On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden is expected to make his comprehensive recommendations to curb “gun violence.” Most of the population is skeptical of these recommendations. Already there have been leaks that the Vice President believes that “the NRA does not speak for most gun owners.”
It is statements like this that make people suspicious that Mr. Biden’s recommendations will not be serious. In some states workers are forced to join unions against their will, but gun owners are not forced to join the NRA. The fact that membership has increased by more than 100,000 after the Newtown tragedy shows that the NRA does indeed speak for gun owners.
There is talk that one of the recommendations will include an “assault weapons” ban. The favorite whipping boy of hoplophobes is the AR-15 rifle, America’s best-selling firearm. The AR-15 has been in existence and for sale for fifty years now (since 1963) and it is estimated to be owned by some five million people. It was not an “assault weapon” until 1986.
Some media representatives confuse “assault weapons” with “assault rifles.” The definition of an assault rifle, however (capable of fully automatic fire) excludes the AR-15, which is semi-automatic. Because “assault rifle” has an actual definition, the AR-15 cannot be so designated, so in 1989 it was designated as an “assault weapon.” Writing in the Sanford Law & Policy Review (Vol. 8, No. 1, 1997:41) Bruce H. Kobayashi and Joseph E. Olson noted, “Prior to 1989 the term ‘assault weapon’ did not exist in the lexicon of firearms. It is a political term, developed by anti-gun publicists to expand the category of ‘assault rifles.’”
What exactly is the definition of an “assault weapon?” In order to pass the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” politicians first had to come up with a definition of one: an “assault weapon” is a rifle that looks like its military counterpart, but in fact functions with exactly the same capability as any semi-automatic hunting rifle such as the Ruger Ranch Rifle, Ruger Model 44, Remington 750, or Benelli R1. In the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban," cosmetic features that were outlawed because politicians felt they looked frightening included a flash hider, adjustable butt stock, and bayonet lug, none of which make the gun more utilizable in crimes nor increase its capability over any of the above mentioned hunting rifles. These are cosmetic features, like putting a racing stripe on a Kia. It may make it look like a NASCAR racer, but it isn't one.
If Joe Biden really wants the cooperation of gun owners, he needs to show that he’s serious, and take an “assault weapons” ban off the table.
Another suggestion that has leaked out is a proposed ban on standard capacity magazines of more than ten rounds. In 1999 Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris perpetrated the tragedy at Columbine High School. The guns used were fully compliant with the then five-year-old “assault weapons ban.” The magazines that the Klebold and Harris used were ten-round magazines. In 2007 Seung Hui Cho went on a crime spree at Virginia Tech that left 32 people dead. Most of the magazines he used were limited capacity ten-round magazines. In fact, Cho fired 170 rounds from 17 magazines, or ten rounds per magazine.
In 2004 the federal “assault weapons ban” sunset, due to data from a study commissioned by the Department of Justice. (An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence 1994-2004, June 2004, Christopher P. Koper, principle investigator, Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania). The report concluded, “Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best, and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” “It is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of the offender to fire more than ten shots without reloading.”
According to a timed exercise by a group of gun owners, it takes less than two seconds to change the magazine in a gun. Two seconds makes a difference in competition, or when other people are shooting at you, but in the gun-free zones that all of these shootings have taken place, a two-second magazine change would not (and has not in the case of Columbine and Virginia Tech) made any difference.
If Joe Biden is serious and wants to be taken seriously by gun owners, he will take federal mandates to diminish the standard capacity of magazines off the table.
In fact, none of the proposals that are expected to be made by the Vice President’s comprehensive plan would have done a thing to stop what happened at Newtown, since the guns were stolen by the perpetrator.
One possible proposal, however, that may meet with no resistance from gun owners has to do with background checks, if their concerns are taken seriously.
Since 1998 the National Instant Check System (NICS) has been in place, which provides for a national instant criminal background check on point-of-sale transactions for new firearms. The federal government claims the right to regulate such sales based upon the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. Once the firearm has been sold in a particular state, however, it can be sold without federal regulation or background check if (and only if) it is sold within the same state.
Non-owners of firearms sometimes wonder why gun owners object to background checks. In fact, most gun owners do not object to background checks. What they object to is the building of a database that contains information on which people own which guns. Their fears are well-founded. In California the Roberti-Roos “Assault Weapons Control Act” of 1989 required Californians to register their “assault weapons.” In 2001 the SKS rifle, which had been perfectly legal to own, was deemed an “assault weapon” (if you’ve never seen an SKS, google it. It is hardly a menacing looking gun). That year a public service announcement was run in California that said, “If you own an SKS Sporter, you can’t sell it and you can’t shoot it. You must turn it in before January 1 or face criminal charges and confiscation." To those who complied, the government of California offered $230, a paltry sum compared to what some of those owners paid for their rifles.
The mantra among gun owners that “registration leads to confiscation” has been borne out hundreds of times since the twentieth century in other countries and in ours.
However, I believe that American gun owners would not oppose legislation that read as follows: “The private sale or transfer of ownership of any firearm must be conducted under one of the following provisions: 1) it may be transferred through a Federal Firearms License holder with NICS check, 2) it may be transferred to the member of one’s own immediate or extended family provided that the recipient is not known to be disqualified from owning a firearm, 3) it may be sold or transferred to a person unknown to the seller if the buyer produces for the seller’s inspection a photo ID and a valid state concealed handgun permit or law enforcement ID.”
If the Vice President is serious, he would take suggestions like these to heart. If the goal is really to stop people with criminal intent from gaining access to firearms without infringing on the rights of legitimate gun owners, these would be a feasible and workable solution.
Chip Hammond is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Leesburg, Va.
The CJS Forum seeks to promote an open exchange of ideas about the relationship between faith, culture, law and public policy. While all the articles are original and written especially for the CJS Forum, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for a Just Society.