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Workable solutions to curbing gun violence


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AS I SEE IT | Joseph J. Vince Jr., professor of criminal justice programs at Mount St. Mary’s University, president of Crime Gun Solutions LLC

November 8, 2017

The 58 slaughtered individuals in Las Vegas and 26 more in Texas have galvanized a public grown seemingly tolerant of mass shootings. An option put forth by some politicians is the renewal of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. Although many would celebrate re-enactment as a victory over the NRA and its allies, I believe reinstituting the ban, as it was enacted, is a bad idea.

I was a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) for three decades, directing the National Tracing Center and, later, the agency’s Firearms Enforcement Division. I also helped create and lead President Clinton’s Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. Critics of the 1994 ban’s effectiveness are right: The statute identified only 19 specific firearms to be banned outright and relied on a complex schema of weapons features to identify the rest. This created confusion and made enforcement difficult, if not impossible. Firearms manufacturers quickly reconfigured existing models to skirt the ban without compromising their performance. One named its newly redesigned firearm the “AB-10” for “After Ban,” to poke a stick in the legislation’s eye.

Equally problematic, the 1994 ban grandfathered all existing assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, including those in the delivery pipeline. No records are kept on how many assault weapons have been sold in the United States, but one academic recently estimated that there are more than 2 million assault rifles similar to the AR-15 in civilian hands. Can you imagine any legislator asking these owners to give back their legally purchased weapons?

That’s why we need a different approach. Instead of a ban, let law-abiding gun owners buy and keep as many assault- or military-style weapons they want. Just make them follow the same regulations that owners of fully automatic weapons have followed for the past 80 years. That means all assault weapons — new and old — would need to be properly registered, and all future transfers of these weapons would follow the same requirements.

This approach avoids the confusion that compromised the ’94 ban by encompassing any semi-automatic firearm designed (or redesigned) for military use and able to carry a 10-round or larger magazine. Identifying these weapons could be handled by a registration board of federal and local law enforcement officers, backed by members of the ATF’s Firearms Technology Branch. Prospective buyers would be subject to extensive background checks that would be more expansive when it comes to uncovering criminal records and mental competency than the current simple computer inquiries. Applicants convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, such as assault and battery, would rightly be considered unfit for ownership.

This isn’t a new approach. In 1934, federal legislation required machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and other gangster-favored weapons to be registered. Since that enactment, few of these firearms have been used in violent crimes, and law-abiding citizens are still allowed to buy them. If this were applied to assault weapons, a criminal caught with an unregistered rifle would be subject to the same legal sanctions of being caught with a machine gun. Owners trying to sell assault weapons without proper paperwork would risk stiff fines, arrest and even forfeiture of the firearm.

Paranoids and fear-mongers will claim this is merely a way to mask “the government’s” plans to confiscate citizens’ guns. That’s nonsense. Since 1934, federal agencies have known the names and addresses of every owner of a registered machine gun, bazooka, silencer and the like. In that time, law enforcement has never once tried to seize these weapons. Rigorous background checks would make it more difficult for an assault rifle to fall in the wrong hands. Making registration part of legally possessing an assault weapon gives law enforcement agencies a reason to intervene before it is illegally used, rather than responding after the fact. This law would respect Second Amendment rights, while denying assault weapons to those who would use them threaten our homes, schools and neighborhoods.

If we are serious about curbing gun violence, we need to find workable solutions. Registration is a feasible approach that has stood the test of time. Putting assault weapons under the same regulatory umbrella successfully used for other dangerous weapons is legally consistent and constitutionally sound. It also stands a better chance of working than other proposals. And it’s certainly superior to what’s currently in place.

Joseph J. Vince Jr. is a professor of criminal justice programs at Mount St. Mary’s University and president of Crime Gun Solutions LLC.

 
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