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Assault This

Even the not-so-liberal-anymore Washington Post editorial page wants the assault weapons ban renewed. A couple of salient points their pitch makes is that criminals almost never use weapons of this sort (they're relatively big and expensive; crooks don't actually fight pitched fire-fights in the streets where this sort of thing would be useful) or that the point of the second amendment is to protect the right to "military-style" weapons, it's not some kind of hunter protection act.

The crux of the issue, however, is this. "Assault weapon" does not denote a natural kind. There is not, in other words, some clear definition of what is and is not an assault weapon by which we can tell whether or not some novel firearm fits the criteria. Instead, the ban is on a fairly ad hoc collection of firearms. This has the benefit of maintaining the legality of a variety of widely used long guns, but it comes at the cost of making the ban entirely pointless. Slight alterations to banned guns rendered them legal, or people can substitute a similar, but legal, model for a banned one. The Post takes this on thusly:

Opponents of the ban have still other absurd arguments for dropping the law. They say that the federal ban applies to only 19 weapons by name, and that copies are still out on the market; true, and all the more reason to improve the bill, not scrap it. As it stands, the federal law provides specific protection to 670 types of hunting rifles and shotguns currently being manufactured. Won't that do?
This "mend it, don't end it" line would make sense were there a good proposal on the table for mending it. But there isn't. Instead, ban advocates have a series of further ad hoc revisions they'd like to make. This will simply set off a new round of evasions and a new round of calls for further ad hoc extensions of the ban. This is the sort of dynamic that makes gun owners fear that every piece of regulation is putting us on a slippery-slope to confiscation -- the advocates insist that if the law is ineffective it should be tightened, but don't have any operational definition of "assault weapon" that they're working with other than "weapon that we think it's politically feasible to ban." Under the circumstances, people who take gun rights seriously feel the need to defend at every turn, because would-be banners are indicating a desire to ban every gun they can get away with.

Fundamentally, crime control would be much better served by stepping away from this sensational, but ultimately unimportant, corner of the gun regulation universe. The main bit of federal gun regulation right now is aimed at the notion that there are certain classes of persons -- in particular, convicted felons -- who should not be allowed to own firearms. The logic behind this is very clear. At the end of the day, I'd feel much safer standing next to a law-abiding citizens carrying an assault weapon than to a recently recently felon holding some other more menacing sort of gun. If you keep "assault weapons," and pistols, and hunting rifles, and whatever other kind of firearm you care to name out of the hands of criminals, you'll have accomplished the vast majority of what gun regulation can achieve on the crime control front. (Probably not a great deal, incidentally, but that's another story). Now current federal policy in this area is far from perfect, but unlike the assault weapons ban, what we have right now really does point the way toward a better solution. If gun owners had assurance that liberals are trying to establish a gun registry so that we can keep track of guns so that we can stop felons from buying them rather than trying to keep track of guns so that we can know where to find them in your house when we finally get enough votes for that nationwide gun ban, then it would become a lot more politically feasible to improve current policy.

Last but by no means least, gun control is bad politics and, at best, middling policy. The nation's crime problem should not be dismissed lightly, but compared to other problems we face, it simply isn't that big a deal. If you had to trade making zero progress on crime control in exchange for making progress on health care and education, you'd be crazy not to take the deal. And what's more, there are lots of ways to make progress on crime control (the easiest step would be better drug treatment and supervision of parolees) that have nothing to do with gun regulation. The Post's use of the term "weapons of destruction" to describe the prohibited firearms, meanwhile, is a piece of silly rhetoric worthy of the Bush administration and not of a great newspaper; one that directly recalls the president's newfound concern about Saddam's "weapons of mass murder." In Rwanda they killed an awful lot of people with farm implements; that such things can "destroy" and wreak "mass murder" is neither here nor there from the point of view of designing a regulatory regime.

July 19, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

There is an enormous amount of distrust on this issue, mostly working against Democrats (the single issue voters, and cultural voters tend to be (R)s).
I care very little either way on this, but my preferred soultion would be registration of firearms (perhaps favoring some modern technical requirements that would make law enforcement easier).
I proposed to a smart, reasonable, pro gun guy, that we work on reaffirming the 2nd amendment -to guarantee and clarify exactly what the right to bear arms means, and that they should be registered at the federal level. It seesm like a win-win to me ( I have no plans on banning all guns), and gun owners would get a clarification of a contentious amendment [that they may eventually lose completely), but it was a complete non-starter. There was no trust at all, which seemed odd to me (obviously his side would have the ability to craft language he favored because the votes for a constitutional amemdments has tremendous requirements.
Currently, I think it works, slightly, in Republicans favor, but I imagine the rural vote is decreasing about as quickly as any demographic, and that might not always be the case.

