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No Silver Bullet

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There is no silver bullet.
--Vice President Joe Biden

In a little-noticed remark just days before President Obama announced sweeping plans for gun control action and legislation, Joe Biden summed up the problem his task force was charged with tackling by using (depending on your reaction) either an incredibly appropriate phrase, or a wildly inappropriate phrase. After all, the subject is guns, so perhaps it isn't the time for bullet metaphors.

Then again, it's hard to argue with how perfectly the phrase "there is no silver bullet" fits the task Biden was assigned: to come up with suggestions for possible government action on the availability of guns in America. A "silver bullet" is a magical answer to a fantastical problem. In the classic myth, silver bullets were used to slay werewolves, and (depending on the fantasy realm you explore) at times, vampires and other things that go "bump" in the night. When faced with a big and unfathomable problem, a magical bullet can be forged which will slay the demonic foe. This is not to say that you can't literally make a bullet out of silver in the real world, but that the "silver bullet" idea itself is nothing more than a fantastical plot device. And such things rarely exist in reality. Biden reminded us all of this by his choice of words.

The big problem with gun control legislation is that a lot of it boils down to nothing more than liberal "feel-good-ism." Or, perhaps, "do-something-ism." Gun control legislation has, historically, almost always been purely reactionary in nature. Some terrible slaughter happens, the public demands the government "do something," and laws are passed which sometimes do have a positive effect and sometimes do not. The first major federal gun control law was passed in part due to the Saint Valentine's Day massacre in 1929, and Chicago gangsters' fondness for "Tommy guns."

Here's a quick quiz: is it legal today for a private individual to own a working Thompson submachine gun? Many believe private ownership of fully-automatic weapons has been banned, but this is actually not correct. Fly into Las Vegas and you'll see ads on the majority of taxis from gun ranges offering you the chance to fire a machine gun (do a web search on "Las Vegas" and "machine gun" if you don't believe me). If you happen to live in a state which allows such ownership, you can even buy a Tommy gun of your own.

To do so, you've got to jump through a lot of hoops, though. You've got to pay the feds a licensing fee ($200, although had it kept up with inflation, this 1934 figure should really have risen to over $3,400 by now). You've got to register the gun (actually, you have to register the transfer of the gun, as it will already be registered). You have to submit to an extensive background check, complete with submitting your fingerprints to the feds. You've got to get your local sheriff or police chief to sign off on the transfer. And you can be turned down.

Still, owning or even buying a Tommy gun is not illegal for an individual. If you want the pre-1930s classic "Chicago Organ Grinder" Thompson, though, you're going to have to pay anywhere from (according to Wikipedia) $25,000 to $45,000 for it.

What you can't do, however, is buy a brand-new fully-automatic rifle (or "machine gun"). That has been prohibited since 1986. Only older models are allowed to be owned or sold by private individuals. This puts a premium on the price, even for less-glamorous models than the classic Tommy gun. A transferable M16 rifle -- manufactured before May 19, 1986 -- costs (again, from Wikipedia) anywhere from $11,000 to $18,000, while the military buys new ones for $600 to $1,000. That's a pretty steep premium.

Gun control legislation should be measured by how effective it is at achieving the goals it sets out to attain. The story of the Tommy gun (and other full-auto guns) shows the way "grandfather" clauses work. Instead of outright bans on ownership (or, even more drastic, confiscation of a certain type of weapon), almost every gun control law proposed in America aims to reduce, over time, the availability of a certain type or class of weapon. It's not a silver bullet, it is instead a long and slow process.

What this means is that nothing will be solved overnight, even if Congress passed everything Obama is currently asking for today. The most-contentious proposal Obama made today is the renewal (and, assumably, permanency) of the lapsed "assault weapons" ban. By some estimates, however, there are upwards of a million of these weapons already in circulation in America. And that was before the frenzy of people buying them in the past month is even taken into consideration. If you think the panic buying is bad now, just wait until a deadline emerges from Congress -- thousands upon thousands of assault rifles will be purchased right up to the deadline. They'll be flying off the shelves. All of which adds up to an enormous number of these guns already legally-owned the day any such ban takes effect. All of which will be "grandfathered" in. Ditto for extended ammunition magazines, most likely.

Over time, this will have a gradual effect, though. By placing a premium on such weapons, their prices will eventually go through the roof. Owning a Tommy gun is legal, but you don't hear of them being used in crime much these days. Who would risk the loss of such a valuable weapon, when they cost five figures to buy? They are working museum pieces, not a public safety problem. But then, they've been under severe restriction for over 75 years. The process takes decades, not months or even years.

Judging how effective any particular gun control measure will be (or even can be) is tough, especially since virtually all restrictions will come with such grandfather clauses. President Obama announced possible improvements in tangential issues such as mental health and the pervasiveness of violence in popular culture, both of which may be laudable goals but also will be almost impossible to link definitively with any future stats on gun violence.

Obama (and Biden) had to face a few very hard realities before even proposing any remedies. Politically and socially, it would be virtually impossible (even in the post-Newtown environment) to pass any law which confiscated any gun from anyone. Likewise, banning (for instance) all handguns or semi-automatic weapons would just not be realistic politically, and would indeed open up constitutional questions. Ask even the gun control advocates, and they'll likely agree that any such legislation doesn't stand a chance of being passed.

