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More Thoughts on Creating an Effective Assault Weapons Ban

We can reduce street crimes by making the gun owner responsible for whatever happens with the weapon, no matter who pulls the trigger.


Yesterday, I tried to correct some myths about research on the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban under the headline How to Create an Assault Weapons Ban That Would Actually Cut Down on Violence. Commenters noted that I had not delivered on that headline. Here is my attempt to do so.

As Emily Badger astutely pointed out, we know very little about how guns get into the hands of criminals who use them in street crimes. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "traces" these guns on behalf of local law enforcement to discover their path of ownership. Easy, right? Wrong. For one thing, ATF does not make those data available to researchers, so there are few good studies to refer to. For another, there are so many ways to legally obtain a firearm from an unlicensed dealer (which appears to be the original source of most crime guns) that the traces do not yield much useful information.

But it really does not matter where the gun came from or what type of gun it was. A highly effective regulation to reduce street crimes involving firearms is simply to make the gun owner responsible for whatever happens to the weapon until he or she transfers ownership. That means if your gun is lost or stolen or transferred through an unlicensed dealer, you—the original owner—are still on the hook for whatever happens next. And you are also on the hook for an accidental discharge or a suicide. 

This is not as onerous as it sounds. For one, this simply requires that gun owners lock their weapons in a gun safe. If your house is burgled, the burglar is almost certain to be someone with limited safe-cracking skills. Responsible gun owners already do this.

Second, it is less draconian than laws designed to protect society from other dangerous stuff. For instance, a manufacturer who produces hazardous waste is responsible for the material from “cradle to grave.” That is, from the moment that material is created until it has been completely disposed of. So, in the same way the cradle-to-grave regulation keeps manufacturers from hiring fly-by-night operators to dispose of hazardous waste, my proposal would keep you from selling or loaning your gun to someone potentially dangerous.

We have heard a lot in the past few years about free riders—those who benefit from others’ caution, even when their own behavior is risky. In discussing what to do about the economic crash, many argued that if big banks were not penalized in some way, they would continue as free riders without any skin in the game. My proposal gives responsible gun owners some skin in the serious game of gun violence.

This is a simple, common-sense solution that does not infringe upon Second Amendment rights. Rather, it aligns gun owners’ goals with the broader society’s, codifying what most gun owners already do.

Top image: AG-PHOTO /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • John Roman
    John Roman is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he focuses on evaluations of innovative crime-control policies and justice programs.