Sensible Gun Control: Between Semantics & Non-Starter “Solutions”

Let me start with this: I am not a gun owner or enthusiast. What I am is curious; I’ve shot handguns at indoor ranges and a number of my friends are enthusiastic owners of both sidearms and long rifles. These friends answer serious questions for me like, “How many AR-15’s does one person need?” (The answer, according to one of them, is three.)

I have mixed feelings on firearms — specifically, how far the Second Amendment should extend in an era of semi-automatic weapons made easily available for purchase online and off. With every mass shooting comes the sinking feeling in our collective stomach, followed by a familiar response: what the fuck do you need these things for? I’ve been asking this question myself since April 20th, 1999; I was home sick from middle school and got to watch the events at Columbine High School unfold on live TV.

The list of valid reasons to own a gun (or three — or thirteen, depending on their level of investment) is long and filled with examples of hardworking Americans whose firearms truly would have to be plucked from their cold, dead hands — ranchers, farmers, hunters. All of them, hopefully, utilize these weapons within the scope of their industry or lifestyle without brandishing them in public spaces and threatening the safety of bystanders. I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention the point hammered on by every enthusiast I know: the importance of gun ownership for those living in the areas overrun by feral hogs. Having never encountered a wild pig myself, I’m going to trust the experts that menacing hand gestures accompanied by a rousing “shoo!” is not enough to quell their masses.

Frankly I’m less concerned with the deaths of wild swine than the deaths of all the students, teachers, pedestrians, congregations, movie-goers, concert attendees, security officers, and bystanders brought about courtesy of assault-style weapons.

After watching CNN’s Town Hall pitting Parkland students against Florida Congressman Marco Rubio, one thing became perfectly clear: too much political capital is being burned while seekers of gun reform scream at NRA-approved candidates over semantics. In this case, burning political capital means alienating moderate voters who are waiting for what they consider to be workable solutions — unlike assault weapons bans, which many consider unenforceable.

When Nancy Pelosi issues vague statements about gun control, right-leaning publications push forth plenty of content surmising she’s calling for confiscation — and Democratic nominees in purple states suffer for it.

In the wake of the Aurora and Connecticut massacres, two Democratic state senators in Colorado provided critical support for a package of state gun laws. The New York Times reported “both sides spent heavily and campaigned fiercely, fighting to prevail in what analysts called a proxy battle between gun-control advocates and the National Rifle Association” — and this was just for a state package! Five months after the Senate struck down national gun control measures, the two were recalled and replaced with Republicans.


The conversation about gun control, if we can call it that, tends to get snagged on semantics. The thing you need to know about the gun community is that it’s comprised of detail fetishists. This is just as true of those building Swiss watches or model airplanes in their spare time, but that’s where the similarities end — there’s only one type of hobbyist whose final product causes cavitation.

The refusal of most the self-identified “left” to acquaint themselves with the technicalities of firearms and their legislation makes it easy for gun enthusiasts to be dismissive of their concerns as well as their suggestions. Those that know too little are seen as firmly on the outside, raging against all they do not know within. Such levels of expertise in the face of knee-jerk reactions enables the continued derailing of the conversation. Semantics matter.

Below are three photos of an AR-15, the modern sporting rifle (MSR) used in Parkland, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Chattanooga, Colorado Springs, and Crandon. The AR-15 is described as the perfect rifle: extremely accurate — provided you’re not using bump stock, reliable, and endlessly customizable — a lethal set of Legos, if you will, whose parts are not only inexpensive but easy to fabricate. Furthermore, they are easy to use safely, the ammunition is cheap, and they have almost no recoil. In short, they were made with the average idiot in mind.

Top: Illegal assault rifle. Middle: Legal assault rifle. Bottom: Illegal assault rifle.

So why is one of the three configurations legal, even in states with an assault rifle ban? Technicalities — the lack of a pistol grip (top), change in stock (also known as the butt of the rifle), and a smaller magazine (10 bullets versus 30). All three versions shoot the same ammunition from the same type of magazine, size notwithstanding, with the same accuracy — and the same horrifying results.

