A Proposal to Shrink the Supply of Firearms Available for Criminal Use

Print More

Robert Heinlein, a Libertarian Science fiction writer, popularized the phrase “TANSTAAFL.” He was expressing colloquially, by the words “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” a principle popularized in economics by Milton Friedman. The principle, somewhat oversimplified, is that whenever there is an exclusive choice whichever alternative is taken has an opportunity cost associated, the opportunity to choose another alternative. Reality is often a little less simple. There is no free lunch but there are many relatively governmentally highly subsidized lunches and many much lower or totally unsubsidized ones. That is the case with seeking to reduce harm from the presence in America of between its’ possibly 270 – 300 million firearms. A gun redemption program can only be successful under the motto “Go Big, or Go Home.”
The dialog over harm reduction from firearms is stagnant. The Liberal side says: “Guns facilitate crime! Pass Ban Laws!” and the Conservative one says: “Guns don’t commit crimes! Just enforce the laws that already exist!” The criminal use of guns not in proper custody leads to enormous medical and legal costs (recently estimated at $233 billion per year.) These costs are borne not just by the victim but also by non-firearms using taxpayers for medical and legal expenses including long incarceration. Neither side is willing to ask the questions “How, practically, can further harm reduction occur?” “What will further harm reduction cost?” and “Who will pay what amounts for it?” These debate positions amount to each side asking for a free lunch from the other. Enforcement would cost a lot either way. It is little noticed that to maintain this oversupply and too – great ease of access, further harm reduction requires much greater expense in detection and treatment of mental illness, control rather than freedom of persons, including surveillance and sometimes prolonged custodianship of the ill, as well as in hardening sites where potential masses of victims can be found (court houses, malls, theatres, schools.) Furthermore, it was recently revealed in a study that in addition to insane persons there are also a large number of persons who have access to firearms and admit to being quick to anger and impulsive and carry guns outside the home (1.5%, as many as 3.6 million people)[1]. Many of these persons may not have committable mental illnesses. Such would be the costs, unless there is a less costly, voluntary, market – based way of getting excess guns out of circulation.

