Sunday, February 10, 2013

Gun Nuts Are Smarter Than You Think

I recently saw this image on Facebook and felt it was worth talking about. Being as that most of my friends are liberals, I've been in a position to observe several anti-gun proponents feeding each other plenty of bias confirmation about how, rather than Second Amendment debates being disagreements where both sides have valid, if irreconcilable, points, they're ones in which their side is reasonable, moderate, and centrist, while the other side is a bunch of raving, extremist lunatics. An argument could be made that those folks have it backwards, but for now, let's deal with their assertion on its own terms.

"Gun lovers: please calm down."

It starts with a patronizing statement intended to frame what follows as sensible and level-headed by painting the opposition as irrational. If someone is irrational, you can dismiss their counter-arguments out of hand as being illogical. If you're the one calm enough to tell the irrational person to calm down, you're the sensible authority who has a good grasp on things. It might as well say, "Gun nut, quit being crazy."


That sounds perfectly sensible, doesn't it? Presently, every legal gun sale by a licensed dealer does involve a background check. The only sales that don't are illegal sales and sales between private individuals. There is no gun show loophole. Licensed dealers selling at gun shows still have to run background checks. What the "gun show loophole" refers to is the fact that private sellers don't have to do this--not just at gun shows, but anywhere. That means if you know you can't pass a background check, you just have to find some trusting individual with a gun for sale.

You're thinking we just need to require unlicensed individuals to run background checks then, too, right? Okay, try it. Right now. You have a gun for sale, and I want to buy it from you. I'm in your living room with cash in hand. Run a background check on me. I'll wait.

What? You don't have a background checker machine thingy? Sure you do. It's called a telephone. The checks are run on NCIC, the same database a traffic cop runs you through if you get pulled over. do they do that? Well, you need to call someone who has an NCIC terminal. Try your local police department. Go ahead--call your local PD and try to run a background check on me. I'm in there. I'm on file with the FBI. I've been inducted into the Army, two law enforcement agencies, and the national registry of EMTs. They have my fingerprints. I have a Social Security number and a valid driver's license. Try to run a check on me, private gun seller. Wayne A. Shingler, date of birth April 13, 1972. That's all you need. If you get a result showing someone in Ohio, that's me. I'm the only person in Ohio with both that name and birth date. Just tell the dispatcher you want to sell me a gun, but you want to make sure I'm legit first. "No, I'm not a licensed dealer or a bail bond agent or a security company or anything. I just want to sell this guy my gun."

They wouldn't do it, would they? That's because NCIC is for official use only. If they ran it, they could lose their terminal and the operator could go to jail.

But wait a minute...some jobs require a background check. How do they do that? That comes from the Sheriff's Office Records. I can go stand in line at the courthouse, show them my drivers license, pay to get a dated copy of my criminal record (or verification that I don't have one), and bring it to you. So we have a shiny new law that says you have to run a background check on me before you can sell me a gun--a law, meaning there are penalties if you violate it--and I'm standing there in your living room with a piece of paper that purports to be a criminal background check saying I'm clean. Are you going to trust that that's the real thing? How do you know I didn't just print that off my own computer? You'll just have to get the information yourself.

So, total stranger who put an ad up somewhere saying you've got a gun for sale, ask me to fill out a form with my full name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, driver's license number, and signature. Have me sign a release giving you full access to my records. Ask for payment so you can pay the records check fee. Then send me on my way without the gun, telling me you'll call me in a few days. In other words, for all I know, ask me to pay you to steal my identity. Do I have any guarantee you'll destroy any record of that information after I buy the gun? Or if I change my mind and don't buy it? What if someone else shows up and offers you more money for the same gun? Can I be sure you won't run the check and that you'll destroy my information and refund my money? It gets pretty complicated. How easy do you think it'll be to sell that gun if you have to run a check? (Those online background checking services? They just submit the same records requests you could do yourself.)

And what if, after you run the check and sell me the gun, I commit a crime with it? The police come knocking on your door claiming you didn't exercise due diligence before selling me the gun. How can you prove that you ran the check? I'll tell you. You get a federally licensed gun dealer to run the check. They're required to maintain records of background checks. But why would a dealer do that for you? You're cutting into his business and you want him to do you a favor? He's in the business of selling guns, not running background checks.

