I would like for the mass shootings in the U.S.A. to stop, and I would like for the overall decline in firearms violence in the U.S. to continue, if not accelerate. I would also like to see accidental deaths by firearms, suicide by firearms and other similar problems be addressed by our society. While I am a firearm owner, and I do not want to see civilian firearm ownership banned, I think *one part* of our society’s answer to these challenges can come in the form of sensible gun-legislation.
But what do I mean by sensible gun-legislation? Currently I think three types of gun legislation:
- Sensible gun legislation that is law: These are laws that strike the right balance between wanting to curb social problems with firearms (crime, suicide, accidental death, etc.) while respecting the Second Amendment. They force gun culture in the U.S. to be more responsible and I think that’s great. Example: In California you have to show that you know how to properly handle and store a handgun before you purchase it.
- Sensible gun legislation that isn’t law: There is sensible gun legislation that is not law. This often the result of NRA/Firearms manufacturers lobbying efforts, the fear of our government become repressive, or politicians pandering to the Right. Example: Why isn’t the above California law Federal/national?
- Non-sense gun legislation that is law: There are gun laws that make no sense. Often they are the product of public outcry over especially heinous crimes involving firearms, that has been whipped up by media focus and political haymaking. This style of legislation makes us feel like we are “doing something” about firearms violence when we are not. They just inconvenience firearms owners or infringe upon the Second Amendment without justification. Example: In California it is illegal to own a traditionally set up AR-15 rifle. However, a Ruger Mini-14 ranch rifle, which almost identical in function and form but not cosmetically an “assault rifle” is legal. This makes no sense. Additionally rifles, of any type, are rarely used in crimes. In 2011, only 3.7% of firearms homicides were committed with any sort of long rifle. While firearms crimes in California have fallen, and some attribute this to the tough legislation passed in California, I would suggest this is more just following national trends.
What Obama is Proposing:
In response to a number of mass shooting and due to the lack of Congressional actions, Obama has announced a series of Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence and Make our Communities Safe. I want to summarize what I believe Obama is actually proposing and evaluate what is being proposed.
- Background Checks: Obama is requiring any “firearms dealer” regardless of if they conduct sales primarily at a store, a gun show or online to obtain an FFL license. This license would require them to perform background checks for all sales. Dealing in firearms and not having this license carries a jail sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine.While this would theoretically be used to punish people who are operating as firearms dealers without an FFL (and that’s fine by me) the language is worrying and the law redundant.
In regards to the wording there is no set limit or clear guidelines in regards to who deemed to be “operating as a firearm dealer” provided by the government. It is even stated that people who have made one sale or even one or two guns have been charged in this manner. To me this ends private firearms sales. Who in their right mind would sell a gun from their collection to a friend or to another person if they could later be charged with acting as a dealer without an FFL? I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad or good thing, I’m just saying this actions has a larger impact than what is technically stated.
Furthermore legal online gun sales already have to be shipped to a licensed FFL dealer who runs the background check and then you can pick it up for them. So what loophole is this actually closing?
Additionally, while the background check system that FFLs are required to use has stopped ~2 millions firearms purchases to people who should not have them, according to the ATF a number of licensed FFL dealers are being used by firearms traffickers or in collusion with them. These firearms end up in the hands of criminals even though the backgrounds checks passed. What would stop new dealers from registering and doing the exact same thing? At least the process would put them under more scrutiny but the problem still remains.Finally, the actions includes putting a stop to a process where citizens apply to legally obtain NFA items by forming a trust or corporation. NFA items cover specific firearms (such as fully-automatic firearms, short barreled rifles, and short-barreled shotguns) and firearm-related items (such as suppressors). Normally you have to apply for them and get the signature of a Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) in your area and pay a tax stamp. To avoid some of this hassles some have formed trusts or corporations to work around this or expedite the process. This action closes that option but it is also notable that the ATF has removed the CLEO signature requirement which was a major impediment to many people and the reason this alternative path was used. Additionally it should be noted registered NFA items are essentially *never* used in crime. Since 1934 there have been two crimes involving legally owned NFA weapons. Overall this directive closes an alternative path to NFA ownership that is no longer needed and does not really impact firearms crime, suicide, or accidental discharge.
- Streamlining and reinforcing existing systems: A number of the Executive Actions included steps at streamlining and reinforcing current existing systems and laws.First, upgrades will be made to the background check system and an additional 230 FBI agents will be hired to add staffing for it to increase the speed of the background check system and make it available 24/7. Currently a firearms dealer can legally sell an individual a firearm if the background check does not come back in three days so technically an individual who shouldn’t have a firearm could purchase one if the system was too slow. It is unclear how many such purchases this streamlined system may prevent and how many of these purchase lead to firearms related issues.Additionally 200 ATF agents will be hired “to help enforce our gun laws.” This would bring the total number of employees to ~5,000 and the total number of agents to ~2,700. Part of this new added manpower will be used to track illegal online gun sales, including those occurring in the “dark net.” While I’m not exactly sure how much impact additional agents will have on firearms issues I am glad the ATF is expanding to the “dark net.” This is an area where I think a lot of illegal guns sales could potentially happen in the future.Finally $4 million will be used to enhance the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. This will centralize a lot of the processing of ballistic evidence from crimes so that a firearm used in previous crimes in different criminal jurisdictions can be connected.
