The first battle in America’s war at home has been won. That battle was over simply acknowledging that the war existed in the first place—that even though violence has not increased appreciably in recent years, we’ve been in a state of denial about its Vietnam-like toll. 1993 will be remembered as the year when we woke up and realized that other nations thought we were insane—and that perhaps they were right. The elements driving this first victory were a series of especially gruesome murders, a new administration receptive to some gun control, the re-definition of gun violence as a public health issue, and a news media that has moved from an unthinking “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality to at least occasionally more sophisticated coverage of the root causes of violence.
Beyond confronting those root causes, the more immediate battle requires heavier—and more creative—firepower. A complete ban on the manufacture and sale of handguns will never happen in this country, so we’ve got to begin thinking about other points of entry. The Clinton administration is already on track with the first part of the agenda: banning assault weapons, tightening gun dealership regulation, and establishing a national gun permit system that makes obtaining a gun license at least as difficult as getting a driver’s license. Like the Brady Bill, these are small changes that require considerable work and commitment and won’t make much of a dent in gun violence. But they are a start. The next, much more difficult step is to turn the gun into just another consumer product that can be regulated by the federal government. If the Consumer Product Safety Commission finds a toy to be dangerous, it orders it withdrawn from the market. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (or a successor bureau with more teeth and less baggage) should have the power to recall especially dangerous handguns and ammunition at any time, which would still preserve the overarching right to manufacture and sell certain kinds of guns.
Even this will not do anything about the illegal guns used in most crimes. By some estimates, there are already 200 million guns out there that would be unaffected by any gun control legislation.
So it’s time for a different approach.
“When the French could not build the Panama Canal and the Americans did, it is because we had figured out that yellow jack was carried by the anopheles mosquito,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan says. “We did not, in fact, understand the actual virus, but we knew the vector that carried it to the human host. And we did not issue fly swatters, we drained the swamp.”
The violence pathogen that Moynihan favors analyzing is ammunition, which is not, by the way, covered explicitly by the Second Amendment. There is little if any research on bullet control, so the first goal is simply to create some ferment on the issue. Is it true, for instance, that there is only a four-year supply of ammo in the U.S.? No one knows the answer. Moynihan’s plan to apply a 10,000 percent tax on some bullets is worth trying. It would reduce the supply of certain bullets in the short run, but it’s insignificant as a revenue raiser, and without restructuring the industry, ammo makers would simply increase production of equally odious bullets. The Black Talon hollow-point bullet was recently recalled and everybody cheered, but there remain at least 12 other kinds of equally dangerous hollow-points that can meet demand.
A more radical solution would be: 1) require that all bullets be bought with a special credit card that identified the purchaser, and 2) require serial numbers on every bullet, perhaps engraved on an indestructible microchip that cannot be smashed on impact (and which would help make bullets more expensive). Once the bullet is scanned for its number, a warrant could be immediately issued for the arrest of the purchaser. This would provide a strong incentive for gun owners to lock up their guns and ammo so that they won’t be stolen, which would cut down on the household accidents that cause so many gun deaths. It would also encourage the reporting of stolen guns and ammo, which would lead to more people being brought in who are wanted by authorities on other charges.
Eventually, the government could permit the manufacture of only those bullets that fit certain guns—and no others. That could turn millions of weapons into overnight antiques. Such a change would require advances in bullet technology that have not been attempted so far. Right now, much ammunition is interchangeable between hunting rifles and handguns. But new bullet technology could conceivably prevent that. It may even be possible to convince the gun industry that it stands to win a huge new market—thousands of legitimate gun owners who would have to buy new, heavily regulated guns to fit the new, permissible bullets.
There are obvious practical problems that would have to be solved. Overnight, a huge black market in homemade bullets would spring up, and bullet smuggling could make drug smuggling look like small potatoes. But we have got to be open to Moynihan’s process of creative thinking on violence.
In the meantime, advocates of gun and ammo control must acknowledge some uncomfortable truths. If they expect conservatives to compromise long-held convictions and move toward the mainstream on guns and bullets, they must move toward the mainstream on punishing criminals. That means pushing to reform the juvenile justice system so that young thugs can be sentenced as adults, supporting “three strikes and you’re out” proposals (three violent—with the emphasis on violent—felony convictions and you get a life sentence), and greater constitutional latitude on search and seizure.
Busting our mental blocks on crime means that it’s no longer good enough to say, “The problem is guns, not lenient judges,” (ACLU) or “The problem is career criminals, not guns,” (the NRA) or “The problem is guns, not violence in the media,” (Hollywood liberals) or “The problem is violence in the media, not guns,” (the U.S. Senate). All of these are problems, and anyone who doesn’t recognize that has no business being taken seriously in the debate.