America is caught on the horns of a dilemma: how do we reduce rampage violence while honoring the Second Amendment, which has been interpreted to guarantee access to firearms? Other countries have historically addressed their rampage shooter problem by banning certain classes of guns and in general reducing the availability of firearms — and it worked. We have much more limited options in this arena here in the ol’ USA.
We have radically reduced policy options in the US due to several factors — most notably the zealous defense of the Second Amendment by several particularly well-financed lobbying groups (including, but not limited to the NRA). The US has been additionally hobbled by restrictions on federally-funded research into gun violence, which has led to a lack of reliable information on the causes and potential solutions for gun violence in the United States. Basically this is to say that we’ve been unable to move on this issue because we are, as it were, standing on our own foot.
I would like to offer a modest two-part proposal to bridge this gap. In the first place, I think that the political will exists to repeal the prohibition on federal funds being used for gun research. If it doesn’t now, it will soon; after all, we can pretty much set our clocks by the next rampage shooting these days, and people are getting increasingly frustrated by inaction. So let’s repeal the Dickey Amendment, and then fund some research into the causes of rampage violence (because I don’t think it’s as simple as a single cause). That seems like an easy first step.
The second step is a bit more involved. We know from FBI statistics that the most commonly used firearms in murders in the US are semi-automatic handguns. The nation has also been routinely traumatized by reports of shooters wielding AR-15s (and similar semi-automatic military-style rifles) blasting away at schools and public gatherings. While these rifles are grossly under-represented in “normal” gun violence, they are grossly over-represented in rampage shootings.
The DC v. Heller decision by US Supreme Court specifically stated that handguns are constitutional, but did not specifically strike down bans on semi-automatic rifles, or for that matter semi-automatic handguns. So, that’s our window — while we are waiting for some actual research to be done in America about what exactly causes Americans to turn to rampage violence, I think that leaves room for the following moves:
- A ban* on semi-automatic handguns
- A ban on semi-automatic rifles
- A ban on semi-automatic shotguns
- A ban on magazines of more than five rounds for the latter two classes of weapons
- A 100% tax on all firearm purchases
This would still allow Americans to own revolvers, bolt-action or single-shot rifles, and pump or single-shot shotguns. This allows people who are concerned with self-defense to own the two most common types of self-defense weapons (handguns and shotguns) and allows hunters to continue to use effective hunting weapons (shotguns and rifles). But it would reduce the firepower available to the average person, and make it harder and more expensive to kill dozens of people.
The benefit of this proposal is that it reduces the destructive potential of a rampage shooter. The problem with rampage shooters is that nothing they do is illegal… until suddenly it very much is. Many of the recent shooters have followed their state’s gun laws to the T. It hasn’t stopped a single one of them from acquiring and subsequently using exceptionally dangerous weapons. The solution is therefore to remove the most common kinds of exceptionally dangerous weapons and make it more expensive to acquire the other kind; the “let’s just enforce the laws we have” solution does not work, and we have empirical evidence to support that statement.
Now, there are obvious counterarguments to this proposal. One is the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” which is to say that a person with murder on the mind will find ways to commit murder. And this is true… sort of. People would still have knives, cars, poison, etc. But part of living in a risk-conscious society is identifying obvious sources of risk and then removing them; guns don’t kill people, but they sure help. Note the words I used earlier — this proposal is about reducing destructive potential, not completely removing the possibility of violence.
If you like, we can talk about this using gamer terminology, because it kind of fits here: this is about reducing the shooter’s DPS (Damage Per Second). Can a man with a revolver still kill people? Of course. A man with fists can still kill people, too (this is in fact among the most common types of murder). But a man with his fists can only kill one person at a time. A man with a revolver can kill six people before he has to reload. A man with a shotgun can generally kill at most five people before he has to reload. And so on. He can’t just blast away for thirty rounds, drop a clip, slap in a new one, and be ready to rock and roll again in five seconds.
Take away the obvious source of risk. We’re not going to be able to knock everyone back to muskets (you know, the type of firearm the Founders actually had), but we can certainly take away those weapons which have no obvious purpose other than looking cool, boosting their owner’s alpha male self-esteem, and killing a large number of people. The gun nuts can transfer their masculine ideation to another object; maybe cigars. Or suits. Or, I don’t know, throwing axes for all I care. I’ve thrown a few axes in my time. Take it from me, it makes you feel badass as all hell.
Is this going to totally eliminate rampage violence? Of course not. People can still drive cars, after all. The DC Sniper scenario is still out there. And of course a shooter could just buy enough guns to never have to reload during a rampage. But this proposal takes away the easy options. It makes it harder to unload thirty or forty rounds without stopping. It removes the weapons that feature this option by default. And it makes it more difficult for kids to acquire weapons by making it harder (i.e. more expensive) for people to hoard weapons.
As for implementation? Roll it out over a period of 5–10 years, starting with the tax implementation. Implement a buyback program to reclaim weapons which fall outside the parameters. Use the tax revenue from firearm sales to fund the buyback program. If we see a significant reduction in rampage violence, keep the restrictions and taxes in place. If not… try something else.
And before anyone out there goes all holier-than-thou-uber-patriot on me — I’m a gun owner too. I’d be giving up three of my guns to make this work. That thought doesn’t make me feel less safe; it doesn’t cause me an existential panic attack or make me think that my liberty as an American citizen is suffering a massive setback. I’ve never thought of my guns as essential to my liberty — the United States will not fall because its citizens are slightly less well-armed.
If the price I have to pay to make our communities as a whole more safe is to give up a few machines that I very rarely take out of the safe anyway, I’ll gladly pay it. And I would hope that other rational people would do the same.
*In these cases, “ban” could mean the same thing as the current “ban” on machine guns — you can still totally own a machine gun. You just have to go through a series of licensing hoops and basically submit to regular inspection. Why do machine guns get this treatment, when people are raising the Second Amendment left, right, and center for other guns, you ask? Good question; the short answer is that even the NRA isn’t that crazy.