"To them I say, 'Look at all this venison'".

Posted by: theCoach | Jul 19, 2004 9:19:39 AM

"The nation's crime problem should not be dismissed lightly, but compared to other problems we face, it simply isn't that big a deal. If you had to trade making zero progress on crime control in exchange for making progress on health care and education, you'd be crazy not to take the deal."

Matthew, you make it sound as if those two problems are not connected. I'd take a guess that better education would lead to crime reduction (not much of a guess, frankly.)

The next step to better crime prevention is less emphasis on punishment and more on enforcement. Read Mark Kleiman for this, but the essential point is that the chance of getting caught at something is much more important for deterrence than is the amount of time one spends in jail.

Posted by: Joel W | Jul 19, 2004 9:44:27 AM

I thought there was, in fact, a definition of "assault weapons" as those that fired or could be made to fire in full automatic mode, such as machine guns or submachine guns.

Posted by: Cameron | Jul 19, 2004 10:23:30 AM

Our entire drug policy is built on the same slippery-slope of definition, where a word means what they want it to mean.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 19, 2004 10:27:09 AM

Full-auto weapons were already illegal. The only new functional, as opposed to aesthetic, quality that characterized an "assault weapon" was magazine capacity. Features like magazine capacity and features that contribute to concealability, such as folding stocks and barrel length, are worth addressing, but I have to agree that this is pretty small potatoes either way.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jul 19, 2004 10:50:51 AM

There's no trust in Federal registration because everywhere it's been tried it was sold the same way and it ultimately ended up as confiscation.

Americans can't be blamed for Australia and Britain and Canada's mishandling of this, but there's just no way you can sell it and not get pinned as gun-grabbers.

Matt's right--bag it.

Posted by: spongeworthy | Jul 19, 2004 10:58:09 AM

Joel, no shit. Matt is smart, so I assume he knows, as I know, that education and health-care (espeically mental health care would do a lot of good in the crime departmetn.) That's why going after these goals makes so much more sense than wasting time scaring rural voters over gun-control.

Posted by: A_Steele | Jul 19, 2004 11:01:30 AM

Under the circumstances, people who take gun rights seriously feel the need to defend at every turn, because would-be banners are indicating a desire to ban every gun they can get away with.

Again, there is no national group (or any legitimate local organization) that has called for anything approaching a total gun ban. It's a fiction advanced by the gun lobby.

If you had to trade making zero progress on crime control in exchange for making progress on health care and education, you'd be crazy not to take the deal.

It's a false choice. Do you seriously believe allowing unfettered access to any kind of firearm will lead to progress in healthcare and education?

Yes, there are other crime control initiatives that should be pursued. Yes, crime is largely a function of the economy. But let's not pretend anyone has a legitimate need for a .50 cal weapon.

Posted by: Jadegold | Jul 19, 2004 11:06:04 AM

"A couple of salient points their pitch makes is that criminals almost never use weapons of this sort [...] or that the point of the second amendment is to protect the right to 'military-style' weapons, it's not some kind of hunter protection act."

I can't tell how the second part of this sentence relates to the first part, and therefore I can't tell what this sentence is intended to say.

Otherwise, I agree with you.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Jul 19, 2004 11:16:06 AM

If you had to trade making zero progress on crime control in exchange for making progress on health care and education, you'd be crazy not to take the deal.

It's a false choice. Do you seriously believe allowing unfettered access to any kind of firearm will lead to progress in healthcare and education?

I thought false dichotomies were all the rage these days? with us/against us;word of madman/defend america

Posted by: en vogue | Jul 19, 2004 11:18:11 AM

"It's a false choice. Do you seriously believe allowing unfettered access to any kind of firearm will lead to progress in healthcare and education?"

Actually, no, it's not a false choice. Obviously, no one is saying that progress on health care will appear magically if the Democrats unilaterally repeal all the gun laws. That's a straw man if I ever saw one. Rather, it's a question of political capital allocation, knowing how to play your bargaining chips, and so forth.

Posted by: JP | Jul 19, 2004 11:28:21 AM

Rather, it's a question of political capital allocation, knowing how to play your bargaining chips, and so forth

Let's see; you acknowledge progress on healthcare and education won't magically appear but you're willing to accept a certain increase in gun violence in the hope it might?

Posted by: Jadegold | Jul 19, 2004 11:36:13 AM

From above:

"It's a false choice. Do you seriously believe allowing unfettered access to any kind of firearm will lead to progress in healthcare and education?"

Actually, no, it's not a false choice. Obviously, no one is saying that progress on health care will appear magically if the Democrats unilaterally repeal all the gun laws. That's a straw man if I ever saw one. Rather, it's a question of political capital allocation, knowing how to play your bargaining chips, and so forth.

