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The Easiest Way To Reduce Gun Violence in America

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By David Jonas

For the average member of Congress, there is no shortage of extremely difficult public policy problems to solve. Ending the opioid crisis, breaking the cycle of poverty, and making housing more affordable are all weighty, thorny issues that good people can disagree on how to tackle.

Gun violence, however, is not a difficult policy problem to solve. From mass shootings, to gang and domestic violence, to suicides using a firearm, we already know how to dramatically drive down the rate of these horrifying incidents. As evidenced by the experience of every other industrialized nation in the world, the amount of gun violence in a country is largely determined by strictness of gun ownership laws and regulations of that country. Nations like Canada, the UK, and Japan, have all figured out that imposing regulatory hurdles and generally making it harder for people on the margin to access gun helps them avoid America’s fate on gun violence. One need only look at the way we regulate airline safety, prescription drugs, or even becoming a lawyer to understand that the greater the hurdles, the fewer the people on the margin will obtain the desired thing.

With such obvious grounding to at least try to tackle gun violence by making guns harder to access, it would be nice to think we could build a coalition around winning the hearts and minds of voters. But that won’t happen, at least not in my lifetime. Guns are very popular, gun owners and manufacturers are powerful, and the nation as a whole decided long ago that tens of thousands shot and killed every year is perfectly acceptable if it means they themselves can always easily access a weapon of mass murder. Ending gun violence in America means ignoring this broad consensus.

As a result, gun reform advocates have only one real chance: push through unpopular reforms once the Democrats hold Congress and the White House. The question—of course—is what reforms should these be? Mandatory gun insurance, stricter licensing and background checks, banning broad classes of weaponry, mandating smart gun technology, allowing individuals to more easily sue gun manufacturers—all of these address some part of the puzzle to ending gun violence in America.

But there is one approach that is the easiest both in terms of politics and policy, requiring only 51 votes in the Senate in many cases.

It’s regulating and taxing the deadliest forms of ammunition.

Bullets are the Achilles’ heel of gun violence. Guns can last forever, and there are already more than 300 million guns in circulation. This saturation of guns limits the effectiveness of most traditional gun control measures. Bullets, however, have very short shelf lives and aren’t very easy to produce oneself. The deadliest guns in America can be rendered obsolete if a class of ammunition is simply too difficult to access.

Think of it this way: if you found out that iPhones were killing 30,000 people a year, you could pass a bunch of laws banning them or requiring licenses or have the authorities seize them. Or, you could do the much easier thing and just have Apple perform a software update that bricks them all.

Congress already has broad powers to regulate and tax ammunition, and best of all, regulating bullets sidesteps the disadvantages of traditional gun control efforts due to the endowment effect. The idea of regulating bullets just doesn’t muster the same emotional response as regulating guns does.

On the taxation front, a savvy group of legislators could easily put together budget instructions that place increased excise taxes and import duties on individual classes of ammunition, exempting safer recreational ammunition like .22 caliber bullets. An aggressive approach would identify the deadliest ammunition and ratchet the tax level up to some prohibitively high figure. Legislators can tailor the level of taxation as needed to win 51 votes.

One added bonus of this approach is that the revenue from these taxes can be used to fund legislative priorities for more rural members of Congress whose constituents tend to be more hostile to gun reform efforts. For example, the revenue from increased ammunition taxes could be used to fund rural mental health centers, or go toward first responders more generally.

The regulatory side of things is also easy, although it may require 60 votes in certain cases. The premise is simple: include bullets in the consumer product regulatory structure we already have. Just as we don’t allow consumers to purchase dangerous cars or toxic alcoholic beverages, so too should we not allow consumers to buy ammunition that doesn’t significantly mitigate the chance of injury and death.

This is not a new concept. Legendary Senator Pat Moynihan proposed stronger regulation and taxation of bullets, with fewer taxes imposed on the least deadly ammunition.

I am sure readers of all political backgrounds will disagree with much of the above analysis. Whether you think all gun control is folly or that taxing bullets is a suboptimal (if not crazy) approach, the beauty of America’s indifference to gun violence is being able to—at once—bemoan the tremendous loss of life while discounting each individual approach that could effectively reduce it. My only hope is that when the next Democratic Congressional majority comes, they pass as much as they can; however they can. Our collective ability to forget, dismiss, and never agree to an imperfect compromise is simply too great.

On Monday, Barack Obama called the mass shooting in Las Vegas “senseless.” I respectfully disagree. It is the demonstrated and natural outgrowth of our nation’s active policy choice of universal access to weapons and ammunition of mass murder. Under such circumstances, any person in America can conjure up any motive to kill one, two, or dozens of our fellow citizens.

