The Uses and Limits of Knowledge About Guns

We're about to start the portion of this debate where we begin discussing specific actions the government might take to address gun violence. And as we do, particularly when it comes to those measures that concern the guns themselves (as opposed to measures focused on the people who can get them or the conditions of their purchase), it's likely that gun advocates will start complaining that there's a problem with all these effete urban northeastern liberals making laws governing guns they know nothing about. This isn't new; for instance, gun advocates have long hated the term "assault weapon," since it doesn't mean anything in particular (after all, every gun is a weapon designed for assault).

We should be very wary of the argument that people who have a lot of experience with guns have some kind of greater moral claim to a voice in this debate (and we should also be wary, as Elsbeth Reeve writes, of coastal urbanite conservatives claiming to speak for "real America" about guns). Yes, having everyone get their facts straight is important. But every one of us is potentially affected by guns, whether we ever bother to pick one up or not. That's kind of the whole point. You don't have to know how to disassemble and clean a Glock to want your kid not to be shot by one.

Nevertheless, some details do matter. The first measure we're probably going to debate is a renewal of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. Senator Dianne Feinstein has announced that she'll be introducing a new version of that law, and today Jay Carney expressed some tentative presidential support for it. But the first challenge will be to write the law in such a way that it doesn't run into the same problem the first assault weapons ban had.

The problem was one of definition: along with banning some specific models, the law gave a menu of features (a folding stock, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor, and so on), and said that if a rifle had two or more of them and was also a semi-automatic that used detachable magazines, it would be considered an assault weapon (there was a separate set of rules for handguns). So gun manufacturers just tweaked the designs of their guns so that they wouldn't fit the definition (after all, do you really need a bayonet mount?), and presto, though Model X was now illegal, the new Model X-1, which was pretty much the same thing, was not.

Does Feinstein's proposal forestall the possibility of this happening again? According to the press release, the new proposal:

Stops the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of more than 100 specifically-named firearms as well as certain semiautomatic rifles, handguns and shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine and semiautomatic rifles and handguns with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds.

So we don't know yet—there's a lot of uncertainty in that word "certain." But until we see the details, I'm skeptical that there will be some clever definition that will make it impossible to sell any military-style rifle.

Of course, in most countries everyone agrees that if you want to hunt, a bolt-action rifle should be fine, and the idea that anyone needs a semi-automatic rifle is nuts. But not here.

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