Taking Aim at Gun Violence

LawNerd's five-point proposal for gun control.

By David Perez December 17, 2012

The massacre in Newtown, Connecticut has left us with more questions than answers.  But there can be no question that we must do something to stop—or at least stem—this violence. Some argue that it is too soon to talk about “political” questions like firearm safety. But since 2009, there have been eight mass shootings in the United States, including four in the past six months.  It’s not too early to talk about reform.  For those who have perished, it’s too late. 

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states in full:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Courts have consistently concluded that this phrase permits sensible firearm safety laws. Here are a few policies we can implement immediately, that would not only stem gun violence, but also pass constitutional muster.

1.  Close the Gun Show Loophole

The lowest of low-hanging fruits is the loophole that allows would-be gun owners to purchase firearms without any background check or waiting period. Anyone—law abiding or felon, citizen or undocumented—can buy a firearm at a gun show. Those who oppose closing this loophole apparently favor a “gun buffet,” where anyone—no matter how deranged—can have all they can shoot. 

The right to bear arms is an important staple of American constitutional law. But it’s time to take that principle back from those who traffic in a culture of violence.

Fortunately, that’s not what most Americans believe, or what a “well regulated militia” implies.  We require people to show an ID to cash a check; we should at least require the same to purchase a handgun.

Closing this loophole can begin on the state level (gubernatorial candidate—and now Governor-elect Jay Inlsee— implied during a debate that he supported closing the loophole. He also got an "F" rating from the NRA in Congress and famously got booted from office—as a US Rep. from central Washington—for supporting the assault weapons ban.)

Ultimately must be closed nationwide to work because a loophole anywhere is a loophole everywhere.  Even if Washington were to require background checks and waiting periods for all purchases, gun show or not, there is nothing stopping a felon from traveling to a Texas gun show, only to bring the firearm back to Washington.

2.  Ban Semiautomatic Assault Weapons

Semiautomatic weapons allow shooters to fire many rounds quickly because the weapon is ready to shoot again after firing. Rather than having to reload or prepare the weapon for the next shot, a shoot simply needs to pull the trigger again, and again, and again.

The semiautomatic assault rifle that Adam Lanza used to gun down his victims in Newtown was the AR-15 style rifle. This is the same rifle that James Holmes used to kill 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado in July, and what Jacob Roberts used to kill two people in a shopping mall in Oregon last week. Seung-Hui Cho used a Walther P22 semiautomatic pistol to kill 32 students at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Semiautomatic assault weapons serve no purpose, and have no effect, other than to kill human beings en masse. They’re not designed to hunt deer, they’re designed to hunt people. Barack Obama promised that he would renew the assault weapon ban if he won the presidency. We should take him up on it.

But in the meantime, States can and should lead the way. These same weapons can be bought and used anywhere in America, including Washington state.

3.  Fund the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

President Obama and Governor Romney both campaigned on a promise not to pass new gun safety measures, but to “enforce the gun laws we currently have.” But we can’t enforce those gun laws because we don’t adequately fund the federal agency tasked with stopping illegal gun sales. We are spending billions to secure our borders against those dangerous farm-workers who are “invading” our country, but refuse to spend the money necessary to stop straw purchasers from buying AK-47’s for criminals. 

In fact, we spend more to protect our kids from “dangerous” toys than we do to protect them from armed lunatics.

To enforce the laws we currently have—and the others we urgently need—we need the funds to do so.

4.  Close the “Straw Purchaser Loophole” by requiring gun owners to report “lost” or “missing” guns.

As the organization “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” points out, each year thousands of criminals use guns that were “lost” or “stolen” from their lawful owners who purchased them legally.

In fact, almost 600,000 firearms are stolen each year. But while federal law requires dealers to report their lost guns, federal law does not require individual gun owners to report their lost or stolen guns. This loophole allows straw purchases to avoid liability for guns they purchase that are later used in a crime. 

Let’s close this loophole by requiring gun owners to file a report each time they “lose” a gun. This would only affect those who have a knack for losing guns to criminals.

5. Convene a Firearm Safety Task Force

Conventional wisdom holds that anyone who pushes for firearm safety legislation will go down in political flames. Conventional wisdom is wrong. But it is true that lawmakers should tread carefully. That’s why President Obama should convene a Firearm Safety Task Force that is comprised of mayors, governors, police chiefs, military officials, sportsmen and gamers, and editorialists.

This bi-partisan and diverse taskforce can spark a national conversation about what we should be doing differently, and rebut those who would oppose reasonable reforms. When opponents of sensible legislation argue, for example, that they need assault weapons to protect themselves or to hunt, we can have police chiefs show how their jobs are made more dangerous with these weapons in circulation, have a military general explain how these are weapons of war, not part of any “well regulated militia,” and have gamers explain why you don’t need an AK-47 to hunt deer.

The committee would provide cover for those lawmakers who are afraid of the NRA. Rupert Murdoch himself recently called for an assault weapons ban. There is appetite for change, and it is coming from both aisles.

Although polls show that public support for firearm reforms have eroded over the past 20 years, the specific reforms outlined above poll very well. That’s because they would not negatively affect law-abiding gun owners. Sportsmen who are fervent about hunting and owning guns will tell you that these policies would not impinge on their enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Lawmakers should be not be cowed by the specter of a nationwide embrace of the NRA’s agenda. The NRA’s number one priority in 2012 was to defeat Barack Obama and its second priority was to retake the U.S. Senate.  (They fell short of both goals.)  As political psychology professor Drew Westen points out, the NRA’s stance against all forms of gun safety laws is the moral equivalent of “abortion is murder in all circumstances.” 

By embracing these sensible reforms, we can show that the NRA’s caricature of what it means to own a gun in America is just that—a caricature. We can also prove that their vaunted political machine is the emperor that has no clothes.

The same majority that supports the freedom of al law-abiding Americans to keep and bear arms, also believes that this “right to bear arms” shouldn’t extend to criminals, terrorists, the mentally ill, or disturbed teenagers. Nor should it extend to weapons whose only purpose is to extinguish human life.

The right to bear arms is an important staple of American constitutional law. But it’s time to take that principle back from those who traffic in a culture of violence.

PubliCola LawNerd David A. Perez is an attorney with Perkins Coie LLP.  He received his B.A. from Gonzaga and his J.D. from Yale Law School. Follow him on Twitter @davidaperez1.

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