A signed New York Times editorial by Alex Kingsbury over the weekend presented the false assumption that even after outlawing automatic weapons, these weapons of mass destruction will be on the streets for at least another century.
The piece, presented as the lead editorial in the print edition of the Times only several days after it appear online, is titled “It’s Too Late to Ban Assault Weapons.” It makes the false assumption that there is nothing we can do to get existing guns off the streets, so we will have to live in a gun-clogged nation for generations to come, even if we ban assault weapons and pass other gun control laws.
Kingsbury’s harrowing factual beginning sets us up for his false premise: “With proper care and maintenance, an AR-15 rifle manufactured today will fire just as effectively in the year 2119 and probably for decades after that. There are currently around 15 million military-style rifles in civilian hands in the United States.”
If we can pass a law outlawing the sale of military style (assault) weapons, we can also pass a law making possession of one a federal crime, with penalties including a steep fine and jail time.
Don’t scoff at the power of such a law: if it were in place, when local police investigated a case of domestic violence and found an assault rifle, they could take custody of the weapon and the owner. We could create a computer program that goes through the rolls of every gun seller who does background checks to identify everyone to whom they ever sold an assault weapon and contact that individual to arrange the surrender of their now illegal weapons. A gun call-back program would represent no invasion of privacy, since at the time of sale the gun owner voluntarily surrendered his information for the purpose of registering the purchase.
The federal government could also provide funds for local task forces to stop illegal sales of the weapons that have been outlawed.
On the softer side, a law banning assault weapons could mandate and subsidize gun buyback programs. I am fairly certain that many large corporations would fund the buyback, either in hard cash or in gift certificates. About twenty years ago, deep in the heart of rural upstate New York, my public relations firm developed and coordinated a gun buyback program in Syracuse that was a joint effort of the Syracuse Mayor’s office, the police department and my client, the largest supermarket company in upstate New York at that time, P& C Foods, and its parent company Penn Traffic. P&C provided the buyback premium–$100 gift certificates, good in any P&C store. The results blew away our goals for the program, and also the P&C’s budget. The company didn’t mind, though, as the good will with both the public and municipal officials was very important to the company. In total, people handed in 316 weapons, a lot considering the small size of Syracuse and the fact that there was no legal mandate to surrender the weapons.
Imagine an assault weapons buyback with a premium of $250-$500 versus the authorities discovering you have illegally kept possession of your AR-15 and fining you $5,000 and throwing you six months in jail for six months.
There can be no doubt that no matter how many of these “fixes” we establish to make sure that outlawing assault rifles actually gets these horrible weapons off the streets, we will never collect all of the weapons out there. We can also assume that those already prone to commit crimes will be more likely to break the new law and keep their AR-15s.
Again, so what?
We should never make the impossible-to-achieve perfect the enemy of the achievable good. A combination of public relations, education and aggressive law enforcement will harvest virtually all of assault weapons out there. All research tells us that the more guns in a society the more people die or are injured by gun violence, and conversely, removing guns from society reduces those killed and injured. Thus, if a law outlawing the possession of assault weapons is passed and aggressively enforced leading to the collection of 12 or 13 million assault rifles it would assuredly reduce deaths and injuries.
Kingsbury ends his signed editorial with another typical Times effort to blame the “left” for pushing too hard and not understanding the mentality and needs of the rest of the country. He uses a classic club-the-reformer formulation: “Perhaps if gun control advocates frankly acknowledge that military-style rifles are going to be present in American society for many generations to come, it will help assuage fears of mass confiscation and give gun owners the space they need to support sensible safeguards that will save lives.”
Note the conflation of “gun” owners” with assault weapons owners; and the corresponding conflation of confiscation of assault weapons with “mass confiscation.” A mere one-third of the adult population owns guns—and not all of them own assault weapons. When surveyed, most gun owners are in favor of banning military style weapons. They are also in favor of increased background checks and other gun control and safety legislation. Once AR-15 are outlawed, the next step of getting them off the streets shouldn’t be that hard for responsible gun owners and the rest of the population to stomach. Keep in mind that after winning the battle to prevent the sale and possession of AR-15 and their ilk, the momentum will be on the side of gun control advocates. As long as hunters, shooting range enthusiasts and rural inhabitants who feel they need a firearm to protect their homes have other options, I don’t they are going to care that much about others having to surrender their illegal firearms.
Instead of giving space to hand-wringing and pessimism in way that is tantamount to saying “we might as well do nothing,” the Times should publish more information on the implementation of gun safety laws. Once gun owners see how convenient and easy it will be for responsible gun owners to register their legal weapons and once they understand how universal gun checks, a robust national no-gun list, the banning of AR-15 and the end of open carry and stand-your-ground laws protect everyone, including their families, most will “have the space they need to support sensible safeguards.” The National Rifle Association gains its power because of lies and loosey-goosey rhetoric. Instead of taking that rhetoric for granted, the Times should join in the battle to correct NRA mendacity. It should be helping to prepare the country for a program to confiscate assault weapons instead of assuming it’s impossible to implement.