The suggestion that we ban the AR-15 sounds rational to most non-gun owners. The problem is that there are a handful of similar models on the market, each with slight alterations made to the design in the interest of avoiding patent infringement. Banning specific models of firearms has shown to be a poor use of legislative power in the past, as proven by the grandfather clause in Bill Clinton’s Assault Weapons Ban, which did nothing to restrict the ownership, sale, or transfer of the 1.5 million automatic weapons and over 24 million high-capacity magazines manufactured before the law went into effect. And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon homemade firearms.

Under federal law, anyone not considered a “prohibited person” based on the criteria laid out in the Federal Background Check Form is not only allowed to purchase weapons, but manufacture them provided they do not sell, gift, or otherwise surrender the firearm to another individual. Basically, self-built weapons are for their creator’s use only.

The eCommerce revolution has given birth to retailers like GrabAGun, GunBuyer and GunBroker, a gun auction site built in the spirit of eBay, and innumerable websites selling “80% Lower Kits.”

208,000 results for “80% lower kits” in a Google search performed March 7, 2018

Also known as “ghost guns” because they do not legally exist in any documentation, “80% Lowers” are partially completed pieces of material that require particular tooling to be completed — that is, to be considered a firearm. Most 80% lower kits available online require little more than $200 in tools and enough time to follow instructional videos on YouTube, or the included instructions, to complete the assembly of a fully functional firearm. As one anonymous commenter said in 2012, “From the perspective of a gunsmith, they’re more like 90 or 95% receivers, not ‘80% receivers.’ The work left to be done is trivial.”

A strange quirk (also known as a loophole) of our federal gun laws provides that as long as the final 20% of a gun’s manufacturing process has not been completed, whatever has been built is not legally considered a firearm. To be clear, which 20% of the gun remains incomplete matters. The laws are a bit murky; the 1968 Gun Control Act states a firearm is “(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; (B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon.” ATF regulations echo this sentiment, meaning that the 20% they’re concerned with are the pieces that come serialized and require registration when purchased through traditional avenues, such as sporting goods stores or other gun retailers.

A serialized AR-15 lower receiver

For the DIY-inclined, there’s always the purchase a specialized, pre-programmed 3D printer known as a CNC milling machine. Drop in a block of aluminum or other compatible material such as polymers, woods, and a handful of other metals and let that baby run. Several hours later an unserialized, unregistered and fully functional lower receiver — the official, legal “gun” that usually comes with a serial number — will be waiting, requiring little more than a file and a bit of sand paper to clean up the rough edges prior to assembly.

Any gun part that is not the serialized receiver is not addressed under federal law, meaning one could make lower receiver at home, order the rest of the pieces online, and have it all shipped to their home without filing a single page of paperwork.

CNC mills can be purchased, or built, for anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars, depending on how long its owner intends for it to last. Its software is open-source and the schematics for such parts are freely available online. The government will have about as much luck banning the transfer of information about firearms as they have had with The Anarchist’s Cookbook; turns out the First Amendment plays just as strong a role in the perpetuation of firearms as the Second.

Addressing Non-Solutions

Two things that aren’t going to help situation: arming teachers, and raising the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21.

Considering the better portion of teachers in this country are already woefully underpaid, ill-supported, and unable to get not only the necessary educational materials in their classrooms, but basic ones like pencils and printer ink, I doubt the NRA is going to come through with both a handgun and the funding for the 132 hours of “comprehensive” firearms training, only eight of which are instruction in active shooter scenarios. Though, to paraphrase @mvindahl, teachers are more likely to get the ink they requested with a Glock in hand.

All jokes aside, arming teachers creates a new series of concerns about the hiring practices of both under- and over-funded school districts. Who would supply these firearms, and what models would these teachers be allowed to carry? Upon reviewing a list of firearms used in mass shootings, it’s obvious that regardless of the handgun issued, teachers would be outgunned.

We need to allow teachers to teach instead of asking they perform the dual-function of educators and armed guards. American soldiers are expertly conditioned to de-humanize the enemy and many of them still suffer PTSD from the horrors of war — most notably, having to kill people. Or take into consideration that if the entire student body — including psychopaths, psychotic-episode sufferers, the bullied, gang members, even ‘innocent’ pranksters — knows there is a gun in every classroom, gun deaths in schools are going to rise. Contrary to common belief, owning a gun does not raise your homeowner’s insurance rates. Most policies include coverage for guns up to a certain dollar amount — an increase occurs when the gun value is higher than the standard coverage offered; the same is likely not true of schools’ liability insurance.