The cure to this epidemic—like a childhood vaccination—is but a matter of choosing to collectively take the medicine. The only question is how many people must die before an impassioned minority forces the country to endure the syringe.

David Jonas most recently served as policy director to Tom Perriello’s campaign for Governor of Virginia.

  • David Burnham

    Laws and regulations need specificity or the courts throw them out and some of the issues with your reasoning point to a basic lack of knowledge of firearms in general, that would lead to a lack of specificity and/or a lack of effectiveness. A couple of examples that jump out; 1) “exempting safer recreational ammunition like .22 caliber bullets” Caliber is a measurement of the diameter of the projectile fired from a firearm. .22 inches in this case. Many different cartridges fire a .22″ caliber bullet. Everything from a 22 Long Rifle to a .223 Remington/5.56 Nato. The latter being the standard round for an AR-15. Yes the big bad scarry rifle that is demonized, fires the 2nd smallest caliber bullet in commercial production. And what you propose exempts it. 2) “Bullets, however, have very short shelf lives” You can go out and buy WWII era ammunition and use it. So a 70 year shelf life is not short. 3) “Bullets… aren’t very easy to produce oneself. ” Reloading is a hobby. For about $200 you can get a basic set up going. $350 for bells whistles and the ability to cast your own bullets http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00T9YKW60/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_x_SF41zb4M0NNNR and http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0034L3D74/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_x_EH41zb9SSJC0M

    • David TSJ

      You raise some good points, and I am certainly no expert, but I am pretty sure lawmakers working with staff more knowledgeable than me could find ways to tax and regulate bullets in a way that drives down gun deaths. This is why we have hearings and a process so that dummies like me can hear from experts and plan accordingly. But I am very confident in taxation being able to push down gun deaths. And people can make their own whiskey and cigarettes too, but most won’t bother (and we even make the prior illegal generally without a license).

      • The concept of making societal “bads” (pollution, things that kill us) more expensive and societal “goods” (e.g., health care, eduation) less expensive is a no brainer, except apparently to Republicans.

      • David Burnham

        “I am certainly no expert, but I am pretty sure lawmakers working with staff more knowledgeable than me ” There in lies the problem. Those on the right point to the legislation put forth by those on the left as totally lacking in knowledge of what it is they are legislating. The left then takes an all or nothing stance and the right fells no need/benefit to helping the left craft something workable. This sows the seeds of distrust.

        Lets flip it on it’s head and start with Speaker Ryan’s idea for the gun control debate, and push a Republican leader to produce with Democratic help; “Mental Health reform”. Per the CDC about 2/3 of the firearms fatalities in 2014 were suicides. The firearms laws today were written when the “treatment” for mental health issues was warehousing folks in a hospital. Today most mentally ill folks are treated outpatient. The current laws don’t stop those who in their illness will do harm to themselves, this can be fixed. Part of the approach is increased spending on mental health services. That should be a core Democratic idea. It becomes a win for the republicans, a win for the democrats and a win for the people suffering.

        From that effort, knowledge is shared, and trust between the two sides is gained. Knowledge and trust that can be used to build a solution for the other issues.

  • Quizzical

    These are good ideas. I would add, change the laws to require background checks not only to buy guns, but also to buy ammunition. And the records of ammunition purchases should be permanent. If any individual is buying thousands of rounds that should be an automatic red flag requiring investigation.

    Military surplus firearms and ammunition should not be sold to the public — surplus weapons and ammunition should either be destroyed, or sold to another country’s military. The US military should switch to a new calibers that are not compatible with any existing firearm, and the private citizens in the U.S. should be prohibited from importing or owning weapons that shoot those bullets or from purchasing that ammunition. This is to stop this country’s high defense expenditures from indirectly subsidizing the civilian firearms industry or the civilian ammunition market.

    Once that is done, ammunition such as the 5.56 round would be for the civilian market only. It would be interesting to see if the cost of that ammunition would change as a result, if supported only by civilian demand. The ammunition sold in the civilian market could be taxed sufficiently to offset all the costs of gun violence that are currently paid for by public funds.

    • David Burnham

      Drawing the line on how much ammunition can be purchased is a tricky proposition that may have unintended consequences. An average shooter at the range for a leisurely hour of practice on the weekend would go through a 100 rounds. Normally he heads to walmart the day before and picks up ammo for the trip. Lets say you now have a limit of 50 rounds a day(standard box of pistol ammo at walmart). So that person has to make two trips to the store in a week for the weekend. They then start buying every time they visit walmart so that they won’t be inconvenienced. So they visit once a week and go to the range once a month, that’s an extra 100 rounds a month, 1200 a year they are now stock piling. So the guy who went once a month and bought enough for what hes needed, is now stockpiling. That’s a massive increase in the number of people stockpiling, and a greater chance for disaster.

