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The Gun Deal
There were about 45,000 gun deaths in the United Sates last year, including 24,000 suicides and 19,000 murders. Of the murder victims, about 500 died in mass shootings. That is, mass shootings account for less than three percent of all killings. But their brutality and scale garners considerable media attention and calls to action.
The horrors of recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde has led to the emergence of a bipartisan framework for federal legislation that would be the first serious attempt to address gun violence in a generation. The deal may not survive long enough to become law, with John Cornyn facing intense backlash from his colleagues as well as the party rank and file. But it’s still worth considering what the framework does and how it may be improved to address gun deaths more broadly.
The proposed legislation has several components: federal funding for states to establish and implement red flag laws, expanded background checks for those aged 18 to 21, requirements for commercial sellers to register as gun dealers and conduct background checks, closure of the so-called boyfriend loophole for those convicted of domestic violence, investments in mental health and school security, and federal laws against straw purchases and trafficking.
These are all good ideas and should lower rates of gun suicide, intimate partner violence, and even some mass shootings. But they will not do much to stem the flow of guns across state lines and into our cities where they are resulting in such mayhem. One can pass laws against trafficking, just as we have done with narcotics, but as long as there is ample supply and strong demand there will be profit in breaking these laws. And they will be difficult to enforce without placing significant burdens on the ordinary movement of people.
So one needs to address the ample supply. About 380,000 guns are lost or stolen annually, and a significant number of these end up being used in connection with violent offenses. How might this flow be interrupted?
Consider what can be achieved by a simple reporting requirement for lost and stolen guns, coupled with civil liability for the owners of guns that end up being used in crimes, provided that they have not been previously reported as missing.
To begin with, this can expose straw purchases masquerading as stolen guns. Anyone engaged in a large number of such purchases will have to report many missing firearms, or run the risk that they will be sued by victims.
Second, they will make red flag laws more effective. Someone identified as a threat to themselves or others would be unable to hold on to a weapon by simply claiming that it had been lost or stolen at some earlier date.
Third, they will create incentives for safe storage, and for monitoring the whereabouts of weapons. Responsible gun owners probably do this already, and the incentives created by the reporting requirement would push less responsible owners to do the same.
Fourth, it will make smart guns more attractive, since they are significantly less likely to be used by others even if lost or stolen. And if civil liability were coupled with mandatory insurance, it would reduce the cost differential between smart guns and more traditional weapons.
None of these ideas is especially novel. Many states have reporting requirements and New Jersey has civil liability for harms arising from stolen assault weapons if the theft has not been reported. Proposals along these lines may be found in my book with Dan O’Flaherty, in a previous post, and in a recent conversation with Bari Weiss and David French.
Mass shootings create momentum for legislation that more frequent but less dramatic homicides do not. This is understandable. Airplane crashes and train derailments also get a lot of attention, even though almost all transportation deaths are traffic fatalities. But if this momentum can be leveraged in ways that address gun deaths more broadly, a lot of lives could be saved.