The Bad Gun Dumpster

Nicholas J. Johnson in Liberty Law Blog, May 30, 2013

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By Nicholas J. Johnson

I have a friend who keeps going to the range with me and then threatening to buy a gun of his own.  He has the grudging support of his wife who got drawn in after a round of clays where she hit more than he did.

She has questions, though.  And it has been enlightening for me to talk about familiar things with an open-minded person who comes at gun issues basically from what she sees on TV.  She was perplexed about many of the exchanges in the current debate.

She listened patiently to my critique of the “bad gun formula of marginal supply controls as recipe for creeping disarmament.” Against scary looking pictures of AR-15’s it didn’t really click.  But she was unwilling just to nod and move on.  Her need to understand forced me to work a little harder on the details and to appreciate something I had lost sight of.

I realized that those of us who focus on these issues sometimes use rhetorical tools that fail to resonate for folks who are increasingly lured to think in pictures rather than words.  This helped me understand why the bad gun formula as a slippery slope to full confiscation argument might not convince some people until you tell the long story and illustrate it in detail.  I thought it might be worth doing that here.
The bad gun formula starts with a perfunctory, “I respect the Second Amendment but ….”  It proceeds from there to describe some subcategory of “bad guns” guns to which fantastic characteristics are attributed (this need not be accurate as long as the labels and images are catchy).  Then it stigmatizes the guns as somehow more gun-like, (i.e., more dangerous)  than others, and impugns the motives or morality of anyone who would defend such obviously nefarious instruments that no one really “needs.”

The claim here is always that “no one is talking about taking people’s guns.” (This is what the President said).  But the slippery slope to confiscation worry is vividly illustrated by a long-view examination of all the different technologies that have at one time or another been pitched into the bad gun basket. Here goes.

In my last post I dredged up the infamous Saturday Night Special, which we can stipulate is some slice of handguns.  For many years, this was the quintessential bad gun, endowed with such exceptional capacities that people would just say the words and figure they had won the point. For purposes of this exercise let’s stipulate the boundaries of this class, subtract them from the pool of “good guns” and dump them into the crush heap.

Next of course is the category of “assault weapons” which we have discussed over the last few months ad nauseam.  In previous posts I have shown how this category has no technical boundaries so we again have to stipulate the boundaries and dump these as well.

There are lots of guns left, of course. But we are just getting started. Some have almost lost sight of the fact, or for the rising generation maybe never appreciated, that for most of the history of the modern gun control movement the evil guns that needed banning were handguns, all of them.  This was the openly avowed goal of the movement starting in the 1970’s and continuing until relatively recently.  This ambition was driven by the fact that most gun crime is handgun crime. But handguns also have clear corresponding self-defense utility and this explains much of the resistance to the ban handguns movement.

Today, supply controllers who “respect the Second Amendment” soft peddle their longstanding disdain for the handgun. Scroll back twenty-five years though, and you can find many of them playing a much more aggressive tune. Cutting through the current lip service to the Second Amendment, for purposes of our counting, the bad gun formula demands we subtract handguns … every last one of them. (Recently at least one member of congress, Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, openly acknowledged her ambition to revive the handgun ban agenda and her belief that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Heller and McDonald do not preclude this.  She is clueless on the doctrine.  But her candor is refreshing.)

This still leaves some guns to fill the “needs” of those whacky Americans who insist on having one.  American hunters—that massive group of diligent voters, tax payers and prodigious spreaders of currency on vehicles, clothing, licenses, travel, and equipment—surely get to keep their guns, right?  Wrong.

Also on the list of “bad guns” that need banning are “civilian sniper rifles.”  Defined by the Violence Policy Center as a bolt action or semi-automatic, having a two-stage trigger, having a free-floated barrel, having a “bull” or “target” barrel or  having a fluted barrel. The bad gun claim here is that “[t]he end product of these and other fine-tuning features, is a precision instrument that is more rugged and more accurate than its hunting cousins.”   The Director of the International Action Network On Small Arms, has urged a more robust definition, arguing that no civilian should be allowed to have “sniper rifles” that are deadly at “100 meters distance.”

