Gun Control Advocates Playing Defense. Or Are They?

After the Safeway Massacre, the mainstream media was lousy with calls for gun control. This entirely predictable SMBD (Something Must Be Done) response was particularly ineffective. Rightly enough, the American public saw Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree as an anomaly. If anything, the resulting shock and horror reinforced the ongoing trend towards concealed carry for nine out of ten patients who chew gum. I mean, for Americans who own guns but don’t yet carry. As the anti-gun rhetoric reached its crescendo, gun control advocates made their play: a federal ban on firearms magazines that hold more than ten bullets. That’s it?

Politics is the art of the possible. In another time, the Loughner killing would have led to the tightening of already draconian gun control laws. Nowadays, that’s not how America rolls. The post-Clinton push-back against firearms restrictions has been breathtaking in both speed and scope; from the unchallenged expiration of the assault weapons ban to the sea change from “may issue” to “shall issue” concealed carry laws.

The McDonald decision—striking down Chicago’s handgun ban and incorporating the Second Amendment (it now trumps local and state law)—wasn’t the final nail in the coffin. But it made gun control’s resurrection, including the post-Loughner attempt to create a high capacity magazine ban, about as likely as a plague of zombies. Even the New York Times gets it.

Over the last few weeks, gun-control advocates have focused on banning the type of high-capacity clips that the police say was used by the man accused in the Tucson shootings, Jared Loughner. But even timely efforts to ban particular kinds of weapons face long odds politically, and historically have less success in reducing crime.

To get something done with a skeptical Congress, the president ought to shift the focus from the instruments of violence to the perpetrators by calling for a substantial increase in the number of people who are listed by the F.B.I. as barred from purchasing guns.

Op-Editorialist Jim Kessler was Senator Charles Schumer’s point man on gun control. Co-writer Jonathan Cowan founded and ran Americans for Gun Safety, folded into their shared gig the Third Way. If these guys are reduced to urging better enforcement of existing systems, you know the gun control legislative agenda is dead, or at least severely wounded.

It’s easy to understand why those who seek to control crime by controlling guns are turning to a Tony Blair-ian stealth solution. They feel increasingly frustrated by gun rights supporters “intransigence” on the issue. Every time they propose some “reasonable” or “common sense” firearms restriction, their opponents shoot holes in it.

Register long guns near the Mexico border to slow the flow of assault rifles to Mexican drug cartels? No way Jose. It’s ineffective and illegal. Limit sales of high-cap mags to make murder less murderous? Go fish. So now it’s strengthen the firearms equivalent of a communist black list

This rearguard action represents a radical change of direction for the gun control movement, from a legislative agenda to an administrative assault. In other words, gun control advocates are planning to fly beneath the radar—looking to achieve their goals through the existing government bureaucracy rather than public debate.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (and Really Big Fires)—an agency with a chip on its shoulder the size of New Mexico—is leading the charge. The Obama administration’s decision to renominate ATF Chicago bureau chief and anti-assault weapon crusader Andrew Traver to run the agency indicates that a strong anti-gun breeze has filled its sails. The unexplained administrative delay on the ATF’s long-gun registry plans suggests it’s a gust rather than a gale.

It remains to be seen if President Obama is willing to manipulate the levers of power to aid the gun control movement. (Hence the Times’ focus on the forthcoming State of the Union address.) Past history suggests that Obama views gun control as America’s untouchable “third rail.” But make no mistake about it: the federal bureaucracy is ready, willing and not-so-able to pick up the gun control ball and run with it.

Catch that diss? Truth be told, the federal government’s intrusiveness and inefficiency is a powerful argument against the Gray Lady’s “common sense” call for tighter vetting procedures for gun buyers.

This year, the government will conduct about 14 million background checks on prospective firearm buyers. Only about 200,000, or just over 1 percent, will be denied permission to buy.

What’s more, while the F.B.I. database, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, has nearly 6.5 million records of prohibited buyers, two-thirds are simply the names of undocumented immigrants, who as a group constitute just 1 percent of those who were denied a gun.

In contrast, the entire prohibited-buyer database holds just 2,092 names of drug abusers, and only one of every 5,000 prospective buyers in 2010 was denied for reasons of mental instability.

Kessler and Cowan somehow forgot to mention that Uncle Sugar has already allocated $1b dollars to State efforts to enter mental health information into the federal NICS system. Less than five percent has been spent. It’s also worth pointing out (as we have in the past) that the FBI Terrorist Watch List, which the Third Way want to add to the NICS system, has more than a million erroneous entries, with no formal appeal system (still).

There are two words for this kind of initiative: security theater. Or insidious plot. If mental health treatment or evidence of prior drug-taking become the primary litmus test for gun ownership, rather than a criminal conviction, a huge number of law-abiding citizens will be denied a firearm. Common sense tells us that you can’t reduce criminal access to firearms beyond a certain point without invoking the law of unintended consequences.

In any case, is a one percent firearms purchase denial rate a problem? Where’s the evidence that making the FBI’s vast database more “comprehensive” (i.e. expensive, complex and error-prone) will reduce gun crime? Criminals don’t buy guns from gun stores. If Jared Lee Loughner hadn’t been able to buy a gun legally, would that have stopped his killing spree?

The fact that gun control groups are shifting their focus is a sign that they’ve surrendered the main field of battle. But it’s also clear that they’re not giving up. Why would they? They believe that privately-held firearms are an unnecessary evil. Those who don’t share this view should understand the simple truth that it’s entirely possible to win the battle and lose the war.