A rally against new proposed gun legislation took place Jan. 12 on the steps of the capitol building in Olympia. A large crowd of pro-gun individuals demonstrated against new legislation that would restrict “bump-stocks,” limiting magazine capacity, making assault rifle owners and manufacturers need a license to own and making gun locks and safes mandatory. Although there is no immediate action on this legislation yet, the announcement of new attempts for gun control in Washington has sparked yet another discussion about “assault rifles” and their place in the hands of the public.
Despite attempts by both Democrats and Republicans to restrict the ability of criminals or would-be criminals from accessing firearms, their recent attempts to do so have done the opposite — making it harder for law-abiding citizens to keep and bear the arms they wish to have while criminals still have access. Not to mention, the crusade against assault weapons is rather misplaced, considering previous attempts to restrict them have had little effect on overall firearm-related crime or illegal gun ownership.
A perfect case study would be the San Bernardino shooting in 2015: two shooters went on a several hour rampage before being shot by police in a shootout. Sixteen people — including the two shooters — ultimately died. When their arsenal at home and in the getaway vehicle were uncovered, something interesting happened: all of the firearms they acquired were acquired legally in the State of California, which has notoriously strict gun laws. According to The New York Times, the only thing they had that was illegal was four “high capacity” magazines — magazines that hold over 10 rounds of ammunition — and several pipe bombs.
When revitalized discussions of gun control began almost immediately after, this fact was manipulated by larger media outlets in such a way as to cast shame to an entire subset of guns and their owners. An irony was only mentioned in hindsight — that layers upon layers of “assault rifle” restrictions and other firearm laws in California did nothing to prevent a horrendous shooting.
Why is there such a fixation on assault weapons? They are widely perceived as being more likely to kill or injure people in violent crimes or mass-casualty attacks such as what happened in San Bernardino. However, official government statistics show a different reality. According to Table 12 of the 2016 Crime Statistics released by the FBI, handguns widely dominate the type of weapon used in homicides — an understandable statistic, concerning handguns are easy to conceal and are therefore widely desired by black market buyers. An even more revealing fact is that knives, “cutting instruments” and other weapons outnumbers the homicides by rifle or shotgun in almost every single state. In a handful of states, hands, fists and feet even killed more people than rifles or shotguns. Perhaps the most interesting correlation is that states or cities with the most stringent gun control — New York, California, Maryland, Illinois and D.C. — have some of the highest rates of gun-related crime, including homicide.
Another issue that comes up in current debates over gun control are background checks. Since 1968, those who sell guns must have a Federal Firearms License unless the guns sold were made before the year 1899. Early background checks were a series of forms with yes/no questions that would identify legal buyers from unauthorized buyers. However, FFL holders were not required to follow-up these checks. After the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, a new push for gun control resulted in the Brady Law of 1993, which came into effect in 1998. This created a federal background check system known as National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The system works by taking a buyer’s personal information and using three separate databases to discern legal buyers from illegal ones. Today this system is required for every FFL holder to use, including at gun shows and other places where guns are sold, and does a thorough job at inspecting the criminal history and court-adjudicated mental health records of potential buyers.
However, some still believe that these checks are not required at gun shows — despite the fact that they are in fact mandatory. Some also believe that illicit purchases can still take place despite the NICS system.
The latter statement is something that I do agree with. Known mass shooters, such as Devin Kelly (the Sutherland Springs church shooter), Dylan Roof (the Charleston church shooter) and Omar Mateen (the Pulse nightclub shooter) all had criminal histories, mental health issues or had participated in criminal activities that would have normally blocked them from firearms ownership. The NICS system did not contain all of their personal information that would have denied them because other agencies did not notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — the federal agency in charge of the background check system — ahead of time. One could call into question the proposed “expansion” of the background check systems we have in place — not that they are an impediment to the right to keep and bear arms, but because of bureaucratic insufficiency and government mismanagement. Work must be done to ensure that this system has all of the information it needs as soon as it can to prevent further tragedies before any kind of “expansion” takes place.
If there’s any argument I can make to someone who thinks they can get guns willy-nilly, I propose two things: investigating what laws and regulations are already in federal and state enforcement, and actually trying to buy a gun from a gun store. We have two stores right here in downtown Tacoma — Bullseye Indoor Range and Surplus Ammo and Arms, both on Puyallup Avenue — and for just a couple hundred dollars and a few hours of your time, it can be easily proven to anyone that legal access to firearms is not as easy as many make it out to be.
I, personally, am not against some level of gun control. I’m fine with background checks and making sure that would-be criminals can’t get a hold of something that they shouldn’t have. However, the cases against “assault rifles,” high capacity magazines and other common or aesthetic features on firearms are irrelevant to actually tackling serious issues concerning guns, and are more driven by fear than facts. There is still a wide black market: guns from previous crimes are falling into the hands of criminals (especially after those guns were sold by law enforcement agencies), straw purchases to those who legally can’t own guns can happen behind closed doors and the rehabilitation of criminals with histories of violent crime is still seen as a pipe-dream.
We shouldn’t infringe the rights of the many for the sins of a few. Instead, we need to find more comprehensive strategies to combating gun-related crime. Specifically, focusing on public education on how to safely handle and store firearms, combating the black market arms trade and preventing straw purchases to potential criminals. Nitpicking legislation aimed at those who already lawfully own firearms completely avoids addressing this nation’s issue with gun-related crime.