"Okay, simple. We just won't allow any gun sales other than by licensed dealers."

Let's say a relative of yours dies, and leaves everything to you. There's an old house that you'll sell and a bunch of household goods inside it. You keep a few mementos, but decide to sell the rest. Rather than hiring an auctioneer, you opt to have a yard sale.

Do you have a vendors license? A sales tax ID number? Is the yard zoned for commercial sales? Are you insured for running a retail business there? Suppose that in order to sell those old dishes and blankets and such, you were legally required to establish a business and open up a storefront somewhere, and obtain a federal license authorizing you as an estate-goods retailer. Would it be worth doing all that? Probably not.

Well, imagine that in that house full of old stuff, there's also an old break-action shotgun worth about $90. Are you going to go through all that hassle--including a $200 fee for a federal license to become a firearms dealer--to sell a $90 gun? If not, and if all sellers have to be licensed, and you're not already a dealer or looking to go into business as one, and you somehow come into possession of a gun, you're stuck with it. Of course, this assumes that you're even eligible to receive the gun. Did your relative run a background check on you before transferring the gun by putting you in his will?

It's already illegal to sell a gun to anybody who's not allowed to own one--criminals, the mentally ill and incompetent, minors, and drug or alcohol abusers--regardless of whether you're licensed or not. Between that and the difficulties of running a background check, there's already a strong disincentive against unlicensed individuals selling guns to people they don't know and trust.

"We could require that people only sell their guns to licensed dealers."

Imagine you've got a gun you paid $1,400 for, still in the box. The condition is like new. But then someone in your home is diagnosed with a mental illness, and you think the responsible thing to do is to get rid of the gun. The only person you can sell it to is a licensed dealer, and there are only three licensed dealers in your town. Two of them are pawn shops. How much do you think you're actually going to get? You take what they offer or you don't sell it. Some people buy guns like others buy stocks or precious metals. Force them to sell only to gun dealers, and you're causing them to lose possibly thousands of dollars, with gun dealers reaping the profits.

It's not that background checks aren't a good idea. They are. That's why we require licensed gun dealers to perform them. It's just that nobody has yet come up with a workable plan for regulating sales between private individuals. Outlaw it outright, and you'll just expand the black market. What we need there is a cost-effective, convenient way for private sellers to perform checks without violating anyone's privacy. With the internet, this should be possible. I can envision a smart phone app that not only runs a criminal background check, but that can do it just by photographing a potential buyer's driver's license or fingerprints. Until a system like that exists, I don't see how we can reasonably demand background checks on sales between private individuals.


People who are declared by a court to be mentally ill are already required to be entered into NCIC. The problem is that not all states do it or enforce it well. They claim they can't afford to. After the Virginia Tech massacre, Congress approved $1.3 billion for grants to help states comply with this requirement. The NRA, incidentally, supported this measure. It was advocates for the mentally ill who opposed it, because they didn't want the patients to be stigmatized.

What more do we need beyond that? I've heard it suggested that everyone be required to undergo a psychological evaluation before being allowed to purchase a gun. What sort of evaluation? How extensive is it to be? Shall we administer a full Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, taking 60 to 90 minutes, every time someone buys a box of shells? Will every gun store have a psychiatrist on staff to administer these tests and interpret the results? What's the bar we'll set? How devoid of anger does a person have to be before they can be trusted with a weapon? How perfectly in control of their temper? Maybe if a person flips off other drivers when they get cut off in traffic, we'll have to revoke their right to self-preservation entirely, but if they just mutter under their breath, we can allow them a small-bore shotgun.

If a person has issues that don't pose any danger of violent or reckless behavior, will we let them have a gun or not? Can people who are afraid of spiders have a gun? What if they're afraid of public speaking? How about someone who believes in the magical power of prayer? In a political environment where the anti-gun crowd describes anyone who owns a gun as being a "paranoid gun nut fantasizing about mowing down their neighbors," I'm concerned that simply wanting to buy a gun may disqualify someone as too mentally ill to have one. It all depends on who writes the rules. Given that anti-gun voices have been disproportionately represented when crafting recent executive orders and legislation, I don't think the possibility of such a bias is so far-fetched.

Furthermore, while I acknowledge the need to keep guns and other dangerous objects away from people who can't be trusted to handle them safely, I'm also leery of preemptively denying people their constitutional rights on the basis that they might possibly do something illegal at some undefined point in the future. That path leads us to locking up people for thought crimes, or, like the Soviets did, committing people to mental institutions and drugging them up for having the wrong political beliefs. I don't say this to negate the need to keep the dangerously mentally ill unarmed, but to point out the need to balance these concerns. The anti-gun movement since Sandy Hook has exhibited serious tunnel vision, emotionally focusing on guns and nothing else, not even basic civil rights. If that kind of fanaticism isn't put in check, we could very quickly see the sort of tyranny the "paranoid gun nuts" have been stockpiling ammunition to fight against, as whatever politicians happen to be in power ride that wave of public hysteria to expand their power even further.


There's an old saying that before you tear down a fence, you should find out why it was put up in the first place. In this case, I think that advice would be well employed in examining both the Second Amendment and the reason we haven't renewed the AWB since it expired nine years ago.

I won't attempt here to give you a full lesson on the role of the firearm in American history, but it's important we touch on some highlights. The first battle of the American Revolution occurred when British troops were sent to seize weapons that the Massachusetts militia had been stockpiling. The militia intercepted them and a firefight broke out at Lexington. As gun control proponents are fond of pointing out, the militiamen were armed only with single-shot, flintlock muskets, not semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines; however, so were the British--at that time the most powerful military force on the planet. The musket was the "assault rifle" of its day, the standard infantry firearm. With that gun and wooden ships, the British Empire became a global superpower.

The flintlock musket, the deadliest piece of military technology in its day that could be operated by one soldier, was also hanging over the mantle of almost every cabin and farmhouse in this subjugated colony. The colonists could not speak, assemble, or worship freely, but King George allowed them to keep these weapons of war in their homes. Never mind that the local Indians managed to hunt and protect themselves just fine with stone-tipped arrows fired from wooden bows. Most of the colonists were loyal to the king. They expected to be able to protect themselves and provide for themselves like any other modern, civilized, loyal Englishmen. Colonists keeping military arms just wasn't seen as a problem until some of them started talking about rebellion.

After the war was over and the Founders got down to the business of writing a plan for how the new country was to be governed, they took care to prevent the kind of tyranny they had just defeated from ever resurfacing. There were to be elections, and three branches of government with each one limiting the powers of the others. Then as an afterthought, they decided it would be a good idea to spell out some specific limitations on government. These 10 amendments were to be an acknowledgement of certain natural human rights that no government should have the power to take away. We call this the Bill of Rights. If you don't know them, go read them now. It's a quick way to get a good idea of exactly what kind of troubles America's first leaders didn't want to repeat.  Click here to read the Bill of Rights

One point they took for granted was that there should never again be a standing army. This doesn't mean they wanted the soldiers to sit in chairs. It means they didn't think there should be soldiers except on a temporary basis whenever the country was at war. Unless Congress passed a declaration of war, there was to be no army. Remember that this was before there was any such thing as a police department. (It would be another 40 years before Sir Robert Peel came up with that idea.) At that time, order was kept by the Army, but since the Founders feared that an army without a war to keep them busy might turn its attention toward repressing the people, they decided that the country would best be protected in peacetime by a citizen militia.

Note that I didn't say "a National Guard." The militia was defined as pretty much all able-bodied, white males of military age who weren't exempted due to being employed in some critical occupation like piloting ferries or delivering the mail. Basically, it was everyone who was eligible for the draft. As it turned out, the militia was badly needed. Little rebellions popped up pretty regularly in the new United States. Everyone from slaves to impoverished veterans to disgruntled farmers was trying to overthrow something. Without an army, the only way to deal with this was to call up the militia. It was supposed to work like a volunteer fire department, everyone turning out when the alarm sounded. In some cases, though, the militiamen were so poorly equipped that they couldn't adequately perform their job. Some of them didn't even have guns. The second Militia Act of 1792 addressed this by requiring that every member of the militia equip himself with standard infantry weapons and equipment. As time went on, the definition of the militia got a little broader, dropping the racial requirement. Some states later included women and expanded the ages of service.

When they finally got around to establishing a National Guard in the early 20th Century, it was not a substitute for the militia. Congress at that point recognized the militia as consisting of two parts--the Organized Militia (that's the National Guard and Naval Reserve) and the Reserve Militia. The Reserve Militia (also called the "Unorganized Militia" in some states) is all the members of the militia who aren't members of the Organized Militia. It's not a matter, then, of whether you "join" a militia; if you're of military age and not in the federal military, National Guard, Naval Reserve, or State Military Reserve, you're in the Reserve Militia. Unlike the writers of the 1792 Militia Act, the Congress that wrote the Dick Act in 1903 establishing the National Guard didn't say anything about Reserve Militiamen being required to arm and equip themselves, nor did it establish a command or training structure for the Reserve Militia. It appears the Reserve Militia was just supposed to wait around to be drafted. Notably, though, Congress never bothered to prohibit the Reserve Militia from owning military weapons or any other kind of firearms. Machine guns wouldn't be restricted until 1934. 

Let's look at where we are today. The Founders didn't want us to have a standing military. Instead of sticking to that plan, we've built the largest, most expensive military in the world several times over. The Founders didn't want soldiers pushing citizens around. Instead, we've created legions of law enforcement agencies to do that, and they're becoming increasingly militarized. The Congress in 1792 wanted to make sure that every military-eligible American had the weapons and equipment he needed to serve as a soldier. What do soldiers carry these days?

Body armor. Kevlar helmets. M4 rifle capable of firing in both semi-auto and full-auto mode. Lots and lots of high capacity magazines stuffed in those pouches. Two-way radios. Helmet-mounted night vision goggles (not shown in this picture). These are the musket and shot pouch of today. These are the knapsack and powder horn every able-bodied American should have ready at hand. We don't have M4s, seeing as they're full-auto, but we do have a semi-auto that looks similar. It was created specifically for civilians and was modeled after the M4's predecessor, the M-16. It's called the AR-15, and it's the most popular rifle in America, with many variations and imitations being sold.

This is the modern musket. If you were to be called into service to fight off any modern armed force, this is what you'd need at a bare minimum. Care to guess which specific gun Democrats in Congress are trying to ban?

The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994
The original assault weapons ban was one part of the much larger Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In addition to banning certain weapons, allocating money to hire more police officers, and creating the Violence Against Women Act, the VCLEA also funded the construction of more prisons, drastically expanded the federal death penalty, took away Pell grants for prison inmates trying to earn college credits while incarcerated, and created a host of new federal crimes. The Assault Weapons Ban was passed as a reactionary measure in response to the Battle of Waco and a mass shooting in San Francisco. It failed to prevent the school shootings at Paducah, KY (1997), Jonesboro, AR (1998), or Columbine, CO (1999).

As the writers of the '94 AWB were people whose ignorance about firearms was matched only by their fear of them, the law focused more on the appearance of weapons than their functionality, leading many gun enthusiasts to refer to it as "the Scary Black Rifle Ban." Specifically, it outlawed the manufacture or import of semi-automatic rifles capable of accepting a removable magazine, and that had at least two of the following features: a pistol grip, a flash suppressor, a telescoping or folding stock, a bayonet lug, and a device for firing muzzle-launched grenades.

Consider the way the law treated these two guns:
                            Tactical Rifle
The manufacture and importation of this first one was illegal because it has a collapsible stock, a pistol grip, a removable magazine, and a flash suppressor.
                             Ranch Rifle
This classic looking hunting rifle accepts a removable magazine (hidden here, because it's a 5-round mag that fits entirely inside the stock), but has none of the other forbidden traits, so it was still legal to make.

They're the same gun. These are two different styles of the Ruger Mini-14. They're both semi-automatic rifles. They both shoot .223 caliber or 5.56 millimeter bullets, the same as most military rifles used by NATO armies--the same round fired by the AR-15 and M-16. The one with the wooden stock can use the big, scarier-looking 20-round magazine shown in the black gun. It can take even bigger magazines than that. The second gun fires just as fast as the first. They're equally deadly in every respect. The difference between these two is essentially the difference between getting vinyl or leather upholstery in a car. It has no effect on how many passengers it carries or how fast it goes. Put a spoiler on a mini-van or a trailer hitch on a Ferrari, and you've got the idea.

