Despite the long trending decline in overall violent crime in America, including gun violence, we continue to be fed a steady stream of shooting incidents via the media. Some barely register, others hit home far too well. Gun Control Activists (GCA) press hard after every such event to “Do Something”, while Gun Rights Activists (GRA) continue to enjoy the further expansion of rights since the Heller and McDonald decisions came down, and move forward across multiple judicial and legislative fronts. The inversion of fortunes for each group over the past 20 years could not be more stark. I pick that time frame for a reason, because a little over 20 years ago, GCAs won a major victory with the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. Unfortunately, it was an over-reach that has cost them a lot, as it motivated many gun owners who had generally stayed out of it to get involved. That said, I’m not actually interested in reviewing history, but rather, I want to look at what GCAs are doing poorly and what I think they could do to achieve realistic and beneficial goals in America.
(Also, I am intentionally not addressing the many faults of GRAs/the NRA/etc. I’m not interested in a game of Both Sides Suck, just take it as a given).
It’s Time To Shift Gears
For the bulk of the GCAs history, firearm ownership was not really considered a Right. They held, and largely still do, that it is a collective right and thus the government can regulate it heavily, to the point of making it practically impossible for a private citizen to own a firearm. Heller and McDonald have, for the most part, dashed that view on the rocks. This is the current legal framework, one the lower courts are beginning to apply consistently, and absent a Supreme Court decision overturning them (unlikely given how rarely the Supreme Court turns on its heel like that), or a Constitutional Amendment, they stand. GCAs should, first and foremost, accept and internalize this reality, and stop carrying on about how it is something different, or how it was wrongly decided, as if that somehow lends legitimacy to their view of firearms.1
It’s an individual right, work from within that context, because the GRAs certainly are. The fact that it is an individual right does not eliminate all options, but it does mean one has to look at their options differently. Which leads me to…
Be Honest About What The Goals Are
If the honest goal is the end of private ownership of firearms, then you have a seriously uphill battle before you. Start working on that Constitutional Amendment now. However, if the honest goal is a significant reduction in firearm injuries and deaths, then there are things that can be done. I will lay out some ideas below, but be warned…
Your Standard Ideas Aren’t Cutting It
There are many proven ways to reduce firearms violence that do not involve severe restrictions or bans on private ownership of arms. The more severe the regulation, restriction, or ban, the more it will chafe the population affected and the more readily that population will work to find a way around it, either legally or illegally. California has some of the strictest firearms regulation in the country, and yet it didn’t stop the San Bernardino shooters, or Elliot Rodger, or any of the other shootings that happen in California on an almost daily basis. This isn’t to say there should not be any regulation, but if the desired effect is not being achieved, perhaps it’s time to review those regulations and try something else. Similarly with regard to ideas like microstamping or smart guns. It’s a waste of time and resources. Look at what ACTUALLY works, instead of what you want to believe works because it aligns with your ideological preferences. Which brings me to…
Stop Vilifying Gun Owners
I know that psychologically it feels good to pretend the other side are monsters, but it’s counterproductive. Making blanket claims that Gun Owners/GRAs who oppose your ideas have low intelligence, small penises, or other deviant predilections, even if it includes a disclaimer about how not all gun owners are like this, is going to hurt the cause.2 You may never get the cooperation of the hardcore GRAs, but you can reach gun owners and their allies who are more open to the idea, but not if you are busy insulting them. My wife may not want much to do with firearms, but she damn sure wants even less to do with a person who acts as if I’m a bad guy because I support private ownership. Those kinds of deep insults don’t just land on owners, but also on the people who love them or call them friends. I have spent a lot of time in the past teaching people how to shoot firearms safely, and all those people had a great time learning, had a lot of fun, and to the best of my knowledge, think very well of me for it. How many of them will feel inclined to support a movement that unfairly insults a person they regard well?
As an added benefit, they will (hopefully) be less inclined to waste time pushing regulations that serve as little more than a legislative middle finger to gun owners.
This is something of a sideline, because I know not every GCA Group holds this, but the overall goal/cause could be helped a lot if the GCA movement was more positive/pro-active toward enabling the right of self-defense. You’ll see why below.
So What Can Be Done? – Talking About Firearm Owners
In thinking about what we could do that would work, I try to balance the concerns of firearm owners against the desire to reduce violence, specifically firearm violence (because, if I am perfectly honest, the only legitimate concern with regard to firearms is their potential for unjust or accidental violence). So to start, what do I feel are the realistic concerns of firearm owners?
- Confiscation – Even if not done wholesale, there are plenty of examples of states deciding that a particular feature, model, or class of firearm is to be made illegal for political reasons*, and owners are required to surrender or destroy the now illegal item without any compensation or hope of grandfathering. It may be legal to do this, but it sucks to have it happen to you and it’s a legitimate gripe.
