Licenses, watch lists and exile
A magic wand is a fine thing to have, because I don't think there is the slightest chance that any of the things I would like to propose could ever become law. And that is not because my proposals are not capable of winning support in themselves, but because I think the political system is dysfunctional on this issue: because of the power of the NRA, the closely divided nature of politics at the present time and the inbuilt rural bias of the Senate. That is the flip side of a system that also has many virtues: I'm a firm federalist, because I think the federal system, reserving as much power as it does to the states, for the most part helps keep democracy vibrant and close to the people. But you've given me a magic wand, so I'm going to use it.
First of all, any gun control plan is going to have to be conducted at the federal level. The cross-border implications of gun ownership are so great that they outweigh the benefit of states' rights. Washington, D.C. is a good example. It has had a handgun ban for 30 years. But it still has a very high rate of homicides: 195 in 2005, out of a population of 550,000. The reason, of course, is that most of these are carried out using illegal handguns, purchased for the most part just across the state line in Virginia, which has one of the Union's laxer regimes, and brought into the capital for felonious purposes. The bright spot is that there are few domestic firearms homicides, and very few suicides by firearms there. It is, if you like, a laboratory for what might happen if you had a federally-mandated handgun ban: many fewer deaths arising from accident, suicide, or domestic violence, but only a limited impact on the more criminal stuff.
In an ideal world, I would call for a licensing regime so strict that it would be virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to have handguns. But my magic wand is only a legislative one, so I have to recognize that the presence of 240 million guns in circulation in America already is a problem that will not speedily go away. I recognize that guns for self-protection are a force-equalizer, allowing women or weaker people a chance to protect themselves against criminals who are quite likely to be armed.
So my legislative demands are more modest. They include: a ban on semi-automatics and large capacity magazines, similar to that imposed by the 1994 assault weapons ban, but shorn of some of its worst loopholes. A requirement that anyone who wants a gun acquire a license: this would include basic safety training, and a determination that the person involved is a fit and proper person to have a gun. Mental instability or any form of criminal record (not just conviction on a felony count) would disbar someone from eligibility. Those on terrorist watch-lists ought not to have the right to buy guns: you ought not to be able to have a gun if you are not allowed to get on a plane.
I would also require gun-owners to store their weapons safely, in a gun-locker (we have this system in the United Kingdom), to prevent accidental use or stealing. Freer exchange of information about gun sales would be helpful to law-enforcement agencies, which are hampered by unnecessary bureaucratic restriction when they try to trace illegal weapons.
Finally, I favor the extension of "exile" lawsstiff additional mandatory sentences for people found to be in possession of guns while carrying out crimes (whether the gun was used in carrying out the crimes or not).
Christopher Lockwood is U.S. Editor of The Economist.
My magic wand is the Wand of Sensible Consensus. Here's what it produced:
First, if the government refuses to protect you, it cannot take away your ability to protect yourself. After Hurricane Katrina, police officers broke down doors to perpetrate illegal house-to-house gun confiscation raids. The federal government has enacted laws to specifically prohibit such practices, and many states have done the same.
The principle also applies in contexts other than natural disaster. In crime-ridden Washington, D.C., the City Council made it a crime use a lawfully-registered gun in self-defense. The federal Court of Appeals rightly declared the self-defense ban to violate the Second Amendment.
Second, remember that good policemen don't have bad guns. Many prohibitions on particular types of firearms include illogical exemptions for the police. For example, prohibitionists claim that so-called "semi-automatic assault weapons" have no utility except for massacring a lot of people quickly. If so, the police certainly should not have such guns. Of course the police actually find the guns to be very useful for lawful defense of self and others, and there's no reason to prohibit other citizens from doing the same.