agree that if our democracy should ever become so compromised as to require active battle with the federal government a rifle is the only practical individual battle weapon. By registering our hand guns, we enter into an agreement with the government. We agree to recognize our responsibility to our fellow-citizens, and the government agrees to recognize our right to defend our own rights, and the rights of our fellow-citizens. The period of five years after handgun registration ends, and before registration of long guns could take place, is included to reassure people like myself (who generally don’t trust politicians) that no “bait & switch” is intended. By allowing the owners of long guns to remain federally anonymous, good faith on the part of the government is demonstrated.
In order to make this possible, we need to have a good definition of what constitutes a handgun, and what constitutes a long gun. Currently the BATFE has, quite frankly, ridiculous categories for what a particular firearm is. The categories aren’t simple or intuitive. They’re at least partially based on racial, and social prejudice. They certainly aren’t based on reason, and make little or no difference to public safety. They make it difficult for legal, responsible gun owners who are trying to comply with the law to do so. Categories such as Any Other Weapon, Short Barreled Rifle, Destructive Device, Curios and Relics, and Short Barreled Shotguns don’t signify much to the average person, with good reason. None of these categories has much to do with how dangerous a weapon is, if it’s concealable, or how much ammunition it holds. They’re an expensive, byzantine, bureaucratic maze that does very little to prevent the flow of firearms to criminals and serves small purpose other than making it expensive, slow and complicated for law abiding citizens to comply with the law.
To remedy this I suggest a common sense law which designates a firearm as a “long gun” or “hand gun” based on overall length. This would take a big paperwork burden off gun owners who are trying to comply. It would help widespread understanding of the law, encourage enforcement and make enforcement simpler. By setting a length of 29.875 inches as the threshold it would be clear to the least savvy deputy what a “hand gun” is, and what a “long gun” is. Firearms would be classified with all removable accessories removed, and all non removable accessories in the most compact (shortest) position. Firearms equal to or less than 29.875 inches would be a “hand gun”. Firearms greater than 29.875 inches would be a “long gun”. It would also remove a large paperwork burden from the BATFE, and maybe make more agents available for enforcement of firearms law.
I realize this is getting a bit technical for folks who aren’t really up on this kind of stuff. It’s a bit esoteric if you’re not already familiar with it, even for average gun owners. Keep in mind, this is just what I would do if I had a magic wand. There are certain points of the hand gun/long gun part which would need to be hashed out, and certain bits of existing distinctions which would be kept in place. Without getting really technical, I think this is at least a good starting point for debate. I hope it’s obvious that clarification and simplification of existing gun laws is the object.
So now, we’ve managed to make sure no firearms are sold without a background check, managed to figure out what a hand gun legally is, managed to register those hand guns, and managed to make compliance with, and enforcement of the law simpler for everyone. Now we need to take steps to make sure that the funds are available so that those laws can be effectively enforced. We need to make sure that information failures like Parkland, Florida and Sutherland Springs, Texas never happen again. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, is already in place. It has a major failing though. While most background checks take less than a couple hours, sometimes they take longer. If the FBI fails to complete the check within 3 days THE PURCHASE MAY BE COMPLETED ANYWAY. This is grossly irresponsible. There is no other way to say it. If I were to find out that through government negligence due to an uncompleted background check one of my family members were hurt or killed, I don’t even know what I’d do. It’s time for this kind of negligence to end. That doesn't mean I want to see open ended background checks that could take an indefinite amount of time at the whim of a biased bureaucrat, or could be put on hold depending on the view of whatever party happens to be in power at the moment. I propose that all background checks be COMPLETED within 5 business days. Not “It’s 5 days later and we still don’t know, so here’s your gun” background checks; real, COMPLETE background checks.
To that end I suggest that all money received as fees for background checks be put in a trust to improve and maintain NICS and the new hand gun registry so that background checks are able to be truly completed within 5 business days. When that goal is met, the money would continue to be used to upgrade the system infrastructure, to hire more staff, and to increase the system efficiency so that background checks can be fully completed within 3 business days. Money received after this goal has been reached would split between increased inter and intra-agency information sharing (I’m looking at you FBI), shooting sports like the US Biathlon Team and 10m Air Rifle, and funding civilian firearms education programs like hunter safety. In a country with more guns than cars it’s important to educate our kids and ourselves about firearm safety, regardless of your personal stance on guns.
Last, but not least, I would have it written into federal law that if a citizen of the United States, who is capable of passing a background check to purchase a firearm, wishes to carry that weapon, open or concealed, they be allowed to do so without undue burden or interference. By this I mean that states, counties, municipalities, parishes, etc… would be obliged to issue permits to own and or carry hand guns to citizens who meet the the criteria. So as not to step on too many states’ toes, and to encourage greater knowledge and safety among gun owners I would say that up to 30 hours of training could be required, and that the applicant could be required to demonstrate safety and proficiency with the firearm. To protect applicants’ rights, and to ensure that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed, I would say that the applicant could have up to 6 months to complete the training, that the cost of the training and application should not be prohibitive, and that the safety and proficiency requirement is not more difficult than the annual pistol qualification for police officers in the county where the applicant lives. This might even have the side benefit of making our police officers more proficient with their service weapons. So ends six simple suggestions which I hope people of goodwill can agree on.
The ideas and suggestions I’ve put forth are just that; ideas and suggestions. There’s obviously no definitive “right way” to solve gun violence here in the US. But we have to own up to the fact that gun violence IS here in the United States, and the lack of a perfect solution doesn’t absolve us from trying to find a BETTER solution. Even if my ideas are lousy, even if my ideas only accomplish a quarter of what I believe is possible and likely, that would mean 1,800 more American citizens will live to see their next birthday. I believe that if these ideas were put into place right now, at the end of February 2018, that by Christmas of 2019 we would have saved more Americans than perished in the attacks on the World Trade Center, AND THAT WE WOULD CONTINUE TO SAVE AMERICAN LIVES FOR YEARS TO COME. All this can be accomplished, period. It begins with taking personal responsibility, and enacting common sense, non-partisan gun laws for the benefit American citizens as a whole.`
*Yeah, I know. Voltaire. Spiderman is more famous; in America anyway.
Though the numbers I use are hypothetical, they are based solidly in fact. There will certainly be argument and debate as to their accuracy. I welcome people of good faith to present numbers from reputable sources. I’m hoping to effect positive change and solid data is a key component of a pragmatic, non-partisan solution.