2017-10-03 17:56:24 UTC
Automatic Weapons Are Already Heavily Regulated and Gun Control Laws Don’t
Laws aren’t the solution you’re looking for to crimes like the massacre in
J.D. Tuccille | October 3, 2017
Stephen Paddock "appears to have used at least one fully automatic rifle"
during his murderous rampage in Las Vegas, according to the Wall Street
Journal. Let's tentatively accept that for the moment while recognizing, as
Nick Gillespie has noted, that early reports in situations like this are
often wrong. If true, though, it demonstrates the pointlessness of the
predictable calls for tighter gun restrictions issued by the usual suspects.
That's because automatic rifles—machine guns—have been tightly regulated at
the federal level since 1934, and subjected to further restrictions since
The history of federal machine gun regulations is well-covered at the
website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Regulation began with the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed a
$200 tax on the manufacture and transfer of "shotguns and rifles having
barrels less than 18 inches in length, certain firearms described as 'any
other weapons,' machineguns, and firearm mufflers and silencers" at the
federal level (states and localities have always been free to impose their
own restrictions). According to the ATF, "As the legislative history of the
law discloses, its underlying purpose was to curtail, if not prohibit,
transactions in NFA firearms."
The law was amended in 1968, and then again, in particular, in 1986. The
latter revision was to "prohibit the transfer or possession of machineguns.
Exceptions were made for transfers of machineguns to, or possession of
machineguns by, government agencies, and those lawfully possessed before the
effective date of the prohibition, May 19, 1986."
So for civilians, the only legally available automatic rifles in the United
States under federal law come from the fixed pool of such weapons that
existed on May 19, 1986. With a limited supply, shrinking at least a bit
over time through attrition, prices for legal machine guns have no place to
go but up. A glance at Gunbroker.com, an online listing service (with actual
transfers handled by licensed dealers), reveals prices starting in four
figures and rapidly going to five for individual weapons.
Purchasing and owning any NFA firearm, including automatic rifles/machine
guns requires undergoing a background check and entering the weapon in the
National Firearm Registration and Transfer Record, which is "the central
registry of all NFA firearms in the U.S. which are not in the possession or
under the control of the U.S. Government," according to the ATF National
Firearms Act Handbook. This handbook is an excellent resource for
familiarizing yourself with the federal regulation of automatic
rifles/machine guns and other NFA firearms. You might want to put aside some
time if you decide to peruse it since, including preface and appendices, the
book is 220 pages long.
Which is to say, short of outright prohibition, automatic rifles are subject
to just about every rule and restriction that has been proposed by opponents
of easy civilian possession. If the weapon Paddock used in his rampage was
legally acquired and owned, it was done so in accordance with laws intended
"to curtail, if not prohibit, transactions" in such firearms in the words of
federal regulators themselves.
But what if Paddock's weapons were illegally acquired, or illegally
converted to automatic, or were semiautomatic weapons mistakenly identified
as machine guns?
Black markets and illegal acts exist everywhere, under every legal regime.
I've written at length about the long history, not just in the United
States, but around the world, of overwhelming defiance of gun laws. In
recent years, Connecticut achieved an underwhelming 15 percent compliance
rate when it attempted to require the registration of semiautomatic (not
machine guns) "assault weapons," and New York's similar requirement resulted
in 5 percent compliance (both addressed here).
That's just registration. To achieve something like the outright prohibition
of certain firearms that's been proposed in the wake of the massacre in Las
Vegas, perhaps the best assessment comes from Professor James B. Jacobs,
Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York
University. Summing up the prospects for banning handguns in his 2002 book,
Can Gun Control Work?, he wrote:
"Prohibiting possession would require disarming the citizenry; whether done
quickly or over a long period, it would be a monumental challenge, fraught
with danger. Millions of citizens would not surrender their handguns. If
black market activity in connection with the drug laws is any indication, a
decades-long 'war on handguns' might resemble a low-grade civil war more
than a law-enforcement initiative."
Banning private sales of firearms has also been proposed in certain
quarters, but without any suggestion of how such a prohibition would be
enforced. When I spoke with NYU's Jacobs two years ago, he said that's
"probably a good idea," of such a ban, but acknowledged that it would be
"very easy to get around" such restrictions.
After Colorado imposed a requirement for universal background checks on
private sales, the results were unimpressive. "People are just ignoring this
law," Colorado Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) said.
Last word to NYU's Jacobs, from his 2002 book. Pointing to the long-term
decline in violent crime—a trend that, despite recent blips, keeps crime
rates far below the level of a quarter-century ago—he concluded,
"Criminologists and policy makers should not be distracted by unrealistic
proposals and slogans for 'gun control,' Rather, they should look to
building on other anti-crime strategies and constructive social welfare
policies that might be contributing to this unprecedented decrease of
violent crime and gun crime."