How to Regulate Guns
Liberals need to better understand firearms if they have any hope of passing regulations.
The horror of Sandy Hook brings to mind the state of firearm regulations in Wisconsin. When I served in the Wisconsin legislature (Assembly 1974-’82 and State Senate 1982-’88) the issue was often discussed, but little was done about it. The Madison and Milwaukee Democrats generally supported firearm regulations and rural legislators of both parties opposed it. Democratic leadership had other priorities that needed rural votes, so gun bills generally stayed locked in committee. If a gun bill came to a vote those of us in the Dem leadership would sometimes actually urge Democrats from competitive districts to vote no. Losing seats over gun votes was not in the plan.
By the time Republicans took control of the legislature I was Mayor of Milwaukee. Any hopes that access to firearms would be restrained at the state level ended. Even at the local level almost nothing was done. In 1992 East Side Alderwoman Larraine McNamara-McGraw introduced an ordinance to require registration of firearms. Until that point I had my real number listed in the phone book. When Mac McGraw’s legislation became public my phone rang continuously. I could literally pick it up, hang it up and it would ring again immediately. I was getting NRA- generated calls from all over America. So were the aldermen and the ordinance was sent to its death in committee.
As a legislator, I admit I actually enjoyed conversations with Jim Fendry, the pro-gun lobbyist. I served in the US Army Reserve from 1971 to 1977 and had learned how to operate an M-16, but other than that I didn’t know much about firearms and so I learned a little from Fendry. He seemed calm and somewhat reasonable. I remember him, for example, saying that limits on magazine size might make sense. He probably no longer holds that view as the gun rights position seems to have advanced to the point where compromise must seem unnecessary.
One advantage firearm enthusiasts have is they tend to know more about firearms than those who seek to regulate them. Fendry seemed to relish the outrage of a regulation advocate who condemned “automatic” weapons; the advocate not realizing that automatic weapons are already illegal. Semi-automatic pistols and rifles are what were meant, but once the mistake is made the gun opponent looks uninformed. And that is a real problem. When “assault rifles” were banned in Clinton’s first term, no one could really define what an assault rifle was.
Rifles come in various sizes and shapes. Some look like AK 47s and others look like Mark Trail’s deer rifle, yet often have similar operational features. Operational features that help a mass murderer kill more people should be the target of regulation, not stock style. Magazine capacity is a reasonable target of regulation. How many rounds does a deer hunter need available before loading a new clip. Would five be enough? 10? 30? Whatever can be agreed to, let’s do it and then leave style alone. If a firearm owner wants a Rambo-style rifle, fine. If the magazine is limited then I don’t think we should care about how the rifle looks.
Another line of reasonable regulation is to interrupt straw sales that end up arming criminals. Those who sell to criminals need to hold some of the liability for criminal actions taken with those firearms. This is an issue that calls for leadership from the insurance industry that ends up paying for damages caused by armed criminals.
Another opponent of firearm regulation is no longer with us. Richard Oulahan, the great leader of Milwaukee’s Esperanza Unida auto mechanic training program, was an idealist, a proud leftist and a supporter of gun rights. Why did he oppose gun regulation? Richard told me that he feared that soon only the Right would be armed and that could lead to an outcome like the Spanish Civil War where Franco’s fascists outgunned the alliance of socialists, liberals and communists. He could have written an essay on “The Coming Civil War- why liberals should change their attitude on gun control”. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Richard desired peace and justice with the emphasis on the latter.
Sweden and Switzerland have similarly low crime and murder rates, even though few Swedes own guns while all adult male Swiss are required to keep a government issued rifle in their home until age 40 (a well regulated militia). Maybe gun regulation doesn’t matter as much as other factors such as policing, poverty, spousal abuse, mental health and drug addiction.
But widespread gun ownership does have visible negative side effects in the US. About 20,000 Americans use firearms to kill themselves each year. That’s about twice the number of gun murders. Gun ownership is about 30 times more likely to lead to death within a household than to be used to stop an outside intruder. Maybe if more people understood the risk of gun ownership and understood its association with suicide and domestic violence they would own fewer guns. Gun ownership could become stigmatized like smoking. Just because you have a right to bear arms doesn’t mean you have to – at least not yet.