- *Reasons that have no substantial basis, such as dangerous to users, or somehow supporting enemy states, but rather are politically unpopular due to media attention or the tendency of criminal gangs to prefer them.
- Hostile Bureaucracy – AKA One should not have to get government permission to exercise a right, and one should not be unduly penalized for the bad acts of a minority. Again, this is a legitimate gripe. Government exists to protect rights, and thus has to get special permission to violate those rights (at least, ideally, 4th Amendment damage aside). While admittedly free speech is less immediately violent than a firearm can be, that does not suddenly change this dynamic. Regulations that are reasonable, effective, objectively applied, and not subject to the whims of elected or appointed officials are generally more tolerable. The American desire to craft Middle Finger Regs makes this all a lot harder than it needs to be.
- Public Obscuring – Related to the Hostile Bureaucracy is the trend of urban areas to treat gun shops, ranges, and clubs as just one step above strip clubs and brothels. Shops and indoor ranges are often targeted and denied permits to expand, or even conduct upgrades or repairs. Establishments with a long history are often forced out of business, or forced to move out of urban areas, despite the lack of any history of trouble; this is especially true of outdoor ranges where residential areas have grown up around them (and then subsequently complain about the noise and stray rounds). In my opinion, the Open Carry movement, whether it realizes it or not, it most likely a backlash to this trend. This public obscuring is counter to healthy and responsible gun ownership and is partly to blame for the rise in careless and reckless behavior with firearms.
There are other gripes, but they either fall into one of the three above, or it’s not something that is likely a realizable issue in any reasonable time frame.
For the purposes of this discussion, I think it will be instructive to classify non-LEO firearm owners into some categories, like so:
- Illegal Owners (Criminals and Other Prohibited Persons)
- Legal Owners
- Sport Shooters (hunters, competition shooters, etc)
- Collectors/Enthusiasts (often has overlap with Sport Shooters)
- Self-Defense (people who buy a gun for ‘reasons’ but pretty much stop there)
- Tactical Derp (consider themselves to be 1, 2, or 3, but really want to be a cop/soldier)
Some discussion; we are already doing most of what we can about illegal owners, who continue to represent the bulk of perpetrators of firearm violence, including many mass shooting events. We can pretty safely assume they are not going to follow any rules or regulations with regard to ownership once they’ve already crossed the hurdle of getting a firearm, except as those rules might align with whatever common sense they have. The laws are, for the most part, already in place, and to be honest there are, in many places, more in place than are truly needed. What we need is to stop aligning our incentives for law enforcement toward drug arrests and convictions. If the drug conviction is more valuable than the firearm conviction, then the firearm conviction is the first thing plead away and at best the law is little more than a bargaining chip, and not much of a deterrent. Likewise with bad dealers and straw purchases. The laws are there and can be effective if law enforcement wants to use them. I continue to fail to understand how the BATFE can know about a bad FFL and not be able to shut them down, given that the BATFE can revoke an FFL for something as minor as paperwork mistakes3. Incentivize law enforcement to go after gun violence, and they will. Scaling back or ending the Drug War would go far toward that. Finally, a national effort that would create some kind of standard for LEO data sharing would be a good idea. Dylan Roof should never have been able to buy a firearm legally. The failure there was not the 3 day limit for the hold, but the fact that LEOs still can’t share data effectively.
Regarding Legal Owners, for the most part, Sport Shooters and Collectors/Enthusiasts are not much of an issue. They tend to be very responsible owners, keeping the Four Rules Holy, having secure storage, etc. The biggest difference is that Collectors will enjoy having some pretty interesting weapons compared to Sport Shooters, who will have weapons appropriate to what they prefer to hunt/shoot with. Most accidents and incidents (not tied to other criminal activity) that involve firearms rarely involve one of these types of owners.
Self-Defense and Tactical Derp are the ones most likely to be reckless with a firearm, or have it used for suicide. Both groups also represent the largest growing segment of owners. There is nothing inherently wrong with either motivation, as such, but both groups suffer from the Public Obscuring of firearms. Sport Shooters and Collectors generally have well established, and very active communities that they belong to (think Rod and Gun Clubs, members only Sport Ranges, and Gun Shows). Groups 3 and 4 largely have other people on the internet. Now certainly people in these two groups can transition to groups 1 and/or 2, but that isn’t a given, and thanks to the Public Obscuring, these last two groups will likely find themselves unable to participate in these communities due to distance, or just flat-out ignorance of their existence.
