Tag: assault weapons

A Cosmetic Gun Law

Last night, the New York Senate passed far-reaching reforms to New York’s gun laws. The law should easily pass the Assembly and then be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Almost assuredly, this law will save no lives and stop no mass shootings. In fact, it may make New Yorkers less safe. 

I invite you to read over the previsions of the law—expanding the definition of already-banned “assault” weapons, banning the sale of magazines that hold over seven rounds, a requirement that licenses be renewed every five years—and ask if there is a single would-be killer out there who would be hampered by such restrictions in a country where he is already surrounded by 300 million guns? It is simply unreasonable to think that any unstable person with plans for mass carnage will be stopped by only having seven rounds per magazine. The Virginia Tech shooter, after all, solved this “problem” by carrying a bag with 19 magazines.

And how could this law make New Yorkers less safe? First, the law will inevitably limit law-abiding citizens’ access to weapons, and those citizens may need those weapons to protect themselves or others from a crime. At minimum, this occurs 108,000 times per year, according to the federal government’s National Crime Victimization Survey, and it likely occurs far more than that (you can read more about defensive gun use in the Cato study Tough Targets).

Second, onerous gun restrictions tend to drive gun purchasers underground. Those black and illicit markets are further expanded by gun-control advocates’ attempts to shame and demonize those who own firearms and enjoy using them in a responsible manner (for example, the recent Gawker exposé publishing the names and addresses of gun owners in New York City, who were blatantly described as “a**holes,” as well as the Journal News publishing similar data for gun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties). Moreover, as J.D. Tuccille recently documented in Reason, evading gun restrictions is not just a national pastime, it is an international pastime. Tuccille writes that there are approximately 58,000 registered gun owners in New York City, but that the Justice Department estimates that there are about 2 million illegal guns in the city. 

Pushing more of the gun trade underground by passing onerous restrictions and creating bureaucratic labyrinths impairs our ability to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.   

Some aspects of the law, such as the requirement that mental health professionals report patients who they believe are likely to harm themselves or others, seem like an honest attempt to prevent dangerous people from having guns. However, the requirement violates the traditional rules of therapist/patient confidentiality, and unfortunately it will likely do more to dissuade people from seeking help out of fear that they may be disarmed by the state.  

Governor Cuomo’s statement—“Enough people have lost their lives. Let’s act”—shows that this law is more an example of the “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done” tendency in politics rather than a carefully considered bill that offers workable solutions to the problem. In many ways, this is the biggest harm of these cosmetic gun laws: lawmakers can pat themselves on the back and incorrectly say, “we saved some lives today” and then move on to other tasks while having done nothing to solve the problem. 

Why the Rush, Governor Cuomo?

Legislation rushed through passage is invariably bad law. And the gun bill that emerged overnight from the New York State Legislature, on its first day back, will surely be no exception. Written in private by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders and completed late yesterday, “rank-and-file Senators had only a few minutes to read the legislation before voting on it,” the New York Times reports. “If there is an issue that fits the definition of necessity,” Cuomo intoned, “I believe it’s gun violence.” Really! So pressing are events that the normal three-day waiting period, so legislators could study the bill, had to be waived?

So what do we have? A bill that bans, as “assault weapons,” semiautomatic pistols and rifles with detachable magazines and “one military-style feature,” and semiautomatic shotguns with such a feature. And what is a “military-style feature”? We’ve seen this play before. New Yorkers who already have such guns can keep them, but they’ll have to be registered. Expect litigation on all of those points. Once again, it’s the law-abiding people this bill will affect, not those we have to worry about.

But if the gun part of the bill is problematic, the mental health part is even more so. Mental health professionals would be required “to report to local mental health officials when they believe that patients are likely to harm themselves or others,” the Times tells us, the failure of which would not be sanctioned if they acted “in good faith.” Here again, as with the guns, we imagine that all we need is more law to address what is doubtless the most difficult part of the problem. The implications for confidentiality and, more important still, for encouraging people to seek help, are deeply troubling.

Yet the most important measure that could be taken immediately—one that has proven to reduce deaths from random mass shootings—seems to be missing altogether from this bill, despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans support it. It is to have armed security officials at schools and other currently “gun-free zones.” This act is likely to have little effect on the real problem, however much it makes those who promoted and passed it feel good. 

Political Trends and Gun Control Politics

From today’s Washington Post:

During his campaign, Obama supported reintroducing the lapsed assault weapon ban, promised to eliminate an amendment requiring the FBI to destroy records of gun buyers’ background checks and advocated closing the gun-show loophole. Since taking office, the president has done none of that, and before the midterm elections, he shelved a proposal requiring gun dealers to report bulk sales of high-powered semiautomatic rifles. In his State of the Union address, just weeks after the Giffords shooting in January, Obama made no mention of guns. … Other leading Democrats, even those traditionally willing to offer full-throated support for gun-control efforts, have grown surprisingly less vocal as they take on more of a national role.

The Dems have lost enthusiasm for gun control.  No question.  But seems to me that media interest is also a big factor here.  When the news media turned from Gabrielle Giffords to Libya, that’s where Obama went next.

For related Cato work, go here and here.