Another aspect of the oversupply of firearms is represented by aging shooting hobbyists (such as myself) and old guns. I’ve already accepted for custody some handguns taken by a nearly senior friend from her much older father. My gun safe is at capacity. Is there any way I can dispose of these guns that helps me assure they won’t eventually end up in the streets? In my case I’m going to try using the new, inchoate organization called the National Center for Unwanted Firearms (on line). At least, since it is based far from me in Montana, I will be exporting my unwanted firearms far from the cities nearest me. But older guns, unwanted by their legal purchasers, are a part of this vastly costly plague of violence. There is a temptation to monetize some of their cost to the law – abiding purchaser through private sale or transfer on other bases such as lending. Here is an illustration concerning age and guns.
In Erie, Pennsylvania a 14 year – old, Derrys Sanders, in broad daylight, on July 11, 2015, tried to steal a bike from its 18-year-old rider, Joseph Pushinsky. Sanders ran alongside the moving bike, pulled a handgun, described as “one of those old German Pistols from World War Two,” pressed it against Pushinsky’s side, shot him and ran off. A 22-caliber bullet was removed from Pushinsky’s dead body. Sanders is in custody, but the gun has never been found. Although the first American Rugers made in 22-caliber were produced in 1949, a precursor German Luger from World War Two or earlier, properly or even minimally maintained, could still be lethal. Lugers in larger caliber were first produced in 1900.
Guns can be lethal long after any law-abiding owner becomes disinterested in them or ages out of using them. The National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has found that the average length of “time to crime” between the first (legal) sale of a firearm and the date of its’ recovery by police is 11 years [2]! No one knows how long on average such firearms were held in responsible, legal custody, and how long they may have been in the hands of persons who might have used them illegally. And now, whenever there’s another mass shooting, some gun fanciers go out, perhaps on the unrealistic assumption that bans are coming, and they buy more guns. These guns, particularly new handguns being advertised today, are advertised on their power, their lethality. Can we create a large-scale way to get unwanted firearms, particularly semiautomatic pistols, not in proper custody, deactivated, by voluntary redemption for a reward payment?
Where would the money come from? It seems reasonable that a portion of the Federal Excise tax on manufacturers of firearms and ammunition be used, at first in experimental programs, to determine an amount of reward for redemption effective to motivate significant redemptions under the following conditions. This indirect tax is collected from manufacturers of all types of firearms and ammunition: pistols, revolvers, and long guns. It began as a tax only on machineguns and short-barreled firearms such as sawed off shotguns. Currently, under the Pittman – Robertson Act of 1937 it all goes, by formulas, to hunter education and state wildlife conservation programs. [3] These are no doubt worthy programs, but this use was established long before the current plague of inner city street crime, mass “crazy” killings, and assassinations by “disgruntled” persons. While these taxes are passed on, it seems that few “home defense” purchasers of new, highly lethal semiautomatic pistols and ammunition would have good grounds to object to repurposing the portion of the tax passed on to them from wildlife conservation to experimental redemption (i.e., “buyback”) programs. Such are precisely the sort of guns prized by potential street criminals. Very few hunters, I think (largely white male conservatives who value their skill and self-reliance) hunt wildlife with 9 millimeter Glocks, etc. So why should all the taxes from sale of such pistols and ammunition go to wildlife conservation, rather than through experimenting to reduce the “wild life” of poor and middle class urban dwellers by redeeming and deactivating excess guns? Do Black Lives Matter, after all? How about the lives of any poor and middle class Americans who reside in inner cities? Revenue from collection of these taxes recently exceeded $500 million per year [4], including several hundred million from pistols and ammunition. While inner city victims are killed or maimed, or robbed, self-reliant hunters are getting not a free lunch, but a heavily subsidized one.
Redemption would be handled by a custodian for government when the firearm is turned in for irremediable deactivation. An adult coming upon a functional firearm not in proper custody, such as one lying around unattended in plain sight or even hidden in a public place, could take the firearm, inform law enforcement it is being transported for redemption, and be awarded the redemption reward from the custodian, no questions asked. The highest reward would be for a semiautomatic pistol. In pilot programs custodians should be allowed to come as close as anti-competition law allows to any private dealer’s offer. A reward, say, twice scrap value, could be granted for old hunting rifles, shotguns and non-functional guns of any sort. The custodian would have a duty to test the firearm for function and ballistics, hold it for a period of time, and then render it irretrievably inoperable. Maybe, during that time, a legal owner, who was a temporarily irresponsible custodian, could contact police and still sell the firearm legally through police supervision and custody. Proper civilian custody could include whatever the current state law allows, except that any loaded firearm lying about, untouched, in plain sight, in daylight, in a home, office, or vehicle would be subject to legal appropriation for redemption. If a legal owner has been as irresponsible about custody as to leave such an attractive nuisance as a gun lying in plain sight in a home with others about, he or she should lose custody of it. Rather than “reinventing government” by laying off game wardens as funds diminish, they could be trained and paid to perform these sorts of functions as well as their state game land duties.
Operate the program seasonally, while school is out, in inner cities high gun crime areas, but over a large region, e.g., the northeastern states. Care would have to be taken with any “buy back” program to structure rewards so they are sufficiently lucrative to motivate redemption yet do not backfire into theft of legally owned guns in homes, etc., nor excess repeat redemptions using cash from one redemption to fund purchase of another gun. Amounts and forms of reward must be determined empirically, especially if offers from private dealers are made known to potential reward redeemers. There would probably need to be some immediate cash component and then possibly some electronic benefit card usable only for non-weapons purchases. There will be critical anecdotes! The genius of humans at producing unintended bad consequences can never be predicted. If an addict turned in a gun to get $50.00 cash and a limited electronic benefit credit card reward for redemption and sold the card or killed him or herself with an overdose at least a gun would have been taken off the streets.
This program is no panacea. Its’ effectiveness could, I think, be greatly enhanced by complete legalization of marijuana possession and use and medicalization, with custodial provision, for harmful acts driven by addiction to other drugs. By “complete legalization” I mean including even executive clemency or pardons for all nonviolent drug offenders. Many could be trained in purity testing, medical basics and accounting for employment in small, legal, marijuana dispensaries (whether public or private.) Fund it by taxing sales as with alcohol.
Advocacy for such a big gun redemption program might come from police associations and neighborhood watch groups. Is it possible that major arms manufacturers would agree to allow and maybe even join in advocacy of such a use of the excise taxes they pay? Should it be successful, they would eventually see a decline of previously purchased firearms enabling them to produce more new weapons for sale. How about gun owners associations? Would Americans of means contribute to a public – private non-profit organization to increase rewards? How about major retail merchants with store specific cards clearly marked “Not Usable for Purchases of Firearms or Ammunition?” By publication, I’m asking these questions.

[1] Guns, Impulsive Angry Behavior, and Mental Disorders, Jeffrey W. Swanson, et. al., Behavioral Sciences and Law, Wiley Online 8 April 2015
[2] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, National Trace Center “Time To Crime” spreadsheet https://www.atf.gov/sites/default/files/assets/statistics/tracedata-2012/ttc.xlsx
[3] Guns, Excise Tax and Wildlife Restoration, Jane G. Gravelle and M. Lynne Corn, Congressional Research Service, March 12, 2013
[4] op. cit.