Two Guns Per Person: Theory into Practice

Marcin Wichary, Creative Commons

Last week in Slate, I proposed an idea in the wake of the shooting massacre in Las Vegas that built on a reading of the Constitution’s protection of the right to have a weapon at home for self-defense, under the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in D.C. v. Heller. I asked why the Las Vegas shooter was legally allowed to amass an arsenal of firearms, about half of which he brought with him to the Mandalay Bay to shoot nearly 600 people in about 10 minutes, murdering 58 of them. I proposed a federal law limiting the number of weapons an individual may own to two, unless a good reason was included in an approved application to the ATF requesting a permit to purchase more.

Even as the “shall not be infringed” and “you are an idiot” folks helpfully offered their views (/sarc), the piece generated a good deal of positive reaction on social media, as well as many critiques that deserved thoughtful replies. I posted some initial responses to Twitter which, in turn, produced additional ideas that seemed worth sketching out more fully. (NRA chimed in, too. I’ll get to them later.)

General principles

It is worth restating, first, some of the points in my Twitter responses. I should have made clear this idea is intended not to be retroactive, but prospective. That, in turn, has at least three obvious implications that should be stated out loud.

One — which will clearly disappoint a few overly caffeinated folks — is that the Timothy McVeigh fever-dream of calling on federal agents to take a census of existing weapons in the country and confiscating all but two per owner, apparently after repelling from black helicopters and kicking down doors, will not happen. Two, grandfathering existing collections would need to be included in this proposal. (More on that below.) Three, making this policy prospective probably extends its first significant measurable effect along some vectors as far out as a decade, maybe longer. With so many weapons already in circulation, and with the high concentration of ownership in so few hands, I’d expect the time needed to allow that concentration to dissipate would be significant.

Additionally, while I offered this idea in earnest, I have no illusions about the prospect of some version of it becoming law soon. Because the proposal is novel, it has no constituency in the organized gun violence prevention movement, and is barely in the same galaxy as ideas that Congress would consider, much less pass, in the near future.

Moreover, this idea wasn’t offered to solve all gun violence in America. It wasn’t even offered to solve all mass shootings. It is one straightforward response tailored to the specific circumstances of the massacre in Las Vegas — the type of response that gun regulation opponents routinely require before entertaining any post-slaughter policy conversation at all.

In the same vein, this idea also ignores the “magic bullet” theory of gun violence prevention that gun advocates conveniently map onto virtually every debate about firearm regulation. That is, if an idea isn’t proven in advance to prevent all future gun violence, it must be a failure. To borrow a meme, that isn’t how any of this works. Failure is inherent in human endeavor, and if the possibility of failure forced us to avoid any attempt to improve our world we’d still be living in caves. Instead, we try new ideas, figure out where and why they fail, and improve them.

Besides, with slaughtered schoolchildren, concert-goers, domestic violence victims, suicides, and countless others, our current do-nothing policy is failing pretty spectacularly as-is, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, complex problems are seldom susceptible to single solutions. Deaths and injuries from gunfire are no different. Squabbling over one policy — whether bump stocks or background checks or something else — to the exclusion of all others is a recipe for stasis and, frankly, tens of thousands more preventable gun deaths and injuries every year. As I’ve argued in the past, we don’t need one policy, we need a safety net of several policies, designed to work tightly together to catch as many kids, teens, and adults who every day are falling through gaping holes in our current approach. This means we need to try several ideas at once, marshalled into a comprehensive strategy — the components of which may have effects different in combination than in isolation.

Possible amendments

Given the feedback that last week’s piece received, amendments to my initial proposal are worth fleshing out. A two-gun limit still strikes me as a defensible default setting, subject to a good reason justification for owning more, but many readers argued that a maximum of three (or a few more) weapons made more real-world sense. Three, for example, would allow one to own of each of the basic firearm types — handgun, shotgun, rifle — and enable taking advantage of the distinct utility of each weapon. That also strikes me as a reasonable view, and deciding a maximum default number should be part of a negotiation our society could have over such a proposal — again, with the purpose of prohibiting anyone from amassing an arsenal as the Las Vegas shooter did, while allowing rule-following people to arm themselves.

Related, I saw many comments related to hunters, who use different weapons for different kinds of hunting — another key point. I’d suggest maintaining the two-gun default limit, but make an exception to the application protocol for those with valid hunting licenses. Such hunters could apply to ATF without fingerprints or photo, for permits to purchase up to five additional hunting weapons, limited to single-shot rifles or shotguns of different gauges (maximum seven-round capacity). One of the additional five could be a large-caliber handgun. While hunter applicants, if granted a permit to purchase, would be required to send in the serial numbers of their additional weapons, the $200 fee could be waived for those who provide proof of safe storage.