The obvious benefit of such communities is experienced owners being able to offer advice, recommendations, and training to new owners, rather than having new owners taking to the internet and trying to sort out the good information from the Mall Ninja crap you find EVERYWHERE. The less obvious benefit is that it’s a community, and being part of a community can often interrupt a dangerous slide into anti-social violence. Keep this in mind, I’ll come back to it.
So What Can Be Done – Ideas
The primary mistakes of the GCA Movement has been the push to ban firearms and drive the culture out of sight. Nothing good ever comes of trying to ban things a significant percentage of the population wants, and likewise driving legal behavior out of sight tends to allow bad elements to fester. Therefore, my recommendation is to appropriate the Swiss model somewhat and pull it back into the light.
1) It’s About All Arms…
Remember that the 2nd Amendment is not about Firearms, but about Bearing Arms. Firearms just happen to be the most effective arm available. When it comes to self-defense, which is a club the GRA movement is using to beat the GCA, there is no requirement that carried arms be lethal, only that they be effective at halting an attack.
I’m going to diverge a bit here to discuss this, because this is one area where the GCA movement is right to focus on a technological solution, but is focused on the wrong solution (that being Smart Guns and Micro-Stamping, etc.). I’ve mentioned before in the comments of various threads that there is a new type of round available for firearms called the Multiple Impact Round. In brief, the round is a center body surrounded by three extension bodies that are connected to the center by high tensile line. As the round leaves the barrel, it uses the spin imparted by the barrel rifling to extend the three outer bodies, thus increasing the effective diameter from 0.45″ to 10″. The round was initially developed to improve the ability to hit a target. Obviously doing so reduces the effective range of the round, but since most self-defense situations happen at very short ranges anyway, this isn’t really that much of an issue. Currently, the manufacturer is producing rounds in three different load outs, lethal, semi-lethal, and less-than-lethal (LTL). The primary difference between them is the density of materials and the powder charge.
What got me thinking is that if the length of the connecting line could be increased, and perhaps fit the outer bodies with small hooks, you could have a tangle round. Hit an assailant with 3 or 4 of them, and chances are good they’d be either bound up, or at least tripped up enough to allow a person to escape and get help, or allow an officer to safely subdue a suspect. Carrying the line of thought further, such a round would not necessarily need an explosive charge to fire. I haven’t had time to run the numbers, but something like that could probably be fired from an airgun. Putting on a futurist hat, this is something that could be easily and cheaply manufactured, or printed at home and fitted with a CO2 cartridge (like the kind you get for pellet guns).
And this is where recognizing and accepting a right to self-defense comes in. Yes, most adults will never need to physically defend themselves from assault by a person not well-known to them. However, it happens, often enough as to be a legitimate, if remote, concern. How much of a concern is not for you, me, or anyone else to decide. It’s a personal decision and we have no right or place to judge it without first fully understanding all the variables that go into it. That said, most people don’t want to shoot or kill anyone, even if legally justified, even if facing down a rampage shooter. But in many parts of the country, especially at local levels, firearms are the only effective option legally available. Under the rationale that if people have less than lethal options (because apparently laws against assault don’t work, or something), they will be more inclined to use them inappropriately, thus the laws covering most forms of less than lethal defense have been crafted to largely ban or severely limit the bearing and use of such arms.
This is, honestly, nuts. It essentially says that the only people who are allowed to effectively defend themselves from attack are those physically fit and trained enough to employ martial arts, or those who are willing to kill. If you haven’t ever heard of On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, I recommend looking it up and reading it. Then perhaps you can understand the horrible choice these types of laws place on people. It isn’t “kill or be killed”, it’s “kill or be victimized”.
So, I recommend to the GCA movement, support the development of effective LTL methods of defense, and at the same time, work to expand the ability to own and carry such devices in as many places as possible. Once LTL devices are widely available, a good chunk of the Self-Defense category will largely take this option if they haven’t already transitioned to group 1 or 2.
This will also grant some room for effective regulation of handguns, since one of the key points of resistance is that many existing LTL devices have glaring weaknesses (Tasers are single shot, can’t penetrate thick clothing, and can be shrugged off by people with high electrical resistance; chemicals can blow back on the user or be shrugged off, etc.). Right now handguns are, despite being heavy and of inconsistent effectiveness, very popular. Their primary legal use is for self-defense (the old saw in the military being that a handgun is what you use until you can get to your rifle). Sure you can hunt with them, and shooting competitions with them are fun, but when it comes down to it, the primary advantage of a handgun over a rifle is portability and concealability. If there is a widely available, effective LTL option for people to use, the ownership of handguns could fall primarily to groups 1 and 2, and attaching stringent training requirements for carry permits for handguns would be more legally reasonable.