- Domestic Violence: The Attorney General has called for the renewing of domestic violence outreach efforts. Now domestic violence is a factor in firearms crimes, but this point is so vague I cannot even evaluate it. What programs are being renewed? Are the programs that are being renewed working? Who has access to these programs? The only clear part that I would agree with on principle is removing firearms from domestic violence offenders, a law we already have in California when and where a restraining order is in effect, but again, this is only encouraged and I’m not sure what other states have similar laws already on the books.
- Mental Health: The third point of Obama’s Executive Actions is centered on mental health, and this point is perhaps the most problematic to me.Before addressing the specific aims, I just have to say the inclusion of mental health in gun control laws appears to imply that the mentally ill are inherently violent and prone to gun violence. This is problematic and reinforces the stigma surrounding mental illness. Almost the exact opposite is actually true: the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it, a fact the White House even confusing admits to in its own press release. That being said, there are three moves these actions attempt to take.
First, “The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.” While any additional allocation of funds to mental health care in the U.S. is welcome, a one time investment of $500 million (nationally) falls far short of what is actually needed. Mental health issues are expensive to treat in the current predatory and capitalistic healthcare system we have in the U.S. According to the APA mental health issues, “were one of the five most costly conditions in the United States in 2006 with expenditures at $57.5 billion.” While a lot of suicides by firearms are the result of depression, it is unclear what other firearms issues these funds are designed to prevent.Second, the Social Security Administration will forward information on, “75,000 people each year who have a documented mental health issue, receive disability benefits, and are unable to manage those benefits because of their mental impairment, or who have been found by a state or federal court to be legally incompetent” to the appropriate authorities that will prevent them for owning firearms. While I agree there are people who should not own firearms, including those who due to mental impairment cannot be responsible gun owners, this is already a law and has been since 1968. This action means that more people will be reported to the background check system than previously, which is overall a good thing, but I cannot think this will have a significant impact on firearm issues.Third, the Administration is seeking to remove barriers created by HIPAA that would prevent mental health professionals from reporting relevant mental health issues to the appropriate authorities. While I agree with this on principle, and it appears the Administration struck a good balance between privacy and public safety on this issue, I again do not see this making a large impact. That’s just my suspicion and I would like to see how many firearms issues would have been prevented if a personal dealing with mental illness, that was in treatment, could have been reported before they legally purchased a firearm and committed their crime or committed suicide.
- Gun Safety Technology: The President is directing the DoD, the DoJ, and the DHS to spearhead the research into and adoption of gun-safe technology, “that would reduce the frequency of accidental discharge or unauthorized use of firearms, and improve the tracing of lost or stolen guns.” There are numerous problems this directive is attempting to address and issues I have with this directive.First, there is the issue of accidental discharge. If there was a way to keep guns from going off accidentally I would love to see that developed and implemented. This increases gun safety by hopefully eliminating or significantly reducing death and injury caused by accidental discharge. That being said no gun will ever be 100% safe so shooter training and proper firearms ownership, storage, and handling can never be stressed enough.Second, there is the issue of stolen guns. Some firearm crimes involve stolen firearms. If a stolen iPhone can be tracked, why not a stolen firearm? While tagging every firearm with a unique trackable signature of some type so Law Enforcement could locate a stolen firearm once it is reported as stolen, makes perfect sense it also raise concerns. Giving the Government the ability to know exactly where every firearm is in the United States is a great power and one that could be abused.Third, if there was a way to make sure only an authorized user could use a specific firearm that would be great for law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are occasionally killed with their own firearm, and if their firearm would only work in their hand, this would solve that issue. The same technology could be used by civilians who are concerned about being disarmed or those with small children.
Overall I feel like these Executive Actions are a mixed bag but generally leave me underwhelmed. There are actions that enhance or reinforce existing sensible gun legislation (such as background checks), but there are also non-sense gun legislation that I fear will do little to “Reduce Gun Violence and Make Our Communities Safe” and simply inconvenience or needlessly restrict law abiding citizens (such as closing the NFA “loophole” and investing a token amount into mental health access).
However, it does not appear to me that any of these new actions would have prevented any of the recent mass shootings so I do not expect them to prevent similar ones from happening in the future. Nor do I see anything that I would think would markedly hasten the general decline in firearms violence that already exists.
While I’m not a member or supporter of the NRA it is telling that this assessment was essentially shared by the NRA, for whom one spokesperson quipped, “This is it? This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they’ve spent seven years putting together? They’re not really doing anything,” adding that at first glance the proposals appeared to be, “surprisingly thin.”
In my next post I’ll write more about other concrete steps we might take or additional sensible gun-legislation that we could think about to address the issues related to private firearms ownership.