Note: Fred Thompson returns with this guest post about gun policy.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1993
Guns are very effective for their purpose, killing. Even if there were no guns in America, we would still be a relatively violent society, but that violence would have much less effect. When a crazy guy assaulted school kids in Osaka a few years back, he used a knife. The death toll was 6, 13 injured. This is the worst such rampage in Japanese history, where guns are outlawed, although it would hardly be a blip on the screen in the US. Getting rid of guns entirely would probably save 10-20,000 lives and prevent at least 50,000 injuries a year. Using standard QALY (quality-adjusted life years) values, that’s at least $100 billion a year, $330 for every gun in the United States (or, in the alternative >$100 per bullet sold).
Getting rid of guns isn’t a feasible option. Instead, what is needed are policies and practices that would work to minimize the harms done by guns and, at the same time, respect the interests of folks who want to own guns and use them for legitimate purposes and the guarantees evidently afforded those interests by the Bill of Rights.
What are those legitimate purposes? Most Americans agree that self-protection, hunting, and target and skeet shooting are legitimate purposes. There are, perhaps, others as well, gun collecting, for example. Presumably, these uses ought to be subject to the minimum restrictions necessary to mitigate the carnage guns cause.
It would be great if, as a result of last week’s shooting in Connecticut, something were finally done about guns, even better if the steps taken were effective. We ought to look a range of mechanisms to increase the efficacy of personal and product liability, including registration of ownership, regulation of access to guns and ammunition, differential taxes to promote legitimate uses and discourage hazardous ones. We probably ought to look at the steps taken in countries with gun cultures like ours, e.g., Switzerland, that have achieved low murder, suicide, and accidental gun death rates (Switzerland has more households with guns than the US, but fewer deaths from violent injury than countries that have outlawed guns entirely like the UK and Japan). It would even be nice if we could work with the NRA on this issue. People who like guns are likely to understand better how to minimize the bloodshed that they cause at least cost to legitimate values. (Noting the NRA’s first reaction to the Connecticut school shooting, a $100 billion solution to $6 billion problem, one that could easily be entirely ineffective, it would be understandable if this sentiment were regarded as a foolish hope, but its logic is, I think, valid).
If it is granted that what we need is a gun policy that permits ownership and legitimate uses and restricts ownership and use where, in the public interest, they should be restricted, what might that look like? Perhaps, something like the following:
ALL firearms should be registered and licensed in much the same way we license motor vehicles, including proof of ownership and insurance and periodic renewal. Registration must include a permanent record of a firearm’s identity, not merely an identity number but also ballistic records, based upon the marks on bullets and cartridges from test firing the weapon. This would provide a useful tool for law enforcement agents and increase the likelihood that, if a weapon is used in a homicide or other crime, the owner will be apprehended. For new weapons, manufacturers should be required to perform this function as precondition for sale. For existing weapons, it should be done when the weapon is registered. License holders should be required to keep firearms that are not in use under lock and key and ammunition in separate locked storage.
A license to own a firearm should be required to buy ammunition. Reasonable limits on the number of rounds that may be possessed per weapon should be set. For example, one might limit purchases to a dozen rounds for each licensed weapon, with the further requirement that additional purchases would require the return of an equal number of empty casings. Moreover, ammunition should be tagged so that rounds and powder residue can be traced, at least by lot number, to purchasers. This is technically feasible and could be supported by license fees and taxes on the sale of ammunition, perhaps, in the form of a mandatory deposit on each casing. Possession of an otherwise legal, but unlicensed, firearm should be an enforceable misdemeanor, as should failure to comply with the terms of a license. Possession of unlicensed ammunition should be made a felony. (I am not entirely convinced that it is reasonable that the regulatory cost of these policies should be financed by fees and taxes levied on the people who own and use firearms. However, to the extent that this is the case, I would argue that basic principles of sumptuary taxation would suggest that taxes be levied on ammunition rather than guns.)
Shooting clubs and firing ranges should also be licensed and subjected to regulation to insure the proper storage and inventorying of weapons and ammunition and the supervision of onsite shooting. However, they should be permitted to store firearms, including automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and to allow their use and unlimited consumption of ammunition on premises. Ammunition expended in a licensed facility should be tax exempt and, perhaps, even publically subsidized. Such a model is standard practice in Switzerland.
The Swiss have a gun culture as pervasive as ours, but they manage its drawbacks a lot better than we do. About 34 percent of US household have guns; in CH 27 percent of households have privately owned guns, an additional 10-12 percent house weapons owned by the Swiss Army, yet they have 1/12 as many gun deaths (homicides, suicides, and accidents; their overall homicide rate is lower than the UK's).
Consideration should also be given to outlawing private storage and use of semi-automatic and automatic weapons and magazines containing more than five shots. There is not much evidence for the efficacy of such a policy, but it is popular, not very intrusive of legitimate gun uses, and, unlike the case of handguns, all the evidence we have is consistent with a belief in the efficacy of a ban. See The Expiration of The U.S. Assault Weapons Ban Increased Homicides in Mexico and Exporting the Second Amendment: U.S. Assault Weapons and the Homicide Rate in Mexico.