2) Build Positive Communities
As I mention up above, having the government more fully support (or at least stop opposing) the development of Gun Clubs and Ranges, especially in urban areas, would go a long way to rebuilding those communities. If private ownership is to be legal, we should encourage it to be out in the open as much as possible. Also expand programs like the CMP and Project Appleseed. Understand that, for most gun owners, there is a strong community aspect to it. It is a lot more fun to go shooting with friends, than it is to go alone. If the communities for gun owners exist and are supported, you’ll see gun owners actively participate. The communities can also offer training, education, and other services. Finally, belonging to a community of peers can help defuse people who might pop.
Now for the blasphemy. Tie ownership of firearms to such community groups. At least somewhat (remember I said I was going to borrow from the Swiss a bit). Did you read that link I had above about the gun shop in Milwaukee? If not, here it is again: Read how they cleaned up. I doubt you could pass Constitutional muster if membership was a legal requirement for any ownership of firearms, but I wonder if the argument could be made that a person can buy a single pump/lever/bolt/break action rifle or shotgun for personal use without issue, but if you want a handgun or semi-auto rifle, or if you want to have a collection of weapons, you have to belong to a club, and the club has to vouch for you (within reason).
The club acts as something of a filter. People are more willing to have peers who know them stand in judgement of their fitness than they are to have unknown government bureaucrats decide such things. Remember that ownership is still a right, and denying that right by the government should involve due process (we don’t ask permission to engage in free speech, and government (ideally) needs special permission to violate our right to privacy). Likewise, a club could not arbitrarily decline to vouch, and would have to provide a solid written reason why they feel a person should not be allowed to own X, and that decision could be reviewed, but the key here is that the government is not doing anything except following the recommendations of a jury of their peers.
How this would work, including how to deal with people who withdraw from/are not active in such clubs, I leave to discussion in comments.4
Of course, this is no proof against a person going lone wolf and shooting up a mall or their family, but I wonder how effective it could be, since one thing that a lot of mass shooters seem to have in common is that they are loners and isolated, or despondent. Another thing that is common to potential shooters is that those who were stopped without violence were stopped because someone was involved with them.5
Safe storage is not a bad idea, but it is something that should largely be handled via insurance carriers.
A Final Thought
The current state of affairs of gun rights and regulation in the US is not something that happened overnight. Like most intractable issues, it’s something that has been building for decades, thus it will not resolve quickly. There is no magic law or regulation that can be passed that will suddenly make it all better. This isn’t the UK or Australia where they can just pass a law and ban ownership. But I think it can be made better. Perhaps through what I proposed above, or perhaps via something else. But one thing I know for certain, as long as the GRAs and GCAs continue to act and talk as if the other side is evil/stupid/etc, and as long as the topic is used to drag in all other manner of unrelated cultural signaling, nothing will get done and it won’t improve. I don’t expect the NRA/GOA to back down from their hyperbolic hill anytime soon, so I’m hoping the GCAs will be the bigger people.
Image by Digital Shotgun Notes:
- The same has to be said for governments, especially local and state governments. The fastest way to get people to stop opposing firearm regulations is the start acting as if it is a right to be protected, instead of a bad habit to be squashed. [↩]
- The frustrating bit about this link is that the first half of the essay was actually trying to get somewhere interesting, and then instead of digging into it, it ended in name calling. [↩]
- This harkens back to a discussion that was had regarding how needlessly difficult the background check system is, and how that difficulty hurts efforts to expand the system. [↩]
- The rationale for this working (in my mind) is this: A government agency of “Fitness to Own A Firearm” has little incentive to ever find that a person is fit to own a firearm. Such a department would first have to figure out some kind of objective criteria for what defines fitness, and have enough staff to process the applications, and would then still largely default to saying no, because if they say yes, and that person goes out and shoots up a schoolyard, then the blame will fall on the agency and politicians will demand they tighten their requirements. A club, on the other hand, has to balance the needs of the membership with the need to maintain a good reputation. A club that has too many members who have trigger control issues will gain a bad reputation in the community and lose support, while a club that is unwilling to vouch for its members, or that establishes unreasonable requirements, will be unable to attract and retain membership. [↩]
- Don’t let anything above disabuse you of the notion that I somehow don’t believe people should own firearms, up to and including military style arms. The military, like the police, is not the be-all, end-all of our national defense. Just as the police are merely the people we hire to focus their attention full-time on crime, the military are merely the people we hire to devote their attention full-time on national defense. The decline of the militia as a tangible thing is a mistake to my mind. Just as communities should work together with the police to make a safe community, or firemen for disaster preparedness, volunteer militias should work with the military in some fashion to secure national defense. Even if the possibility of an invasion of the US is so remote as to be beyond belief, the community building aspect of it is still valuable. [↩]