President Obama is right to insist that Congress move quickly on new gun control legislation, and to reject the idea of appointing yet another commission to ruminate. In our attention-deficit-afflicted society, the president knows he must move on gun control while Americans are still anguished about last Friday’s slaughter in Newtown, CT. He must also know that the odds against his winning anything of real substance are enormous.
Directing the vice president to head up an interagency effort to prevent future mass shootings, Obama reiterated his support for a new assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines. But the White House will make a terrible mistake if it follows the course proposed by leading proponents of the assault weapons ban and fails to address the fact that there are already millions of these guns in private hands. The assault weapons ban signed into law by President Clinton was riddled with loopholes and had little, if any, impact on the overall number of gun homicides. Since it expired in 2004, millions of these firearms have entered the marketplace.
One solution to this problem would be to bring assault weapons — semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity clips — under the National Firearms Act. The 1934 NFA, the nation’s first major gun law, was designed to deal with what were then considered the country’s most lethal firearms, machine guns or fully automatic weapons. A response to gangland shootings — such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — and an attempt to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the law established strict limits on the sale and ownership of fully automatic weapons.
Today, it is still possible to buy a machine gun, but only if you’re willing to register the gun’s serial number with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), undergo an FBI background check, be fingerprinted and photographed, and get the approval of a local law enforcement official. That last provision is an added check, allowing a local police chief or sheriff to deny a permit to your drunken wife- and dog-beating next-door neighbor.
In effect, this 78-year-old law says to would-be owners of the most dangerous weapons, “You have a right to own a gun, but you don’t get to decide when, where, and how it can be used. Being a responsible gun owner means understanding that there are limits.” Those same standards should be applied to existing owners of semi-automatic assault rifles, which are no less lethal than the machine guns covered by the NFA, particularly given the deadly power of modern ammunition.
There is, as the president has noted, no single solution to the problem of gun violence. What’s needed is a series of common-sense laws that will make life more difficult for criminals with no impact whatsoever on the Constitutional freedoms of law-abiding citizens.
In addition to placing existing assault weapons under the NFA, here are eight necessary reforms your representatives and senators should demand. Not surprisingly, the NRA opposes all of them:
1. Require background checks for all gun sales. The president has already indicated that he favors such a requirement. But the devil’s in the details: the key word here is “all.” The president wants checks for sales at gun shows, a major source of guns used in crimes. But “all” should also include any secondary sale. Under current law, only the initial purchaser of a firearm needs a Brady check. When the first buyer sells to a second person who sells to a third and so on, there is no Brady check.
2. Allow cross-referencing of Brady checks. Federal law allows an individual to purchase one handgun a week — or as many as you want, if you’re willing to be written up in a “multiple purchase” report. (More on that loophole below.) But if I’m a straw buyer — someone with a clean record who purchases firearms for a felon — I can buy 20 handguns from 20 separate dealers on a single day, and the FBI has no way of detecting that pattern. Why? Because the FBI isn’t allowed to cross-check Brady background checks. Similarly, if the straw buyer purchases one handgun a week for 20 weeks for his trafficker friend, the FBI can’t detect that pattern either — because its own records will have been destroyed under something known as the 24-hour rule.