If you have ever known a minor who persuaded an older friend to pick up booze for them, surely you can see why raising the age of purchase from 18 to 21 will not magically generate more discerning, capable gun purchasers. Incidentally, we’ve already had one mass shooting where the guns were purchased for a teenager by an older friend: Columbine.

I’d never heard of bump stock until it became a hot topic — and commodity — after the massacre in Las Vegas last year. In the days following, enthusiasts anticipated this would be the next firearm component to undergo widespread bans. While YouTube personalities aplenty offered their two cents on the matter, others got behind their keyboards to ensure they wouldn’t be left out; previously, a top-of-the-line bump stock ran somewhere around $150. As of now, the same product is closer to $600 on GunBroker, as the forthcoming ban seems more and more likely.

Bump stock explainer image. Source: Tribune News Service

Gunstock is the part of a rifle held against the shoulder when shooting. A bump stock is a replacement piece that increases a semi-automatic weapon’s rate of fire (ROF) by utilizing its recoil. This sounds complicated but becomes crystal clear when observed on video. It’s easy to see the difference in ROF, taking the AR-15 from semi- to fully-automatic with the addition of two simple pieces of hardware.

Video comparing AR-15 rate of fire with and without bump stock

While the NRA stated (or not — depending on who’s issuing the statement) the device should be subject to additional regulations, and the President discussed the merits of a bump stock ban, it’s hard not to be struck by the futility of such a measure. Putting aside the fact that bump stocks are incredibly simple to manufacture, with or without a 3-D printer, it’s important to note that one can still “bump fire” a weapon without the stock. It takes little more than a belt loop or pocket, understanding how to utilize the rifle’s recoil, and almost no further instruction to reproduce its effects. While discussing a ban makes for great press, it would do very little in the way of meaningful change.

Although the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban prohibited the manufacture of new magazines for more than ten rounds, 18 models of assault rifles, and a list of specific military-style features on guns, it was rife with complexities that made it easy to evade. It also bore no mention of self-created weaponry like the 80% lowers mentioned above.

At this point, crafting a meaningful assault weapons bill would require banning all semi-automatic center-fire rifles. While there are many who would rejoice at such measure, there’s enough voters who will not stand to lose their right to own and use a Ruger American rifle or similar.

Solutions For the Short-Term

For immediate results, there are worse places to start than with “red flag” laws, though they’ve only been passed in five states so far. California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut allow families and law officers to “red flag” a person who has not yet committed a crime but shows warning signs of violence — thus restricting them from possessing firearms. Were new legislation to add qualified mental health professionals to that list, shootings like the ones in Parkland, Isla Vista, Aurora, and Tucson might not have occurred.

Beyond the potential for these “gun violence protection orders” to prevent people from using firearms to kill others, it may keep them from turning said guns on themselves; nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, which accounts for 60% of all adult firearm deaths and a staggering 40% of children and teens. Nearly another full third of gun deaths every year are homicides. In fact, we have more gun deaths in this country every year at the hands of police officers than terrorism, mass shootings, and officer deaths combined.

When it comes to school shootings, we must first accept that, maybe, the kids aren’t alright. We continue to fall short when it comes to providing accessible support to youth in need; namely, by embedding multiple so-called “intrusive” licensed psychologists in every elementary, middle, and high school. Throughout the nation, many students struggle in part because basic needs, such as nutritional and emotional support, are not being met. Were every intrusive school psychologist given an annual $50,000 stipend to help ease some of these burdens, such as having complete meals and snacks during the day, weather-appropriate clothing, school supplies, and so on, it follows that the number of troubled, anxious, and depressed students would likely decline.

Considering our military’s long history of overspending in all the wrong places — the $640 toilet seat uncovered in 1986 was only the tip of the iceberg — and that our 2018 Defense Budget happens to be a whopping $700 billion, we need to immediately repurpose some of those funds so that we ensure a better future for the Republic, the sole reason for which it stands.

Student protestors in Florida. Source: Jessica Bakeman / WLRN

Big Picture, Long-Term Solutions

The more I read about gun control, the more frustrated I become by what seems not only obvious, but already on the minds of many: the need to overhaul the social systems that contribute to gun violence. Namely, the war on drugs, lack of universal healthcare, de-stigmatizing mental illness — followed by widespread (free!) treatment, and a handful of other issues I can’t go into or literally nobody will publish this essay*.

