Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Very Unsexy, Yet Essential, Backdrop

Whereas it is possible to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution among intelligent people with informed views, the "debate" about gun control legislation has devolved into a collection of misguided arguments based on diversions, technicalities and populist mythology.

Still, before we look at the arguments, it's important to understand the backdrop. It's not sexy, but it's essential.

Assault Weapons Ban 101

In 1994, Congress passed a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. The Washington Post's Wonk Blog writes, "For the 10 years that the ban was in effect, it was illegal to manufacture the assault weapons described above for use by private citizens. The law also set a limit on high-capacity magazines — these could now carry no more than 10 bullets."

But there were two problems with the 1994 ban (or perhaps three, if you include the provision allowing it to sunset after ten years):

1. The definition of "assault weapon" was specific, convoluted and thus easily circumvented. Fully automatic weapons (i.e., machine guns that fire continuous rounds during one pull of the trigger) were already banned. Semi-automatic weapons (i.e., those requiring a trigger pull for each round) included most handguns and rifles owned by civilians.

Because Congress did not want to ban all guns, they designed the ban to include only certain weapons with very specific characteristics, like a semi-automatic rifle with a bayonet mount and a grenade launcher or a semi-automatic pistol with "an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip" and "a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer."

2. Grandfather provisions neutered the ban. As the Wonk Blog explains, "Any assault weapon or magazine that was manufactured before the law went into effect in 1994 was perfectly legal to own or resell. That was a huge exception: At the time, there were roughly 1.5 million assault weapons and more than 24 million high-capacity magazines in private hands."

Now for the good part. Did the ban work? Christopher S. Koper -- Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy -- led a series of studies that culminated in a 2004 report entitled, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003.”

Here is what non-partisan has to say:
Koper concluded by saying that “a new ban on large capacity magazines and assault weapons would certainly not be a panacea for gun crime, but it may help to prevent further spread of particularly dangerous weaponry and eventually bring small reductions in some of the most serious and costly gun crimes.”  
Not super sound-bite worthy, but honest.

The Gun-Show "Loophole" Explained

As explained in this short, excellent (and under-shared) piece by David Gura for American Public Media's Marketplace Morning Report, in many states, it is perfectly legal for a private, non-licensed citizen to sell someone a gun without a background check: "No identification. No waiting period. No record. Cash on the table, and you're gone with the gun."
Here's the confusion: It is illegal for a licensed gun seller (e.g., someone who owns a store) to sell a gun to someone without running a background check, even at booth at a gun show.

But a private citizen can sell his own gun to anyone he wants without running a check. Perversely, this is because "under current law, you can't get a federal firearms license if you only do business at gun shows. And if you don't have a license, you can't access the National Instant Criminal Background Check System [NICS]."

Indeed, in states where this "loophole" exists, buyers and sellers can transact gun sales over the Internet with impunity.

This is not a loophole. This is a gaping hole.

Some progress is being made on this front. For example, Colorado recently passed laws "that limit the amount of ammunition allowed in magazines, required background checks for private gun sales and created a fee for background checks."

(Here's another good article from Gura on the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco's impotent background check process.)

The Waiting Is [No Longer] the Hardest Part

There is no federal waiting period. In fact, if the FBI can't conduct a background check within three days, the seller is free to transfer the gun to the buyer. State waiting period laws vary. As of August 2012, only 11 states and the District of Columbia currently have waiting periods that apply to the purchase of some or all firearms. (Source: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

In any case, with the advent of instant background checks, the waiting period has become obsolete. For example, in Pennsylvania, "If an individual is eligible to acquire a firearm, the PICS [Pennsylvania Instant Check System] background check replaces the former, mandatory five-day waiting period."

Next up: Debunking the NRA's arguments.

[Read Part I: Analysis, Honesty and Gun Control and Part III: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Mother Informed]