      Then lets look at a higher limit bringing an investigation. The scout leader needs to get some ammo for the scouts to practice. You have 5 scouts and they go out once a week to practice for an hour for 2 weeks. That’s 1000 rounds. So the scout leader buys two bricks (brick = 1=ten 50 round boxes) of 22 LR. (standard walmart bulk size). Next day a couple of police officers come to visit and he’s cleared. So we have the stigma now on the scout leader that he was investigated, and the wasting of police time to look into a scout leader. So where do you draw a reasonable line?

      Two things concerning your idea for surplus military firearms and ammo. Modern military equipment is not sold to the public. There is some old (60+ years) equipment and the occasional side arm that is sold to the public, but it is rare now. Older ammo is sold but it is a very small percentage of the overall market, with most being produced explicitly for the civilian market. Curtailing those sales might but some upwards pressure on the price of 5.56, but .223 Remington would still be readily available. There is effectively no difference between the two except the .223 is made to a more exacting standard with slightly less force. (Getting hit with e fully loaded dump truck {5.56} vs getting hit by a dump truck that is only 80% full {.223]). The big difference between the two is in the guns chamber where 5.56 is ever so slightly bigger so that small amounts of dirt and debris will not stop it from functioning.. The current prices of .223 and 5.56 are comparable on the civilian market.

      As for the Military picking a new/different round, they never stop looking. THe US military has not found anything as effective and efficient. for their purposes. The most promising is the cartridgeless systems, but they will not be reliable enough for field use for a long time yet.

    • Quizzical

      As an aside, we have a big problem with gun violence in this country, and we don’t have the political will to do anything about it. There are over 300 million firearms in this country. How many exactly, who knows? Any attempt to keep track of how many and who owns them would be met with howls about how the government “keeping lists” is the first step to taking away the guns. In fact, I just heard Steve Scalise making this argument on a news show.

      At minimum, though, the U.S. government and Congress shouldn’t be making this worse by facilitating the re-importation of US military surplus firearms from WWII and Korea, for reconditioning and resale within the United States. That’s like fighting a fire by pouring gasoline onto it.

      http://www.guns.com/2017/05/19/exclusive-inside-the-cmp-and-the-word-on-garands-and-1911s-photos/

      Take a look at this article, announcing the “good news” that 86,000 M1 Garands are going to be “received” from the Philipine Government for reconditioning and resale in the United States.
      http://www.alloutdoor.com/2017/04/07/breaking-cmp-receive-86000-m1-garands-philippines/

      Why? Don’t we already have enough guns for people to practice their marksmanship?

      I’m not saying that people who purchase firearms through the CMP are mass murderers. Our mass murderers have plenty of easier way to get their guns. What I am saying is, what is Congress thinking? Not only are they completely ineffective in dealing with the NRA lobbyists, they are actively promoting the gun culture in the United States.

      • David Burnham

        Keep in mind that the M1 is by many definitions what gun control is heading for. No pistol grip, No adjustable stock, Fixed 8 round magazine, and chambered in a cartridge that is suitable for hunting. If you start to condemn it, then it’s hard to get any help in moving on the easy things, and it just feeds the fear of those on the right.

        • Quizzical

          I don’t know why you would assume that I don’t know what an M1 Garand is. My point is not whether to ban it, but rather why, in a country with more than 300 million firearms, Congress would set up the CMP to have old military surplus weapons brought back to the US, reconditioned and resold into our civilian market. We already have enough guns for marksmanship practice – don’t we? CMP is literally bringing shiploads of WWII weapons in to be reconditioned and sold by them, in the tens of thousands, for what? To raise funds so CMP can teach marksmanship and firearms safety?

          • Quizzical

            I’ve been reading up on the CMP. In addition to the 86,000 M1 Garands from the Philippines, they are hoping to get 100,000 .45’s released from the Army to CMP for sale, and there have been stories about the stockpile of M1 Garands and M1 carbines held in South Korea — about one million weapons. Who knows how many other countries have stockpiles of these weapons that they would love to get rid of?

            I was also reading about the $20 million shooting range CMP built in Talladega, Alabama.
            http://thecmp.org/competitions/talladega-marksmanship-park/
            That seems like a lot of money for a non-profit marksmanship training organization to spend on a range.

            The CMP is one small slice of the gun culture in the US. And it’s mission is expressly cultural – to turn the US into a nation of citizen soldiers. That comes from 1903. We are a different country now than we were then. We’ve got about 320 million people, and over 300 million guns, now. We’ve been at war since 9/11 – 16 years. We have all volunteer, professional, standing armed forces. Not exactly citizen soldiers.

            So from a cultural viewpoint, what are we trying to accomplish here? And would we be better off if these surplus WWII weapons were dumped in the ocean rather than re-imported and sold into the civilian market?