Nicholas H. Wolfinger: Reaching a compromise on assault weapons

Every mass shooting in the United States is greeted with a depressingly familiar response: heartfelt cries of anguish, calls for Congress to take action, GOP stonewalling, and then the status quo ante until the next tragedy. It doesn’t matter that tougher gun laws like universal background checks have overwhelming public support, even among NRA members. The power of the gun lobby remains too strong, and votes for gun control mean no campaign contributions, poor NRA ratings, and perhaps a primary challenge in the next election. So nothing changes, and sooner or later attention fades.

Many mass shootings involve military-style assault rifles capable of rapid-fire mass murder: equipped with a hundred-round magazine, the Dayton shooter killed nine people and injured at least 27 more in 30 seconds. It’s little surprise that every such tragedy gives rise to new calls for a ban on assault rifles. More than half of Democratic presidential hopefuls support a ban; the rest favor voluntary buy-back programs. Although public sentiment has fluctuated over the years, 70% of Americans now favor an assault rifle ban. But support for a ban was also high after the 2012 Newtown massacre, so few people are holding their breath.

There is a compromise position that would reduce mass shootings, but allow enthusiasts to own assault rifles. It lies in the1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act’s provision governing machine guns, assault rifles capable of fully automatic fire. Building on the National Firearm Act of 1934, the 1986 Act banned new machine gun sales but grandfathered in existing weapons. According to a 2015 ATF report, over 500,000 of these rifles remain in private hands.

The 1986 Act codified a robust regulatory regime governing the transfer of machine guns between private parties. Buying one requires a background check (including a testimonial from a local law enforcement officer), a fee, a permit, and a wait of up to a year for government processing. All such purchases are entered into a federal registry.

That all adds up to a significant hurdle for would-be mass shooters, but the 30 years since the FOPA’s passage show that the strict regulation of machine guns works. No federally-licensed gun has ever been used in a violent crime, let alone a mass shooting. Why not extend this regulatory regime to all assault rifles?

It would be a substantial burden to would-be assault rifle owners, but a serious gun should require a serious commitment. ATF’s firearm licensing division would have to expand considerably. That would be expensive up front, but in the long run would save taxpayer money. According to a 2015 analysis, gun violence carries direct costs of more than eight billion dollars a year, including the expenses of long-term incarceration for the shooters. The indirect costs, including lost wages for murder and suicide victims, likely exceed an eye-popping two hundred billion dollars annually. These figures make the strict regulation of assault weapons seem like a bargain.

Perhaps few readers would be satisfied by the expansion of FOPA provisions to all assault weapons. A substantial number of Americans want a total ban, while Second Amendment purists decry any infringement on their constitutional right to bear arms.

Or do they? The National Rifle Association has acquiesced to the hefty regulatory regime governing machine guns. In thirty years these regulations have remained immune to legal challenges. So too, for that matter, did the 1994 assault weapon ban, and, more recently, state-wide bans. America’s assault weapon enthusiasts would not be happy about new hurdles to gun ownership, but might ultimately be mollified if a beefed-up regulatory regime superseded an outright ban.

Applying FOPA provisions to assault rifles probably wouldn’t fully end their use in mass shootings, but would greatly reduce it. The El Paso shooter, for instance, purchased his assault rifle in the weeks before his rampage. An expanded FOPA would have stopped him.

The expansion of FOPA-governed weapons wouldn’t end the scourge of gun deaths in the United States. Pistols, not rifles, are responsible for the vast majority of homicides and suicides in America. Indeed pistols, many of which are capable of semi-automatic fire, have been used in some of our worst mass shootings, including the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. And though they grab all the headlines, mass shootings account for only a small fraction of American gun deaths.

Most change is incremental, and tightening control of assault weapons would be an important step forward. The expansion of FOPA would rely on laws already on the books, rather than creating a whole new regulatory regime. And it would be a genuine compromise, which might afford some political cover to legislators otherwise reluctant to vote for gun control.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, Adjunct Professor, Department of Sociology University of Utah

Nicholas H. Wolfinger is professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah. His most recent book is Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Children, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos (with W. Bradford Wilcox; Oxford University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter at @NickWolfinger.

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