Sunday, April 22, 2007

Guns Don't Kill, Bullets Do

It was inevitable that the advocates from both sides of the gun control issue would creep from the woodwork, even before the full facts of the Virginia Tech are available. Still, the act of a lone, mentally ill killer, provides nothing new to the arguments heard over and over again from both sides. No one disputes the extensive use of firearms in criminal activities ranging from Armed Robbery to Homicide.

With all the state and federal statues passed to restrict or prevent the illegal use of firearms, their usage rates have not changed appreciably – certainly not enough to say, “This legislation has fixed the problem.” Given this reality, an objective assessment of why all our efforts to use the law have failed to prevent criminal weapons usage, would seem to be far more useful than emotional, reactive efforts to pass (or prevent) new laws.

The root cause of the VT tragedy rested with only one fact. Existing statutes, designed to prevent such horrific killings, were not enforced. In the State of Virginia, a person who has been adjudicated as being a threat to himself or others cannot legally obtain a firearm. Cho Seung-Hui, indeed, fit this criterion. A Virginia Court had found that he fit this criterion, and had ordered him committed. Yet, he was able to legally obtain the weapons used. Somewhere, in the complex information chain, the weapons dealer was not informed that his sale of a handgun was prohibited.

This single instance suggests an answer to the more general problem. For every firearm used in a premeditated criminal act, one or many statutes designed to prevent such acts were not enforced. This same generalization applies to more than the criminal use of firearms. How about the twelve million, or more, illegal immigrants residing in the United States? What could be more apparent than the deliberate failure to enforce deportation and employment laws than actions taken by all levels of law enforcement, from local to Federal? What about the millions of identity thefts occurring each year? The proximate cause for such theft is error… a failure to protect the sensitive personal information leading to these thefts.

In the supply chain, from manufacturer to end-user, two problems occur. With all transactions occurring in the private sector, both error and deliberate action make possible the violations that occur. So the question becomes one of developing policies and procedures which can increase the effective enforcement of existing firearms law. It certainly is not one of passing new or repealing existing legislation. It is one of making the existing legislation work, as intended.

To achieve their intended purpose, a symbiotic relationship exists between the weapon and its ammunition. Neither can operate without the functionality of the other. The gun owner will typically go to the same source for ammunition as he did for the gun. Although each is equally necessary, authorization to purchase a complete weapon system (the gun and the ammunition) is, for all practical purposes, directed at the hardware, with little attention being paid to those purchasing ammunition. Yet, the diversity of available ammunition available for use with a given handgun can raise immediate questions about its intended use. Handgun ammunition best suited for target shooting is quite different from that designed to inflict maximum damage and lethality on human beings.

The requirements for licensing of firearms dealers, set forth in USC Title 18923, make no mention of any knowledge qualifications related to either the weapons or the ammunition intended to be sold, let alone any forensic knowledge which might be helpful in spotting those with criminal purposes. If the sellers of the weapons and ammunition Cho used had such knowledge, the purchase of Hollow Point ammunition in large quantities might very well have raised questions regarding his intent.

While the illegal purchase of a handgun requires some cleverness and knowledge about sources, no such difficulty exists when it comes to the purchase of ammunition. It can be purchased anywhere, including the Internet. Given all of the above, would it not make preventative sense to make the requirements for the purchase of ammunition as rigorous, or even greater than that for purchasing the gun? What about separating those who sell the hardware from those who sell the ammunition, as being completely separate suppliers?

Clearly, those in the community having the most knowledge about ammunition, its performance, and its potential damage to victims are the local/state police and sheriffs. If law enforcement has control of all ammunition, it is in the best position to insure that it does not fall into the hands of criminals or the mentally ill. If all ammunition is sold on the premises, of a law enforcement agency, the chances of theft are far reduced than when fund in a commercial facility.

Once implemented, anyone seeking ammunition would purchase it at police stations, Sherriff’s offices, or State Police facilities. Permits might include a maximum number of rounds, limits on types of ammunition purchased, etc. All of these procedures would be under state control, as are controls on concealed weapons licenses, purchase of destructive or hazardous materials, etc.

All revenue derived from the sales of ammunition would go to state or local law enforcement agencies, as determined by each state legislature. This would be consistent with other state revenue raising activities such as issuance of hunting licenses, drivers licenses, license plate fees, or admission to state operated recreational facilities.

But what of the case of Cho? While if the plan described above were implemented, the amount of ammunition he purchased and the type of rounds purchased might well have raised the suspicions of police selling ammunition, he might well have been able to maintain an appearance, and construct a credible reason for purchasing the ammunition. Maintaining a state-wide database of all ammunition purchased by an individual by date, number of rounds, and type, as well as maximum limits on aggregate purchases could certainly have raised warning flags, and could well have limited the deaths he caused.

All of which brings us back to the basic question of personal privacy versus the public interest. We have the technology to insure the identity and relevant information about every citizen can be carried on a credit card sized piece of plastic. We could certainly code such a card with information regarding that person’s permission to drive a motor vehicle, purchase a handgun, purchase alcoholic beverages, as well as access permission host of other services that are regulated by the State. We could severely limit identity theft, while at the same time make a medical history available in the event the holder of the card is unable to provide information to those treating him.

Beyond insuring the individual access to services to which he is qualified to receive , and preventing him from engaging in illegal activity, or which accessing services to which he has no permission to receive, there are broader national implications for such an ID card. It would end, once and forever after any question of who among us is a citizen of this country, who a legal guest, and who is illegally present. Ultimately, as each person is furnished a personal ID card, it would sharply reduce the cost and error rate of conducting the decennial census, more accurately specifying the number of members of the House of Representatives, and potentially providing a more frequent census.

Once fully in place, the cost of government would be sharply decreased, violent criminal behavior could be expected to decline, and we could severely limit the potential for terrorist attacks.

Those in opposition cite the erosion of what is interpreted as a Constitutional guarantee of a right to privacy. Ten years ago, in May, 1997, Steven Moore, an economist with the Cato Institute provided congressional testimony which well articulates the principle objections to this perceived invasion of privacy. While the technology has made quantum leaps in capabilities, the issues he raised remain at the core of why we have yet to implement such a plan.

Before the tragedy of Virginia Tech fades from your attention, consider the solutions offered above and take the appropriate action with your lawmakers.

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