Beyond Assault Weapons: How Washington Can Begin To Stop The Killing
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.
3. Eliminate the 24-hour rule. Under current law, written by the NRA, the FBI must destroy Brady background checks within 24 hours. So, when gun dealers sell guns to straw buyers, or mistakenly sell guns to felons and other “prohibited” buyers — fugitives from justice, domestic abusers, and so on — the FBI has a mere 24 hours to figure that out. In effect, the FBI is forced to destroy evidence of a crime. That’s bad enough. But the felon also gets a stay-out-of-jail pass.
4. Create a single, permanent database of gun sales. The NRA hates databases because it believes the United States is on the brink of becoming a Soviet-style police state. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has in fact predicted that President Obama will “excise” the Second Amendment from the Constitution before the end of his second term. But most Americans are about as worried about the U.S. becoming a dictatorship as they are about the world ending this week based on a misreading of the Mayan calendar. Most of us also think the government should have the power to track down criminal gun users. Today, that’s much more difficult than it ought to be, because the NRA convinced Congress that records of gun sales are best retained by the nation’s 60,000 licensed gun sellers at 60,000 separate locations. If you’re truly interested in catching criminals — and criminal gun dealers — this makes no sense.
5. Make gun trafficking a felony. There is currently no federal law against gun trafficking.
6. Mandate reporting of lost and stolen firearms within 24 to 48 hours. The NRA has been fighting these laws all over the country because they directly affect gun dealers who make millions of dollars selling guns to criminals, which they later report as “lost.” Fully 78 percent of NRA members said they supported this requirement, according to a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Car dealers know when a car is missing from the lot, and they report it to the police; gun dealers should also be accountable for their inventories.
7. Mandate reporting of all multiple gun purchases. Current law requires dealers to file a report with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms every time a buyer purchases more than one handgun during a five-day period. President Obama used his regulatory powers to mandate similar reporting for long guns of greater than .22 caliber in four Southwest border states, an effort designed to impede the flow of high-powered assault rifles to Mexican drug cartels. These “multiple purchase reports” are one of the most useful tools investigators have for identifying gun traffickers. The NRA has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to stop the long-gun reporting requirement in federal courts. Obama should extend the reporting requirement to the other 46 states.
8. Appoint and confirm a new BATF director. The BATF, the federal agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws, has been without a director since the George W. Bush administration because of NRA objections. Obama needs to appoint someone who will stand up to the NRA and demand new authority to go after dealers who sell to criminals.
Clearly, much more needs to be done than renewing the assault-weapons ban. “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world,” the president said in Newtown. True enough – but he needs to think big and present a detailed, comprehensive package that makes clear just how weak existing gun laws really are, and how they contribute to the daily mayhem we as a society have come to tolerate.
Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak