A Gun Nut’s Guide to Gun Control That Works
I am a gun industry insider, a lifelong gun owner and a vocal advocate for Second Amendment rights. I am a Texan and an American patriot who hauls my family to church every Sunday in a diesel pickup truck, where I sit in the pew and listen to the Word with a 9mm pistol tucked inside the waistband of my fanciest jeans.
Isn’t this the part where the author inserts the inevitable “but”—as in, “I’m a firm Second Amendment advocate, but … ”? Well I’ve got no “buts” for you, because I don’t need them. I believe there is a way to increase both our individual gun rights and our collective safety, if we can only get gun controllers to quit bitterly clinging to outmoded feature bans and gun registries, and convince gun rights advocates that “liberty” isn’t just about “what’s in my gun safe” but also about being able to exercise one’s full spectrum of Second Amendment rights in every part of this great nation.
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The idea is simple but powerful: a federally issued license for simple possession of all semi-automatic firearms. This license would allow us to carefully vet civilian access to semi-automatic weapons, while overriding state-specific weapon bans and eliminating some of the federal paperwork that ties specific firearms to specific owners.
I offer this idea not only because I actually want to live in a world where it, or something like it, is the law of the land, but also because I and my fellow gun nuts are worried that a storm is coming that will sweep away a substantial portion of our gun rights without really making the country safer in return. We’re not even five months into a midterm election year, and 2018 has seen a string of high-profile incidents that have darkened the public’s view of civilian gun ownership: February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, followed by this month’s shootings at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, and at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee. In the aftermath of these killings, we’re hearing proposals for anti-gun measures that we thought were widely considered out of bounds in the gun control debate, like a ban on all semi-automatic firearms, a repeal of the Second Amendment, or even an outright ban on the private ownership of guns. Some of us think this will all blow over, as it always does. And maybe it will. But this time definitely feels different.
Our side faces a potent new enemy in the form of private-sector companies like REI, Delta Airlines, Citibank, YouTube and Reddit, which are taking an increasingly anti-gun stance. My fellow gun owners and I are now concerned not just with the potential erosion of our gun rights at the hands of our government, but also with the erosion of our ability to communicate and to educate about this topic in the online spaces that make up so much of modern civic life.
There is fear, despair and anger on both sides, and neither side wants to give an inch. We seem doomed to fight endlessly over the same handful of half-measures that neither side is happy with. A new approach—a federal gun license for semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15s used in the Parkland shooting and at the Nashville Waffle House—has the potential to make us all safer while offering a net increase in liberty for the country’s law-abiding gun owners.
Before I outline what such a license would look like, it’s important to identify the structural barrier that even moderate and discriminating efforts at gun control have run up against in recent decades. And no, that barrier isn’t a certain three-letter gun rights organization, nor is it the collective grievances of some benighted group of deplorables. Rather, it is the two pillars on which most of our modern life now rests: the market, and the forward march of technological innovation.
The newly reintroduced Assault Weapons Ban is emblematic of gun control proponents’ consistent failure to understand how gun technology and the gun market actually work in the 21st century. Gun bans that are based on outlawing certain firearm features (like the vertical foregrip or the adjustable stock) or limiting guns’ capabilities (for instance, by limiting the number of rounds of ammunition they can hold) are relics of a bygone era when you bought a gun and didn’t modify it without the help of a professional gunsmith.
Nowadays, the most popular rifles, shotguns and handguns are explicitly designed as modular weapon platforms, where parts can be mixed and matched with a few simple tools and no specialized expertise. In fact, not only is the AR-15 just such a modular and easily hackable platform, but so is the Army’s new standard-issue handgun, the SIG M17 (available to civilians as the P320).
For modern firearms, the “gun” from the perspective of federal law is typically an empty (and increasingly 3D-printable) metal frame or polymer shell with a serial number stamped into it, while all the rest of the parts that actually make the gun work are widely available online to anyone with a credit card.
Calls to end the sale of these modular weapons platforms, and to return to the classic wood-stocked hunting rifles and revolvers of a bygone era, are nothing less than calls to roll back a few decades worth of market-driven technological innovation. It’s just not going to happen. Halfway attempts are doomed, too. Any attempt to grandfather in existing guns will necessarily leave the parts market intact (otherwise, how do you repair them?), and customers who want a “new” gun can buy a new, mostly preassembled parts collection, and then insert it into an existing frame or into a newly (and easily) fabricated one.
What, then, can be done about the violence that plagues our cities and the mass shootings that terrorize us in our malls, theaters, churches and workplaces? I think there is an answer, but it involves forgetting about the “what” and focusing squarely on the “who.”
A federal license for all semi-automatic firearms would rest on two simple and well-defined concepts, one technical and one legal:
1) A “semi-automatic” firearm is one that fires a single round for each pull of the trigger, automatically reloading in between each shot until the ammo is depleted.
2) “Possession” is a legal concept from the drug war that implies that a person has a contraband item “on or about one’s person,” or has “control” over the item, perhaps by having it in a motor vehicle or in a home.
Because both of these things—“possession” and “semi-automatic weapons”—are easy to define, they’re easy to regulate.
Combine these two concepts with a thorough but reasonable vetting process, and you have the makings of a straightforward, effective system for keeping the most lethal class of weapons out of the hands of bad actors, while simultaneously lifting the burden of arbitrary weapon bans and federal red tape from law-abiding gun owners.
Under a licensing regime that authorizes license holders for possession of semi-autos, it doesn’t matter whose semi-auto you’re holding, where you got it, how big the magazine is, or how terrifying it looks to the New York Times editorial board. It only matters that you’ve been vetted and are licensed to possess this category of weapon.
License holders could swap such guns among themselves without the need for any sort of official transfer mechanism—like today’s Federal Firearm License transfers—that leaves a paper trail with the state. Right now, all retail gun purchases, and private-party gun transfers in many states, involve a two-step process: First, the purchaser fills out a paper form that links the gun to the buyer, and second, the seller conducts a federal background check. Together, these two components are referred to as an “FFL transfer.” By federal law, these paper records are not allowed to be digitized or made centrally available.
If you were a federal gun license holder, you wouldn’t have to do an FFL transfer whenever you take delivery of a firearm. This would make buying a gun of any type exactly like buying alcohol or any other controlled substance (for example, prescription drugs): flash your authorization, pay your money and walk out the door with whatever it is you bought, wrapped in a paper sack for privacy if you like.
If you weren’t a license holder, then simple possession of any semi-auto weapon would be a felony. Don’t have one on your person, or in your car or home. As for taking possession of the types of guns you could have without a license, then it’s universal background checks and FFL transfers for you—basically the status quo, in most states.
There are a lot of important details to be worked out, like the status of pump-action and lever-action guns, or the specific requirements for getting a license and keeping it current, or due process requirements for restoring a revoked license. Gun control advocates might want any gun that can fire without reloading included in the licensing regime (pump- and lever-action guns), and gun rights advocates might want current federal restrictions on suppressors and short-barreled rifles dropped. These types of issues could surely be ironed out, as long as we can agree on the basic framework of trading all federal and state bans and registries for a national semi-auto licensing regime.
The framework I’m proposing is essentially a grand bargain: The gun control side gives up the possibility of a federal gun registry, specific states abandon their weapon bans and long gun registries, and in exchange the gun rights side accepts a brand new federal licensing scheme with real teeth.
This bargain would be scary for both sides. Cities like New York and Chicago would have to allow licensed, law-abiding citizens to own AR-15s and high-capacity magazines within their borders, and residents of gun-friendly states like Texas would have to accept a more thorough level of vetting of ownership of certain guns than they currently do. The gun rights side would be justifiably concerned that a hostile Congress and president could one day attempt to use the licensing scheme to limit the gun rights of large, law-abiding sections of the population, possibly on some arbitrary pretext.
If we can get past these concerns, this licensing scheme could make us both safer and more free. Gun safety advocates would have the security of knowing that anyone who lawfully possesses a semi-automatic weapon has been thoroughly vetted, and that there are clear criteria in place for temporarily or permanently revoking that license should the gun owner cross agreed-upon lines.
An initial set of licensing requirements would undoubtedly include having one’s fingerprints on file with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a thorough background check that screens for things like domestic violence convictions and inclusion in the government’s terrorist watch list (assuming that list has been fixed by adding a way for innocent people to get their names removed). Gun controllers have long desired a national firearm licensing scheme that includes safe storage requirements and a demonstration of basic weapon proficiency; these things would be part of the negotiations. If they didn’t make the first cut, there would be a place to implement them should they gain popular support. Maybe gun controllers could offer the pro-gun side something it badly wants, like relaxing the federal restrictions on suppressors, in exchange for them.
The requirements above, when combined with background checks for all weapon transfers involving an unlicensed party, amount to universal background checks on steroids. In other words, you get universal background checks as a baseline for everyone, and then for the more dangerous class of weapons you get the extra vetting that the license requirements would provide.
The threat of temporary or permanent license revocation would create added leverage to enforce laws around disorderly conduct, road rage, domestic violence and similar offenses that may indicate that a person is a danger to others but don’t always rise to the level of a felony that gets them flagged as a prohibited person in the current background check system.
Finally, law enforcement officers would gain a powerful new tool for identifying and prosecuting bad actors: the ability to apprehend anyone caught in possession of a semi-auto without a valid license.
In exchange for the above rules, law-abiding gun owners would enjoy a new freedom to move to any state without surrendering any of their firearms, and to travel anywhere in the country without fear of being jailed for being pulled over with the wrong size magazine in their car. Most important, the many Second Amendment advocates for whom the threat of a national gun registry (and possible future gun confiscation) is a major concern could rest easier, knowing that such a registry would be taken off the table as a practical matter.
And all citizens would benefit from a fundamental shift in the tired, acrimonious American gun debate away from often comically inane fights over the particulars of weapon design (“how does a pistol grip turn an ordinary rifle into a weapon of mass destruction?”) and toward a more rational set of disputes around the requirements for semi-auto licensure, the grounds for license revocation, and the necessary due process requirements for license restoration.
I know you’re thinking that this scheme sounds too simple, and has a ton of obvious holes in it. It so happens that I’ve talked this idea through with a lot of really smart people on all sides of this debate. I’ve heard most of the good objections and have answers for them.
Let’s start with the pro-gun side:
Objection: A registry of people is more frightening than a registry of guns.