To put it bluntly, any proposed new gun laws are only going to improve things on the margins of the scope of the problem. Which is why any and all of these proposals will be fought as liberal "feel-good" laws which will not solve the problem immediately. The classic example of this was the original assault rifle ban, back in the 1990s. The legislators proposing the ban quickly ran up against the problem of: "What, exactly, is an 'assault rifle'?" What they decided was (in essence) that semi-automatic rifles which "looked" like what they considered "assault weapons" were to be banned, but other semi-automatic rifles which looked only slightly less "assault weapon-ey" would not be banned. Functionality wasn't a consideration -- you could still buy just as powerful a weapon, as long as Dianne Feinstein didn't disapprove of how the weapon "looked." This led to a flurry of weapons manufacturers redesigning rifles so that they just barely fell outside the ban's language. Which made the whole ban somewhat of a joke.

Obama also made several proposals to increase the "cops in schools" programs, which already put armed police officers known as "School Resource Officers" ("S.R.O.s") in many schools across the country. Even the National Rifle Association seems to approve of this sort of thing, which means this proposal is a lot more likely to survive in Congress than, say, an assault weapons ban. But, once again, having cops in schools is no silver bullet. Putting federal money into the program (as Obama has previously tried to do) might make a whole lot of folks feel better (because the government "did something"), but doing so can have unintended consequences beyond the subject of guns, as Tracy Velázquez, of the Justice Policy Institute explained yesterday. Even putting this aside, having an armed cop at your kid's school is still no silver bullet.

There was indeed an S.R.O. on campus the day of the Columbine massacre. He exchanged fire with the two shooters on at least two separate occasions (one of which took place five minutes after the shooting started), without anybody hitting anything. Part of the problem of Hollywood violence is the widely-held notion that a cop with a handgun can "take down" any shooter at any range, just because he's a "good guy." In reality, handguns aren't that accurate, although you'll likely never see this in the movies. Just having one cop on campus in Columbine didn't have any real effect on the outcome of the slaughter -- the two shooters didn't commit suicide until a S.W.A.T. team entered the building -- over half an hour after the S.R.O. had fired at the shooters. And no one (that I'm aware of) is suggesting permanently stationing S.W.A.T. teams at schools, even now.

The pro-gun side of the debate would take this argument even further. They'll be pointing out that very few of the proposals Obama just made would have changed anything in Newtown, Connecticut. Laws restricting weapons sales weren't an issue, the shooter's mother had legally bought the weapons, not the shooter. Having guns to protect yourself wasn't very effective either (knocking down one of the pro-gun side's favorite arguments), since the mother was shot with her own weapons. Just about the only thing proposed today which might have changed the outcome in any way would be the restriction of large ammo clips. The thinking here is that forcing a gunman to reload limits his lethality and gives the good guys a better chance of taking him down. But the difference between having 30-round clips and 10-round clips would only really have meant the shooter would have had to carry more clips in his pockets in Newtown. The outcome would likely have been exactly the same.

Gun laws are almost always passed in reactionary fashion, but that doesn't mean they should be held to the standard of "preventing all future mass gun violence forever." That -- given the fact that no gun confiscations are ever going to happen in America -- is simply too high a standard. The depressing thing for gun control advocates, however, is that even changing things for the better -- or preventing some future lone-wolf gun attacks -- is one of those things that takes so long to manifest that it can lead to defeatism. Since nothing that could pass Congress would have had any real effect on Newtown, why even bother?

This is too pessimistic a stance, however. Gun laws are always going to change incrementally, at best, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth the effort of passing. Gun crimes with fully-automatic weapons are (mostly) a thing of the past, and that can directly be traced to laws passed in 1934 and 1986. There are fewer of them out there, no new ones can be bought, and the value of the guns themselves has grown so high that they're seen now (mostly) as collector pieces. Perhaps one day -- decades from now -- "assault rifles" will likewise be too valuable to contemplate using in criminal activity. But for the time being (even if a ban passes) there are over a million of them out there. That is not going to change overnight, even if Obama got everything he wanted from Congress. In fact, the only change that will likely happen is a bonanza for the manufacturers of such weapons, as people scramble to buy them before laws are passed. Who knows, maybe the number will top two million before Obama signs any such law? Even one of the best ideas in Obama's proposal -- closing all the loopholes to avoid background checks -- isn't going to change the total of guns that are already out there one bit.

There is, as Vice President Biden pointed out, no silver bullet legislation that will fix the problem quickly and permanently. The pro-gun folks can rest assured that not a single gun will be confiscated as a result of any of these laws. The pro-gun-control folks need to realize that no matter what gains they make, tragic gun violence is not going to magically disappear like the morning dew. Those are the real margins of this debate. Both sides should enter into the debate with reasonable expectations of the outcome, even though they probably won't. New gun control laws will almost assuredly have only a limited effect in the real world. Perhaps over time, things will get better, but it's going to take a while to even see this positive effect. Perhaps a powerful weapon will be kept out of the hands of a sociopath in the future, which is indeed a worthy goal to attempt.

Biden is right. There is no silver bullet. But both Biden and Obama are also right to make the attempt at chipping away at the problem of mass gun violence. "The problem is too big" should no longer been seen as an excuse to do even the marginal things which Obama is now proposing. Marginal gains are better than no gains, magic bullets aside.

-- Chris Weigant

 

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