Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tafasta Merube Lo Tafasta -- Thoughts on Attainable Gun Control

Tafasta merube lo tafasta  is a phrase in the Talmud (Yoma 80a) which means if you try to do too much, you might wind up not doing anything at all. The phrase comes to mind as I see friends and colleagues, in the wake of yet another horrific massacre, advocating for the repeal of the Second Amendment, bans on private possessions of semi-automatic weapons and similar measures.

I happen to own a semi-automatic rifle. I first learned to use one in my mid-20s when I lived on a border kibbutz in Israel. I carried an Uzi for guard duty and when my work responsibilities took me to fields adjacent to the border after dark. With the current climate in the country and the rise of hate crimes, I feel safer being able to protect myself, although I also recognize that this is not for everyone. I store my ammunition in a safe away from my weapon itself, and I probably would not have a gun if we had young children in the house. But it is precisely the fact that I am a gun owner that gives me the ability to speak with some degree of knowledge about guns and what could reasonably be done to reduce the carnage in our country.

Gun owners often criticize gun control advocates as knowing nothing about guns, and there is often some truth to the claim. In order for us to all be on the same page, I’m going to begin with some definitions and facts.

A fully automatic weapon is one which will continue firing for as long as the trigger is squeezed, until the ammunition runs out. Private possession of fully automatic weapons was heavily restricted in the United States in 1934 and importation of such weapons has been banned since 1986. It’s extremely difficult to obtain a fully automatic weapon and none of the perpetrators of recent massacres have used them.

A semi-automatic weapon shoots one cartridge (“bullet”) each time the trigger is squeezed until the ammunition runs out. The AR-15 which is the weapon of choice in most recent events is a semi-automatic weapon.

A bump stock is a modification to a semi-automatic rifle which allows it to mimic an automatic by using the weapon's own recoil to allow the shooter to pull the trigger over and over much faster than they otherwise would be able to do.

A magazine (sometimes called a “clip”) is a device which feeds bullets into the weapon without having to reload. Most semi-automatic weapons have detachable magazines. The higher the capacity of the magazine, the more cartridges that can be shot without having to reload. In Maryland, it is illegal to sell magazines which have a capacity of more than ten cartridges, but it’s legal to possess them. One could drive over to Virginia and purchase a high-capacity magazine there and bring it back to Maryland, and that would be perfectly legal.

There is no generally accepted definition of the term assault weapon. There was a federal Assault Weapons Ban which passed in 1994 and expired in 2004 which banned the manufacture and sale of new weapons which have detachable magazines and at least two of the following other features: folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, or grenade launcher. The weapon I own, a Hi-Point Carbine, would not qualify as an assault weapon under this legislation as it has only a detachable magazine and a pistol grip but none of the other features. Hi-Point makes only 10-round magazines and while other manufacturers make larger magazines which fit the Hi-Point, use of them generally voids the warranty on the weapon.

Background check:  anyone who purchases a gun from a licensed firearms dealer has to present valid identification and fill out a federal background check form. If you have been convicted of a crime for which the penalty can be a year or more in prison,  are under indictment for a felony, have been convicted of domestic violence or are under a domestic violence restraining order, have been dishonorably discharged from the military, or been adjudicated as “mentally defective” you will not be allowed to purchase a firearm. Since this system went into effect in 1998, more than 1.3 million sales have been denied. The main problem with this system is that it depends on states and the military to report disqualifying information to the FBI, which runs the database. The Air Force failed to do so in the case of Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed 26 people in a Texas church in November 2017. As a result, Kelley passed the background check even though he should not have due to his 2012 court-martial conviction for domestic violence.

“Gun-show loophole”: while all gun purchases from a licensed dealer require background checks, transactions between two private individuals do not. While it’s still prohibited to knowingly transfer a gun to someone who is legally prohibited from owning it, the lack of a background check makes it very difficult to prove that the seller knowingly violated the law.

Internet Gun Sales: if you Google “AR 15 for sale” you will return 15.9 million hits. However, you can’t simply go online, order a gun, and have it delivered to your home. All Internet sales must be delivered to a licensed dealer who is required to run a background check and will charge you a fee for it. If you can’t pass the background check you will be denied the gun.

I’ve given all this background because I really think it’s important that if you are advocating certain policies you ought to know what you are talking about. When I see smart people advocating to ban things which are already banned or require things which are already required, it’s frustrating to say the least.

Now that we’ve discussed terminology and current law, let’s look at some policies which might help reduce the gun carnage in our country.

Let’s be clear that advocating a repeal of the Second Amendment is a waste of time and effort. In order to amend the constitution, the proposed amendment needs a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress followed by ratification by 38 state legislatures. This is so self-evidently not going to happen that it isn’t even worth discussing.

A ban on private gun ownership and confiscation of privately-owned guns is neither politically nor technically feasible. Last year I submitted written testimony in favor of Maryland Bill HB1424, which died in committee. Under current law, anyone convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order is prohibited from owning a weapon. But there is no actual mechanism to take weapons away from such people. They are supposed to voluntarily appoint someone to turn their weapon in at a police station or licensed gun dealer, but if they don’t -- and most don’t -- nothing happens. This bill would have required the state or local police to go and get the weapons, but it failed because of the expense involved and the fact that the police didn’t want this responsibility. Not surprisingly, they did not want to be tasked with going to a home in which they know is a weapon and someone who has been found guilty of a violent crime. Now multiply this by the estimated 300 million guns already in circulation in over 100 million homes and you will see that this is a Sisyphean task.

Having said all this, it seems to me that there are at least four legislative proposals that in the current climate have a possibility of passing. They will not eliminate all gun-related deaths but they will reduce them, while preserving the right of law-abiding Americans to possess weapons for hunting, target practice and self-defense.

Ban high-capacity magazines. The need to stop and reload more frequently and to carry more magazines should reduce death tolls as most perpetrators eventually are shot or caught fleeing the scene. Reloading a spent magazine takes time and is not so easy.

Require background checks for all firearms transfers, not just those conducted by a licensed dealer.

Ban bump stocks. After the Las Vegas massacre in October, even the NRA was briefly amenable to this legislation. They of course soon changed their position, but now might be an opportune time to try again.

Institute Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) on a national scale. David French of the conservative National Review recently advocated GVROs as “a gun control measure conservatives should consider.” A GVRO would allow someone to go to court to prevent a specific person from possessing firearms. As we learned from the recent Parkland massacre as well as the Charleston and Orlando nightclub shootings, relatives and neighbors did “see something” and “say something” but authorities failed to act in time. By allowing someone to go to court, neighbors and family members and local courts would be empowered to act where others have failed. French’s specific proposal is narrower than I would like to see -- I would give neighbors and co-workers standing to petition and not just family members and those who live in the same home -- but it’s certainly the start of a conversation which could lead to meaningful outcomes.

We may be at a moment where the anger of the populace can overcome the power of the NRA. Let’s not squander it by advocating for things which will never happen and let’s work for meaningful change instead.

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