Continued:
The point being that if Democrats can win Congressional seats in states that would otherwise go Republican by giving up on gun control then progress on health care and education is more likely.

Whether people who vote Republican on this basis would switch if they were given their way on gun control is another matter. Hypothesis no fingo.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg | Jul 19, 2004 11:46:03 AM

"my preferred soultion would be registration of firearms"

Could someone propose a mechanism where this solution would do something useful? Feel free to explicitly define what you may mean by 'useful'.

Posted by: John | Jul 19, 2004 12:09:08 PM

Well, sure but there's more to it than that. The fact is that the Democratic Party has a limited amount of resources, whether we're talking about time, money, airwaves, message emphasis, or simple goodwill. Congressmen can either spend their time lobbying for health care or lobbying for gun control, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and there are only a certain number of issues on which people in certain districts can take politically vulnerable stands. We can either prioritize issues like health care and education that help more people *and* result in zero political blowback *and* have positive spillover effects on crime control. Or we can prioritize gun control, which helps fewer people and results in a whole lot of political blowback, which ends up having negative spillover effects on health care and education, and all just because we want to take a self-righteous aesthetic/moralistic stand on whether people "need" a .50 cal or a tek-9 or whatever. So yes, it is a false choice - in real life, there's always a tradeoff.

Posted by: JP | Jul 19, 2004 12:16:51 PM

It's not an either-or situation, JP. I understand and appreciate what you're trying to say--but let's not pretend that nobody cares about gun control. I think you're also ignoring the many negative externalities that will certainly come about because of increased gun violence such as increased healthcare costs, greater need for security, lost wages and productivity, etc.

Posted by: Jadegold | Jul 19, 2004 12:43:51 PM

I was wondering about Jadegold's "certain increase" in gun violence with weaker gun laws. One can argue whether weaker guns laws decrease gun violence or are neutral, but I haven't seen any data that supports a certain increase.

I also have to agree with Mr. Farber that your lead paragraph is very confusing. The Washington Post's pitch for renewing the ban contains points that support the "it's useless" point of view?

Also, did you mean to writeAt the end of the day, I'd feel much safer standing next to a law-abiding citizens carrying an assault weapon than to a recently recently felon holding some other more menacing sort of gun.instead of "less" menacing?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy | Jul 19, 2004 12:48:13 PM

"Again, there is no national group (or any legitimate local organization) that has called for anything approaching a total gun ban. It's a fiction advanced by the gun lobby."

Do I really have to pull out that tattered list of quotes from figures in the gun control movement, where they in moments of unusual candor admit that that IS what they want to do? Sorry, nobody is buying it. The reason we have no trust for gun controllers, is that they have a history. They've EARNED our distrust.

I will tell you how you could make that claim of moderation plausible:

1. Stop denying that the 2nd amendment guarantees an individual civil right to own firearms. And pressure the ACLU to stop lying about it. The only POINT to denying that it's a civil right, is to clear the way for violating that right.

2. Publicly declare that gun control has gone too far in some jurisdictions, and needs to be rolled back in places like the District of Columbia, NYC, Chicago. You can't expect us to believe you don't want 'em all banned, if you don't OBJECT to their all being banned.

3. Apply rational cost-benefit analysis to proposals like gun registration and ballistic databases. And, yeah, inconveniencing gun owners counts as a "cost".

Finally,

4. Keep it up through at least two or three election cycles, because we'd be fools to believe you right away, given how long you've been attacking us over this.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jul 19, 2004 1:03:49 PM

Brett:

I could care less what NRA propaganda you wish to dredge up saying all these groups want to pry guns from cold, dead fingers. They are lying.

If anyone has earned distrust--it is groups like the NRA who have resorted to lies and misrepresentations. John Lott, anyone? How about Ted Fiddleman?

As to Point One; why should we say the 2A says something the courts say it doesn't? Why has the NRA (or any other like-minded group) never challenged any gun control law on the basis of its 2A constitutionality? The answer's pretty apparent.

Point 2: again, why concede something that isn't true?

Point 3: what nonsense. WRT ballistic fingerprinting--how do you do a B/C analysis on the basis of possibly solving or not solving one crime? Registration isn't as important as ensuring gunowners are legally eligible, trained, physically/mentally capable of safely handling firearms.

Point 4: Polls

Posted by: Jadegold | Jul 19, 2004 1:17:37 PM

Patrick Purdy, on Jan 17 1989 shot up a elementary school in Stocton Ca with an AK47.
This is what drives mom's balistic over assault weapons. No flames, please, as I like guns, hell, even flame thowers and RPGs.
As the lawyers say, bad cases make bad laws.

Posted by: dilbert dogbert | Jul 19, 2004 1:23:20 PM

Woops - did I say "it is a false choice" at the end of that last comment? Edit: that should read "it isn't a false choice."

