The recent tragedies in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino have prompted more calls for gun control. But what controls? And will they work?
Gun-control advocates say we need universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and gun sales to those on the no-fly list. Unfortunately, these laws are not likely to stop terrorists or deranged persons determined to commit mass murder.
Both Colorado and California have universal background checks, which means they require a background check on every sale – retail or private. These checks did not stop the recent attacks. Yet President Obama, Hillary Clinton and other gun control advocates keep pushing such checks at the federal level.
Universal background checks cannot stop people who are dangerous but have no disqualifying records. The Umpqua College shooter apparently was seriously mentally ill but passed Oregon’s strict universal background-check law.
Background checks also are subject to bureaucratic error. The Charleston church shooter should not have been allowed to purchase a gun because he had confessed to a drug charge, but his data were not entered correctly into the background-check database.
President Obama wants to ban “powerful” assault weapons. So-called assault rifles sold to civilians are not the same guns our military uses in war. They do not spray bullets with a single press of the trigger like a machine gun. They fire only one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, like every other ordinary civilian firearm. They shoot small-to-intermediate-sized bullets common to hunting rifles used to shoot rabbits or deer, but not big animals like elk or bears.
The features that define assault rifles – telescoping stocks, barrel shrouds, pistol grips and bayonet lugs – make the rifle look scarier but have nothing to do with the gun’s rate of fire, ammo capacity or firepower.
The federal government banned assault weapons from 1994 to 2004, but the ban had little or no effect on gun violence. Laws in France and Belgium banned the fully-automatic rifles used in the recent terror attacks. The terrorists still got the weapons they wanted. The two rifles used in the California attack were sold in compliance with the state’s strict assault weapons ban, but then illegally modified.
President Obama wants to block gun sales to those on the government’s secretive no-fly list. This list contains names of persons merely suspected of being terrorists – those who may be too dangerous to fly but are too harmless to arrest. The list is notoriously inaccurate. One report says 77 employees of the Homeland Security department are on the no-fly list. There is no fair and expeditious process for innocent persons to clear their names from the list.
Using the no-fly list to keep people from exercising their Second Amendment right to arms is almost surely unconstitutional. The government cannot deny constitutional rights based on mere suspicion and speculation.
If these laws don’t work, why do gun-control advocates insist on having them? By taking advantage of the public’s ignorance about guns and gun laws, they create an illusion of security. That’s why politicians like them.
But there’s another reason. Many gun-control advocates don’t like guns and don’t want anyone having guns. Their endgame is not gun control, but gun confiscation. Obama has pointed to the mass confiscation of guns in Australia as a model for the United States – despite the fact that the Australian ban had no effect on firearm homicides. Current gun-control proposals are just intermediate steps toward registration, then confiscation.
Americans own over 300 million guns. Gun confiscation means taking away a huge number of guns from a huge number of gun owners. We tried something like that with Prohibition, and it didn’t work out so well. And then, of course, there’s that inconvenient Second Amendment that would need to be repealed.
If gun control is the proper response to terrorism and mass murder, then gun-control advocates should give up their security theater and confiscation fantasies. Specify what gun laws would have made a difference in these cases, and let’s talk about them – nobody wants these tragedies to continue. But please stop wasting our time with gun controls that burden law-abiding citizens but do little or nothing to stop mass murderers.
E. Gregory Wallace is a law professor at Campbell University School of Law, where he teaches a course on firearms law. The views expressed are his own.