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No, We Haven’t Discovered ‘Gun Control That Actually Works’


Over at The New York Times, Alan Berlow thinks he has discovered “gun control that actually works.” He hasn’t, and it’s a pitiable liberal tendency to search desperately for successful gun control laws, year after year and ban after ban. It is the policy equivalent of Sasquatch: it’s out there, somewhere, even though there’s no real demonstrable proof of it. You just have to keep looking.

Barlow thinks he has finally found it, the Surgeon’s Photograph of gun control. “For more than 80 years,” he writes, “the United States has enforced a tough and effective gun control law that most Americans have never heard of:”  “It’s a 1934 measure called the National Firearms Act, and it stands as a stark rebuke to the most sacred precepts of the gun lobby and provides a model we should build on.”

The National Firearms Act of 1934 does no such thing: it rebukes no “sacred precept,” and the “model” it “provides” is meaningless in relation to broader gun policy.

The NFA mandates that owners register various types of firearms and firearm accessories: machine guns, silencers, sawed-off shotguns, short-barreled rifles, and other concealable weapons. Registration involves a background check, an added tax, approval by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a stolen gun reporting requirement.

One of These Things Does Not Undermine the Other

In Berlow’s reckoning, the NFA “makes a good case against the N.R.A.,” because it requires a firearm database the likes of which the National Rifle Association vehemently opposes for broader gun ownership. “[T]o today’s N.R.A.,” he writes, “such measures are an existential threat to the Second Amendment.” As Berlow puts it, the NFA’s success “forcefully undermines the N.R.A.’s nonsensical claims that reasonable limits on gun ownership are a serious burden to law-abiding gun owners.”

This is profoundly silly for a number of important reasons, chief among them that Berlow seems not to grasp the animating principle of the NRA itself. The NRA has one purpose through which it serves the American body politic: broadly safeguarding the American right to keep and bear arms. The firearms covered by the NFA, on the other hand, are niche items—certain carbines and fully-automatic M4s and handguns with shoulder-stocks.

It is simply nonsense to claim that heavily regulating these types guns represents “reasonable limits” that can be applied to broader categories of firearms. One style of regulation covering a few specific types of guns does not mean that every gun must be likewise covered, any more than the specific regulations covering certain types of cheeses means you must similarly regulate a raw-milk cheese and a slice of American.

As for Berlow’s broader argument, that gun registration promises “tremendous success” in reducing gun violence: this is a dubious proposition at best and a willfully ignorant one at worst. One only need look at Washington DC’s gun registration law compared to the decades of the District’s astronomical gun violence to see that gun registration hardly correlates with a drop in gun crime. (Additionally, the expensive and esoteric types of weapons covered by the NFA are by their nature less practical for committing crimes than cheap, easily concealable handguns and revolvers.)

Gun Registries Do Have Historical Precedent

Berlow’s final contention is a rhetorical one: if registration is so threatening, he asks, then “why hasn’t the government used the N.F.A database to confiscate weapons? Why has it failed to move against the holders of hunting licenses and concealed carry permits who readily submit to milder forms of gun licensing and registration?”

This is, by way of rhetorical device, a true statement. It is also a meaningless and stupid one. Supporters of American gun rights do not oppose gun registries because we are worried that senators Mitch McConnell or Patrick Leahy are going to order their personal aides to snatch our guns away. We are concerned, rather, that a gun registry could—years down the line—become a powerful and dangerous tool in the hands of a government bent on subduing the civilian population under an authoritarian regime.

There is also the fear that an activist Supreme Court could re-litigate the Second Amendment out of existence, something Hillary Clinton has effectively promised to do. In either case, a registry would be a dangerous road map that would tell the government exactly where every gun in the country is.

This type of scenario is not mere fantasy. It has happened before, well within living memory. The Nazis used the Weimar Republic’s gun registry to confiscate firearms from the German Jewry. This disarmament doubtlessly contributed to the forced extermination of millions of Jews. Disarming the civilian populace invariably precedes the ascendancy of every tyrannical government.

Gun registries let the powers-that-be know where firearms are kept. Registries are inimical to the Second Amendment, which is meant to ensure a defensively armed population, something a registry by its nature preempts. Berlow is, in either case, wrong: about the relative merits of a broader gun registry, and about the safety and prudency of such a registry.

Those of us who take gun rights seriously have heard these arguments before, and dismissed them. “Gun control that works” continues, as always, to not actually work. Like Sasquatch, it’s always out there somewhere—but you never find it.