Crime

Shooting Blind

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Under legislation that was recently approved by the Senate, gun dealers must supply a trigger lock or storage box with every firearm they sell. Given how eager politicians are to do something in the wake of the Littleton massacre, there's a good chance the House will pass a similar requirement.

In theory, it's possible to debate this measure rationally. We could begin by observing that the Constitution does not give Congress the authority to regulate intrastate sales of firearms.

Leaving constitutional concerns aside (as Congress usually does), we could note that the trigger lock mandate will raise gun prices even for people who already own safe storage equipment. We might also wonder how many gun buyers who wouldn't bother to purchase trigger locks would bother to use them if they came packaged with guns.

But the recent converts to this policy are not interested in its costs and benefits. They are interested in sending the message that they are moderate, reasonable people who support "common-sense gun control measures."

And so, in reaction to the carefully planned murders at Columbine High School, Congress is on the verge of enacting a requirement aimed at preventing accidental shootings. This is not just rash; it is a non sequitur.

On the surface, the other gun control measures approved by the Senate as amendments to a juvenile crime bill are more plausibly related to what happened in Littleton. But there is no reason to believe that any of them would have stopped Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold from carrying out their assault.

One amendment requires background checks for all sales at gun shows, where the firearms that Harris and Klebold used–a 9-mm pistol, a 9-mm carbine, and two 12-gauge shotguns–were purchased. Police say a 22-year-old acquaintance bought the pistol and an 18-year-old friend bought the rifle and shotguns. So far as we know, both buyers were legally qualified.

Another amendment bars minors from possessing "assault weapons," a term the gun control lobby invented to describe an arbitrarily defined class of scary-looking firearms. Of the guns used in the Littleton massacre, only the handgun is considered an "assault weapon,"and federal law already bans handgun possession by minors.

The bill would prohibit firearm possession by anyone convicted of a violent offense as a juvenile. Neither Harris nor Klebold had such a conviction.

The Senate also approved a ban on the import of ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds. Since clips can be switched in seconds, ammunition capacity is not likely to make a difference in assaults on unarmed people.

The bill raises the penalties for juveniles who use handguns, large-capacity feeding devices, or "assault weapons" to commit crimes. Since Harris and Klebold killed themselves after their rampage, it's doubtful that the prospect of an enhanced sentence would have deterred them.

In short, while these measures may or may not make sense on their own terms, the Littleton massacre did not strengthen the case for them one whit. Yet members of Congress, including self-styled defenders of the Second Amendment as well as longtime advocates of gun control, are acting as if it did.

This sort of illogical behavior is typical of the way that gun control laws are passed in this country. In 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson declared, "The hour has come for Congress to enact a strong and effective gun control law." Yet the Gun Control Act of 1968 did not affect the weapons used to kill King and Kennedy.

The Brady Bill, passed in 1993, was ostensibly a response to the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley. But as David Kopel of the Colorado-based Independence Institute has shown in convincing detail, Hinckley would not have been stopped by the waiting period and background check that the law established for handgun purchases.

In 1991, after George Jo Hennard killed 22 people at a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, gun control lobbyist Sarah Brady called for an "assault weapon" ban. In 1993, after Colin Ferguson killed six people on a New York commuter train, President Clinton called for an "assault weapon" ban. Yet neither of these crimes involved guns covered by the legislation that Brady and Clinton were demanding, which Congress finally passed in 1994.

So maybe we do need trigger locks–for politicians who shoot before they aim.