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Want to stop gun violence now? Regulate bullets

Want to stop gun violence now? Regulate bullets
A Smith & Weston .357 with various caliber handgun ammunition. (Judi Bottoni / Associated Press)

Gunfire kills or injures at least 127 Americans a day. While the gun debate in the U.S. rages around the question of regulating firearms, it’s the bullets that do the damage.

Depending on their weight, velocity and trajectory, bullets can puncture tissue, shatter bones and leave gaping exit wounds. But despite their destructive power, bullets are as easy to purchase as Band-Aids. In most states, large retailers like Walmart sell them in bulk. Thousands of bullets can also be bought online, no questions asked.

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Chris Rock famously joked that America doesn’t need gun control; it needs “bullet control.” Rock has a point. If we regulated ammunition, fewer Americans would be killed or injured by gun violence.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are in favor of universal checks for ammunition buyers. At least 60% support bans on high-capacity magazines and strict limits on the amount of ammunition that can be purchased. Yet bullets are not subject to the same federal controls as firearms.

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They should be.

It is difficult to pinpoint the scale of the domestic ammunition industry because of the lack of official oversight, but Wired reported in 2013 that roughly 10 billion rounds are produced in the U.S. every year, or about 32 rounds for every American citizen.

There are far fewer producers of ammunition than there are producers of firearms. This makes the ammunition industry easier to regulate.


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Because bullets are so widely available, people often wonder whether ammunition can be regulated at all. The answer is yes.

Most regulatory efforts today focus only on restricting access to guns, but this was not always the case. The Gun Control Act of 1968 required all retailers to log ammunition sales and prohibited all mail-order purchases. (The restrictions were lifted two decades later by President Reagan’s Firearms Owners Protection Act.)

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Not only would it be possible to implement similar regulations today, but it also would be easier to carry them out.

A good place to start is the factories where bullets are manufactured. Strict control on the production and sale of unusually dangerous ammunition would be straightforward, since such sales can now be monitored digitally.

It’s also cheaper than ever to mark and trace bullets with microscopic codes or serial numbers, which help law enforcement solve gun-related crimes. This data can be registered with the buyer’s personal information at the time of purchase.

What’s more, there are far fewer producers of ammunition than there are producers of firearms, according to Small Arms Analytics, a research firm. This makes the ammunition industry easier to regulate.

The U.S. imports ammunition from more than 30 countries. Russia is the top exporter of ammunition to the U.S., according to Small Arms Analytics. Between 2012 and 2017, Russia supplied Americans with more than 4.7 billion rounds. Mexican companies supplied an additional 2.2 billion rounds during the same period. These and other foreign suppliers can be taxed. Doing so will probably encourage more ammunition production in the U.S., which would be more easily subject to regulation.

At a minimum, state governments and retailers should introduce simple background checks on ammunition sales. At least six states have already taken this step. California and New York require point-of-sale checks, while Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey require licenses or permits to purchase or possess bullets.

States can also raise the age limit for buying bullets and require that vendors obtain a license to sell ammunition and keep better records of their sales. Beginning in 2019, California will require ammunition vendors to report bullet sales to the state’s Department of Justice. New York and New Jersey already have similar rules in place.

As the gun debate continues to rage in circles and a “mass shooting generation” marches for change, lawmakers should move forward where they can. The strongest case for ammunition regulation is that a majority of Americans already support it.

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Robert Muggah is a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, and a co-director of the SecDev Group in Ottawa.

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