Notice that I only said the law banned the importation or manufacture of the scarier looking guns. It didn't outlaw the ownership or even the sale of weapons fitting these criteria that were already in existence. You could still buy a so-called assault rifle and high-capacity magazines. You just couldn't buy new ones.

The Assault Weapons Ban of 2013

Now the people who brought us the Ban of '94 want to take another crack at it, and they're seeking to correct some of their previous mistakes. When the old ban went into effect, many gun makers simply redesigned their banned guns to make them compliant. Pistol grips were replaced with thumb-hole stocks. They got rid of the bayonet mounts since nobody uses them these days anyway. New magazine designs were created that technically didn't count as "removable." The new ban is much broader, seeking to eliminate these work-arounds. For a gun to be classified as an assault weapon, it would only need to have one of the prohibited features, rather than two. They've also added new language to classify a number of semi-auto handguns and shotguns as assault weapons.

The Ruger Mini-14 Tactical Rifle pictured above is specifically outlawed, but not the Ranch Rifle. The gun-grabbing legislators still don't get it. They just know the manufacturers pulled one over on them with thumb-hole stocks and the like.

“But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong...on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities...” -President Barack Obama, New Orleans, July 25, 2012
As the President noted in the 2012 Presidential debates that our military doesn't use many bayonets or horses these days, he should also be aware that battles today are not fought by cavalry formations or entrenched soldiers squaring off in a cow pasture. There is no longer any distinction between battlefields and city streets. The President's own men certainly don't make that distinction.

I believe that the purpose of reiterating that false distinction is to fix in our minds the idea that cities are safe places where there's simply no need for that level of protection. I believe that in choosing these words, the President wants us to be as shocked by the presence of a rifle in a city as we would be by a polar bear on the subway, so shocked we cry for its immediate removal. I keep hearing gun control proponents saying of semi-auto rifles, "Those things are only made for mass murder," and, "Only soldiers should have those!" There's one problem with that.

The people who get called every time a crime is committed are a little harder to convince that our cities are safe places where nobody needs a rifle for protection. Are we more bulletproof than they are? If these highly trained experts in self-defense, with a clearer view than anybody of what happens on our streets, believe that they need to equip themselves like this in order to stay safe, why aren't the rest of us doing the same? When a firefighter runs out of a building, you'd better follow him. When a cop gears up for battle, expect one. It is the height of madness to say that our cities are so dangerous that we need them guarded and patrolled by squads of government troops in full combat gear, and then turn around and say that those same cities are such safe places that nobody needs a gun for anything but shooting ducks one at a time.

Oh, by the way, speaking of the AK-47...see this gun?

It's a Ruger Mini-30. It's identical to the Mini-14s pictured above, except that instead of being chambered for the .223/5.56, this gun shoots a 7.62 x 39--the same round fired by the AK-47. While the AK and all its variants are specifically named in the 2013 gun ban, the Mini-30 will still be legal, at least in this configuration. There is one with a flash suppressor. Then again, it's possible that the part of the stock there toward the front, the part with the four holes on top, might fit Senator Feinstein's definition of a "barrel shroud," in which case all models of the Mini-14/Mini-30 would be illegal to sell, manufacture, transfer or possess...unless they're legally owned before the ban goes into effect. Just like last time, there will still be just as many guns of this type as there are now. You just wouldn't be able to get new ones.

You see, then, why there's such a rush on the gun stores. The buyers aren't paranoid. They just see an investment opportunity. If they buy it now, and then the bill passes and they quit making new stuff, the old stuff will increase in value.

And finally...


That's exactly what's being proposed in California's legislature.  At the end of December, Governor Cuomo was kicking around the idea of confiscating New Yorkers' guns. In early January, Iowa state Rep. Dan Muhlbauer said, "the state of Iowa should take semi-automatic weapons away from Iowans who have legally purchased them prior to any ban that is enacted if they don’t give their weapons up in a buy-back program." Know the facts before you dismiss as insane everyone who does know them.