Now the shelves are really starting to thin. Handguns … gone. Semiautomatic rifles … mostly gone.  Civilian sniper rifles, “deadly at 100 meters” (basically every rifle ever made) … gone.

Okay, so you can still have a shotgun which evokes class comforting images of rich people in tweed, stepping out of Range Rovers. But when we start looking at the shotgun through a careful technical lens currently so lacking in firearms policy initiatives, it cannot long survive.

There is a hint of this in Robert Sherrill’s Saturday Night Special, mentioned in my last post.  Sherrill actually acknowledged, with a dose of hyperbole, the point that is confirmed by the U.S. Army Combat Shotgun Report. The shotgun is easily more destructive at practical ranges than many things on the bad gun list. A typical magnum 00 buckshot sends 15 .33 caliber projectiles downrange, in a pattern that spreads approximately one inch per yard.  Sherrill conjured images of people falling three at a time.

Some might quibble here, raising arguments about the comparative ballistic coefficients of buckshot versus various rifle rounds as ranges extend. Indeed I was prepared to have that conversation with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  We might have talked about the loads where shot size is small enough that the shotgun becomes comparatively less deadly, and then how regulations based on that distinction are easily circumvented because it is so easy to handload shotgun ammunition.

Walking away from it, I concluded that the players to whom such details should have mattered, Congress’ lead players on firearms policy, had never uttered the words “ballistic coefficient” or really thought beyond the first reflex about what they were proposing to regulate.  Still, for purposes of our exercise, one has to expect that someone, at some point, will start talking about the exceptional multi-projectile danger of Granddads’ Model 12 Winchester.

Add it up and we have a full picture of the bad gun supply control agenda as candidly articulated over the past four decades.  So when skeptics scoff at the worry that the bad gun formula is a confiscation agenda, one can answer as I have, that the theory of supply controls is nonsense unless one is committed to confiscation.  But those who find the theoretical discussion too abstract, can just reference the empty gun cabinet that is the plain end result of the “bad gun” formula.

Of course, for some people, the image of the empty gun cabinet cuts the other way.  They will say “Hell yea, right on.”  But that just confirms my starting contention about creeping confiscation.  And the cheering prohibitionists must be reminded that the guns didn’t really go to the crusher, they just flooded into the black market.

For others the empty gun cabinet image should help them cut through the claim that the conversation is really just about commonsense controls over a small category of dangerous and unusual guns that no one really “needs.”  This is an important revelation for new crops of young journalists, congressional staffers and news-show producers who don’t remember when the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was called the Coalition to Ban Handguns.

The encouraging thing is that there seem to be legions of folks at the grassroots who do remember such things and are beyond the influence of cloistered opinion makers.  This helps explain the failure of the latest rendition of the bad gun formula and illuminates the bewilderment about that failure among the chattering class.

The strategy of carving off gun owners category by category is now so familiar that very few gun people find it convincing. Even if it is true that there are shotgun people, rifle people, handgun people, hunters and target shooters, these labels do not mark boundaries.  These people are not divisible from American gun culture, they are American gun culture.

There was a nice demonstration of this in January when participants and exhibitors at the annual Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania withdrew from the program and shut down the event. The show is a big deal. I’ve been there several times over the years.  This year, the British- owned promoter, exhibited a deaf ear to its market and decided to prohibit exhibition of a variety of  semi-automatic “bad guns.” Hundreds of vendors and exhibitors lost lots of money by pulling out of the show.  Many of them did not even sell firearms.

One can’t know the motives of all of these people.  But it’s a good bet that nearly all of them, and their employees, and their families, owned firearms. And most of them have probably been paying close enough attention over the years to appreciate that most of the guns they own, at one time or another, have been on the bad gun list.

Politicians who advance the bad gun formula, seem to proceed as if the all memories are wiped clean with each election cycle. I guess they are encouraged by the fact that our collective focus on many issues barely survives the news cycle.

Gun people, at least on gun issues, seem to have a longer attention span.