"I think you're also ignoring the many negative externalities that will certainly come about because of increased gun violence such as increased healthcare costs, greater need for security, lost wages and productivity, etc."

Well, I see your point here as well, but this just gets us back to the empirical question of whether gun control actually reduces gun violence (or more precisely, whether certain forms of gun control actually reduce gun violence), which was MY's original point. I'm definitely all for sensible antigun legislation, but limiting this debate to the assault weapons ban specifically, that particular measure doesn't really seem to work very well in stopping actual gun crime (and is also the one that carries the highest political costs).

Posted by: JP | Jul 19, 2004 1:28:20 PM

Annoying OG (not Original Gangsta):

Let's look at the worst case (or depending on your perspective--best case) scenario: assume that anyone could purchase whatever kind of firearm they pleased--with no restriction or prohibition whatsoever.

Currently, we have a system very close to this scenario. The major differences are that it is prohibitively difficult to obtain certain types of firearms and there are some roadblocks (FFL dealerships, other regs) to make obtaining other firearms, in terms of makes and quantities. As a result, we have a certain amount of gun-related crime. Please note I'm not attributing all gun crime solely to firearm availability; as I noted earlier, crime is largely a function of the economy.

Now, let's assume we remove any and all restrictions to obtaining firearms. Further, we remove any barrier to what types of firearms can be sold. Do you not believe there would be a certain rise in gun-related crime?

Posted by: Jadegold | Jul 19, 2004 1:28:47 PM

When Feinstein or Sugarman say that they'd ban 'em all if they had the power, it's hardly NRA propaganda.

Point one: You're still lying about it. This obviously isn't going to be easy.

Why hasn't the NRA challenged a gun control law on the basis of the 2nd amendment? We HAVE. And we learned something: For over 60 years now, the Supreme court has refused certiori without comment to every case where the 2nd amendment was raised as an issue. Every last one, without exception. They've boycotting 10% of the Bill of Rights for most of a century!

The NRA's response has been to, quite successfully, challenge gun control laws on every other basis, and to leave it to groups like the GOA to keep testing to see if the Supreme court is ready to pull it's fingers out of it's ears. I'm not entirely happy with this myself, but it's not irrational, and ABSOLUTELY not due to any doubt about the 2nd amendment guaranteeing a civil right.

2. If you don't think gun control has gone too far in D.C., then you DO want to ban 'em all. And any chance of compromise is non-existant. It's as simple as that. We'll start a civil war before we let you extend the rules in D.C. to the entire country.

See: What it boils down to is that you ARE the enemy of gun owners, too many of you. You'll have to change the reality, before you've got any hope of changing the perception.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jul 19, 2004 1:36:32 PM

Could someone propose a mechanism where this solution would do something useful? Feel free to explicitly define what you may mean by 'useful'.

useful - limits the ability for guns to be used in crime.

Registration could create a database of guns, and would provide a much better mechanism for enforcement of current gun control laws - selling guns to people we do not want to have them. For example, it could be a requirement that, if you sell a gun, you must file the registration number of the person who purchased the gun. Legitimate gun dealers and owners would be inconveinienced mildly. Enforcement and prosecution of less upstanding sellers or owners would be much easier.
A database of guns and the characteristic marks they make on slugs could be cataloged, and a found bullet could be searched for in the database, anrrowing searches and making the use of a gun in crime more difficult. Obviously, criminals can tamper with guns barrel, but that would be a legitimate crime and people found to be in possesion of a tampered gun would be prosecuted, one more arsenal in enforcement.

I mentioned that I also favor technological solutions, and it would also help with those, althought the time horizon for when it would become practical should be measured in decades.

Brett,
Would you be interested in a new Constitutional ammendment that reaffirmed the right to own guns, clarified what was no permitted (nuclear arms for one), and provided a clause permitting government registration?
It seems to me, that for a variety of reasons the 2nd ammendment is muddled, both sides can make cases, and you have no better chance than a clarifying ammendment with which gun right supports would only need 34% to veto + the gun rights side has a strange electoral advantage by over-representing rural states.
Otherwise, it would just take a few justices and the muddled, out-dated language of the 2nd to take away or seriously over regulate guns. Like, I said, I do not really care that much one way or the other (except I think your side gains a slight electoral advantage now, that it will probably start to lose, eventually badly in the future, propogating useless mean spirited campaigning on mostly irrelevant issues.) But it would seem like a good deal for your side. What do you think?

Posted by: theCoach | Jul 19, 2004 1:43:07 PM

Almost no Al-Qaeda members ever hijack airplanes and fly them into skyscrapers.

Posted by: pbg | Jul 19, 2004 1:58:05 PM

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