Changes to infrastructure at this level take time — years, if not decades to put in place. For that to happen, we must push for all persons to be registered & given the time off to vote, in the name of democracy as well as in favor of a brighter future for our nation.

In the meantime, sensible legislation needs to be put in place.

As the students, teachers, and parents of Parkland continue to highlight the NRA’s complicity in blocking gun reform, the #BoycottNRA effort is gathering steam — think #GrabYourWallet: NRA edition. Several companies have agreed to cut ties to the organization… in the form of ceasing to offer member discounts, mostly.

Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods will no longer sell firearms and ammunition to anyone under 21; Dick’s added that their 35-outlet subsidiary Field & Stream will no longer sell assault-style rifles. (The parent company stopped selling them after Sandy Hook.) That last bit would mean more if not for the fact Dick’s confirmed they sold the Parkland shooter a shotgun within the last four months.

Corporate gestures like these may equate to likes and retweets, but their impact is negligible — much like the sick burns seen on Twitter and CNN. They’re fun! It’s funny! It’s… also wasting valuable political capital in the fight against loosey-goosey gun laws.

We should be supporting students taking a stand against the U.S. continuing to lead the free world in gun violence; their friends are dead, Todd, and we should all be glad they want to do something about it. But they’re not voting yet, and it’s pretty fucked up to place the responsibility for change on them; such optimism, while highly shareable, takes our responsibility to protect these children out the equation.

The solutions will not be Insta-glamorized; a series of feel-good speeches or zinger soundbites that resonate within the desirable like-to-comment ratio aren’t going to change the nation’s inherent gun culture, let alone the legislation which encourages it.

Out-shouting — or outspending — the NRA is unlikely, not to mention a waste of breath. If a handful of freshly-grieving, upper-class students couldn’t get Marco Rubio (or any other politician) to turn down the gun lobby’s “blood money” next go ‘round, what chance do a bunch of shame-y social posts have?

For politicians, dissing the NRA is akin to pissing on a hornet’s nest. Guns make for big business and, in turn, big donors. This is not a call to cut them slack, but politics runs on money — and the NRA has a lot of money, thanks to 5-million (or so) dues-paying members. The group also identifies itself as a “community organization,” which explains at least in part why these deeply involved members can be relied upon to vote accordingly.

The NRA has a long history of offering safety and marksmanship training programs, and helped write much of the federal gun legislation until the 1980’s. These efforts are overshadowed by the organization’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative action (ILA), which was launched in 1975 as Libertarians flocked to join the association and established its current position which “equated owning a gun with the epitome of freedom.”

1982 NRA ad campaign featuring 8-year-old member with rifle. Source: MotherJones

Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative, called it “one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word ‘fraud’ — on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime” in a 1991 interview on PBS.

Real Talk: Controlling Access

Gun politics weren’t examined nationally until a buncha wise-guys with tommyguns started mowing down foes and bystanders alike during Prohibition. Following the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Federal Firearms Act of 1938, the next major discussion didn’t go down until then-California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act in 1967. In direct response to the Black Panther Party members conducting armed copwatching patrols of Oakland neighborhoods, the Act repealed a law that allowed carrying loaded firearms in public.

I am wary of gun reform measures that shift the financial burden of firearm permitting entirely onto legal gun owners. Dog-whistle politics have plagued gun control measures in the past.

Last December, the house passed the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. With bipartisan support (231–198), the Act allows those who legally carry concealed weapons in one state have reciprocity elsewhere. Additionally, it incentivizes state and government agencies to update the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) with legitimate records of prohibited persons, while requiring that those erroneously added to the database be removed within 60 days. Previously, such removal could take up to a year. The ILA applauded them for doing so, naturally.

This is a big deal for two reasons. One, there is a reasonable assumption that with a properly functioning NICS, fewer potential mass shooters will be able to make legal gun purchases. Two, it means folks that receive concealed carry permits in states with less stringent requirements will be allowed to carry concealed in states where they wouldn’t qualify for the permit. Admittedly, I am more concerned by the latter than the former.

Pragmatically, we must rule out the desire to push for outright bans. While the next generation seems poised to fight that battle, in the interest of saving lives now, concessions must be made. To get both sides on board, we must protect the rights of all citizens–including the right to bear arms.