Other responses pointed out the effect this policy could have on gun collectors. I’d recommend that collectors of certain curios and relics — firearms older than 50 years — be directed to apply for and follow the rules under a Collector’s FFL and their state’s rules. Most of those weapons (with an exception discussed below), as well as antiques, would be exempt from the two-gun maximum, but purchases of operable curios should be subject to background checks. For acquiring other weapons, collectors would remain subject to the same default limit as everyone else.

So far, I have left semi-automatic rifles and shotguns undiscussed. Many such weapons can accept detachable magazines in sizes up to 100 or more rounds. Again, in the wake of Las Vegas, I would propose treating such firearms differently in terms of a maximum guns-per-person policy. Someone could fill their two-gun limit with such weapons if they wanted to, but I would recommend prohibiting ATF from granting any permit to purchase any additional rifle or shotgun that accepts a detachable magazine, except to licensed collectors of curios and relics, who would send their application to ATF and could be granted a permit to purchase one at a time.

Enforcement

Another thoughtful commenter pointed out the factor looming over this whole discussion: enforcement. He suggested enforcing a limit would require the political “non-starter” of national firearm registration. I disagree, but not hastily. Registering every firearm transaction in a national database, in my view, is a good idea on its own that, among other things, would enable granular enforcement of a guns-per-person limit. Such a step is not necessary, however, to establish a new norm in this country against amassing arsenals, with the force of federal law. Gun advocates talk a lot about “law-abiding gun owners.” Criminals, on the other hand — as they say, and as NRA basically said replying to my Slate piece— don’t follow gun laws.

That’s obviously false. Folks can correct me, but my understanding is the Las Vegas shooter purchased all of his weapons from licensed dealers who ran his name through NICS (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System). He repeatedly passed those checks because he hadn’t developed a criminal or other disqualifying record. In fact, the shooter testified in a 2013 deposition that he had a Texas concealed-carry permit — Wayne LaPierre’s prototypical “good guy with a gun” we should trust to be our savior rather than a mass murderer.

Unfortunately for Wayne’s theory and almost 600 dead or wounded, the Las Vegas shooter’s first recorded crime was a shooting massacre.

Let’s put all that aside for a moment and hold NRA to its rhetoric. If the law says that someone may not, with certain exceptions, own more than two guns, then abiding by the law is a straightforward task. If you can count, you know whether you’re over the limit or not. If, for example, in the process of local law enforcement, a police officer should come across more than two weapons in one’s possession, that person had better have a permit for those extra firearms or that person is facing a federal criminal charge. If one’s gun collection over the default limit pre-dates enactment of this policy, then the owner can move along the process by producing receipts or other records of each transfer, showing that they’re grandfathered. Otherwise, ATF can trace the weapons to their last sale from an FFL and conduct any additional investigation, as needed. (I’d recommend requiring current over-the-limit gun owners to gather documentation for their weapons, but allow five years from enactment for that requirement to take effect.)

Does this mean no one will cheat? Of course not. But genuinely law-abiding gun buyers and sellers won’t. By ensuring that people protecting their home, as well as licensed hunters and collectors, can acquire firearms to exercise their rights under the Constitution — while people like the Las Vegas shooter are prohibited from amassing an arsenal — maybe we can learn something. We can find out who really are the law-abiding gun owners, and separate them from those who simply want to do whatever they please and damn the consequences to everyone else.

Side benefit

One final observation. (I believe another commenter also raised this, but I couldn’t find a link.) While not the primary purpose of this proposal, gun trafficking would likely suffer from setting into federal law a default limit on the number of firearms someone may own. Attempts to purchase more than two weapons at a time anywhere — from a licensed dealer in a brick-and mortar store, from FFLs and private sellers at gun shows, or anywhere else — would automatically be suspect without an ATF permit. Attach significant penalties to being caught with more than the default number of non-grandfathered weapons without a permit, and gun trafficking in effect becomes a federal offense. That would help reduce incidents such as the trafficker who bought 250 weapons in Ohio, including more than 180 cheap handguns from gun maker Charlie Brown — many of which were then sold on the streets of Buffalo, New York and later used in crime. One was used to shoot an innocent teenager, Daniel Williams, who was gravely wounded.

This is the way tens of thousands of guns that begin in the legal market are diverted into the criminal market. “Virtually every crime gun in the United States starts off as a legal firearm,” ATF once wrote. A default limit would be a potent weapon against turning those legal guns into crime guns.

Conclusion

Will take a break from this idea for a little while, but I want to thank the thoughtful critics and commenters over the past week, and hope this helps put meat on the bones of my proposal in Slate.

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