Friday, March 22, 2013

Reason #281: Picking Your Battles

Like I said last week, I tend to look at politics through a wide-angle lens--something that seems like a big deal when you're in the middle of it may not actually be all that consequential in the proper historical context. That means that some things, like gay marriage, seem so inevitable that I can't make myself get especially riled up about them.

It also means that I occasionally see certain bits and pieces of larger issues--a law here, a tax there--as grey areas; meaning, I don't necessarily support them, but I don't see them as worth fighting, either. Bloomberg's 16-oz-soda ban is a good example; philosophically, that's hardly the best way to approach the problem of obesity, but I didn't really expect the law to stick around either way, so I can't really fault them for trying.

Another grey matter: "assault weapons" bans.

Here's the thing: we tried an assault weapons ban already, and Columbine happened right smack in the middle of it. The DC sniper shootings were a couple years later.

Both involved guns that were at least partially banned under the law, but neither incident was prevented by the ban--for one thing, the ban was only on the future manufacturing of certain guns; the millions that already existed, and the millions of high-capacity magazines that already existed, were perfectly fine.

Furthermore, even if the ban had been in place for decades, it only mentioned 18 models of firearm by name, and only precise configurations of those types at that. Part of the problem is that the term "assault weapon" isn't even an actual classification for guns, which are actually divided into, for starters, automatic and semiautomatic. Fully automatic guns, which fire continuously as long as the trigger is held down, are and have pretty much always been illegal, or at least very tightly regulated. Semiautomatic weapons are pretty much everything else that's not a handgun, and the ban picked and chose from among that group based on numerous easily modifiable configurations, which meant that if I wanted, say, a Bushmaster AR-15, the gun Adam Lanza wasted twenty children with last December, I could probably have gotten one--I'd just have to pick the right grip, say, and make sure there wasn't a grenade launcher or bayonet on it. Pretty strict, huh?

And remember, all that only applied to guns manufactured after the ban went into effect--there was actually a surge in production of banned materiel immediately prior to its passage, as manufacturers rushed to move as much merchandise as possible while there was still time.

The larger issue, to me, is that even an efficient, precisely-targeted assault weapons ban is only going after a tiny portion of the gun violence in this country, and ignoring the thousands of non-massacre-level firearm deaths involving guns that no one's ever even thought of banning. Metrics vary, but 2011 was definitively the worst year ever for mass shooting in the US, with around 150 casualties. Compare that to the 31,672 overall firearm deaths in the US that year--even if an assault weapons ban had prevented every single mass shooting in 2011, that alone would have accounted for less than half of one percent of overall firearm deaths.

Again, all this isn't to say I oppose a new assault weapons ban--if they can get one through, hey, bully for them. If even a haphazard and poorly-laid out assault weapons ban stops even one person from being killed, that's awesome. But Harry Reid is taking a lot of flack for detaching the ban from the overall gun control package, despite it being absolutely the right thing to do.

Let's look at Adam Lanza's Bushmaster again. Another Bushmaster model, the XM-15, was used by the DC snipers--despite the assault weapons ban, mind. When investigators determined the distributor from which the gun had been purchased, they found that they had no record of it or hundreds of other purchases in the preceding years--records it wasn't required by law to keep, even under the ban period. Conceivably they would have at least run a background check on John Allen Muhammad at the time he did buy the gun, but given that the distributor, Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, had an ATF file with 283 pages full of sales and records violations, I wouldn't put money on it--not that we'd know either way, because he had no reason to worry about the government asking.

Meanwhile, now that Harry Reid has unmoored the Senate's gun reform legislation from the never-passable-in-the-first-place assault weapons ban, the current sticking point is over, you guessed it, whether to make gun sellers keep records of their sales. But how many liberals are going to be too busy fretting over assault weapons to fight the good fight on that one?

Further Reading

Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post

Wikipedia - Federal Assault Weapons Ban

Wikipedia - Beltway sniper attacks

Here’s what’s holding up a gun bill (Hint: It’s not the assault weapons ban)

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