While the feed may be focusing on the handful of gun owners willing to relinquish their AR-15’s to law enforcement or cut their guns in half in exchange for the internet’s collective upvote, a significant portion of the voting majority at all levels — the public as well as elected officials — has chosen this hill to die on.

Instead of challenging them to do so, why not inspire rational, reasonable gun owners — who are, despite all pro/anti-gun lobby marketing, sensible people — to help shape legislation that keeps fewer untrained and otherwise dangerous yoo-hoos from sullying their good name? Among even the most hardcore #2A-philes, the subject of “sensible” gun control comes up more often than their opponents would like to believe.

Bans appeal to our desire to ensure “this never happens again” with good reason. Illegalization makes guns more expensive, more scarce, more time-consuming to find, buy, maintain, and obtain ammunition for. It’s an undeniable truth that when guns are outlawed, gun deaths are reduced. It’s also true that the Constitution guarantees our citizens the right to bear arms, and those that revere that right will not to relinquish it without a fight.

Three percent of American adults own 50% of our guns. Source: Jan Diehm/The Guardian

The distribution of guns in America is telling. We own an estimated 265 million guns, but a joint 2015 survey from Harvard and Northeastern universities suggests nearly half of those guns are owned by a mere 3% of the adult population. That averages out to 17 guns per person within that three percent. Of the estimated 55 million gun owners in America, “most own an average of just three firearms, and nearly half own just one or two, according to the survey results.”

If our future doesn’t include banning firearms in their entirety, or by model as they do in Canada, or by military-styled features like the now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban, what’s left?

Something like middle ground, I hope.

Despite the inaccuracies commonly reported about gun laws in Australia and New Zealand, there’s a lot that they’ve gotten right. The specifics vary, but to own or purchase a firearm, one must first receive a firearms license issued by law enforcement. The applicant must demonstrate a valid reason for owning a weapon, prove they are “fit and prosper” — meaning not prohibited from owning a firearm, attend the requisite safety training, and pass a thorough background check and interview process to be considered for a permit.

New Zealand maintains a list of approved firearms and different classes of permits based on the type of weapon, meaning one could be licensed for a bolt-action rifle but not a semi-automatic one, as well as requirements for storage that must be met prior to the permit being issued. A Category A firearms license is required to own an AR-15 in New Zealand, while silencers can be purchased online or at a hardware store without any permit at all; this is the inverse of US legislation on both counts.

There are other intricacies we’d need to hash out for ourselves, of course. For example, I can’t imagine a strong case for allowing the government to maintain a nationalized database of registered weapons and their locations, considering they can’t keep their own employees’ data safe. We’d have to scrap the requirement that the prospective gun owner have a reason for purchase beyond “self-defense” in the interest of keeping law-abiding #2A’ers on board; citizens would have to accept this process would take longer than the immediate-to-three-day purchase turnaround they’re used to.

Another major concern for this group is that the government will “take” guns away from their rightful owners. A buyback program like Australia’s would require the US government to provide just compensation for the property they receive; Australia financed the measure by increasing their Medicare levy by .2% of an individual’s income for one year, as it was expected to cost $500 million.

Nobody is getting everything they’re asking for this Christmas, that much is clear. Between “red flag” laws, the cost of directly impacting students in psychological crisis, and driving for 100% permitting with stringent storage requirements, there will always be someone that feels they got the shortest straw.

Researchers at RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization, surveyed 95 gun policy experts on what they expected the effects of 15 gun policies would be on 12 different outcomes. Sixteen of these experts were identified as favoring permissive gun policies, and 79 identified as favoring restrictive gun policies. Their results suggest that “the differences in each group’s overall opinion of the policies are associated with different beliefs about what the true effects of the policies will be, not with differences in which outcomes or objectives the experts care most about.” Both sides overwhelmingly preferred the regulations they believed would reduce firearm deaths, both homicides and suicides.

Policy options from RAND Gun Policy Comparison Tool

The study’s gun policy comparison tool allows users to compare the 15 gun policies experts were surveyed on, and displays the policies’ impact on issues like firearm sales, suicides and homicides, mass shootings, and unintentional firearm deaths.

As I toyed with the settings, what I started to see were possibilities — potential results that could only be had if experts on both sides were to compromise.

That’s what it’s going to take for us to find the golden mean, one that weighs and protects our right to both life and riflery.

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