As an engineer, I find myself drawn to taking a systematic approach to solving a lot of our society's problems. Start by laying out requirements, find an option that works, no matter how strange it might seem, and work out the details. In this diary, I will lay out an alternative proposal for managing gun ownership in the United States that might stand a chance of both passing congress and making a difference.
I've already tested this on many of the hardcore gun-nuts at work, and all find it plausible.
In no particular order, here are the attributes that, at least in my opinion, any sensible gun control proposal in the present day should have.
1) It should be simple in scope and easy to understand, even if it has far reaching consequences.
2 It should take into account the reality of gun ownership now, and the framework needs to be effective now and in the future.
3 It should be stable, with a single framework able to adapt and stay relevant even as technology and politics change.
4 It should protect "gun rights" and doesn't need to be more intrusive than the framework for other dangerous hobbies such as private aviaton.
5 It should limit the need for new government expenditures in oversight and criminal enforcement.
6) It should be defensible, preferably in the form of a buzz-phrase that makes it easy to paint opponents of the reform as silly.
First, let's talk about a few concepts on the table that won't work:
1) Restrictions on the features of guns (combination locks integrated into the gun itself) won't limit gun ownership. California has very strict gun laws, and it isn't hard to find clones of modern assault rifles that are "cal-legal", engineered to bypass the restrictions while keeping the guns just as deadly. Can't own an automatic weapon? Try a bump fire stock. Can't carry a million bullets in one magazine? Try a speed loader . Human ingenuity will find clever ways around technical restrictions, turning the whole enterprise into a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole.
2) Restrictions imposing specific security measures on guns (suc as keypads or combination locks) won't work for two reasons, one technological and one regulatory:
Is simply impossible to gain security by means of a passive unattended safety device. Those devices may fail just like the mechanical safety of the gun itself. Clever individuals, just like XBox modders and pickers, will find ways to bypass those security features. For the case of standardized measures, tools for the repair of locking systems will be available, and the locks won't be of any use at all against criminals.
The second problem with authorized user locks is more subtle. In general, the more effective the protection measure, the more the protection measure will interfere with timely access to the weapon, and the less "useful" the weapon will be. Reactive target shooting, like Olympic skeet and trap, off duty police and government agents for self defense, and any number of other situations hat require quick access to a weapon will inevitably secure an exception to an authorized user gun. In short, the more effective physical protection measures are, the more guns will be in circulation that do not have the locks.
3) Absolute restrictions on ownership are likely to be struck down by the supreme court, and risk having holes poked in them by courts and lobby groups.
The details of the plan are below the fold.
My proposal is simple:
Explicitly change to US tort law to establish strict liability for the owner of a firearm regarding any use or transfer of that firearm, with a large cap (in the case of tort reform) of perhaps $500,000. This kind of liability already exists for firearms when one pulls the trigger, so this would be a fairly simple extension of that.
Change [18 U.S.C. 922(a)(3) and (5), 922(d), 27 CFR 478.29 and 478.30] from "no reason to believe" to "reason to not believe" or a similar legal construct.
The buzz-phrase is simple: "As a responsible gun owner, aren't you responsible for what happens with your gun?"
The idea here is that we establish a collective responsibility for gun owners to prevent guns from being misused by making gun owners responsible for what those guns do, even in someone else's hands. This is identical in concept to existing child protection laws. If a gun is used in a crime or accident, then the legal gun owner becomes
an accessory to civilly culpable for that crime or accident.
How would this help?
Keeping a gun unsecured, selling it to a total stranger, and any of another thousand irresponsible things that a gun owner can do (and if you ask most responsible gun owners, they will insist that they never do) opens the door to a wrongful death lawsuit if your gun is used to kill someone.
Gun owners have only three options to manage that liability. First, option is due diligence. Be strict about access. Keep guns under lock and key, follow recommendations on responsible access, don't advertise them, and sell them through licensed dealers, etc. But even that may not be enough since it only one disagreement between the gun owner and a jury whether a provision was sufficient. So the second option is the same one we use for cars or houses: Insurance. The third option is to stop being the owner of the gun (which removes the liability).
And just like cars or houses, insurance companies are free to ask any questions they wish before providing coverage, and charge rates based on your actual risk of being found culpable. Having to buy insurance on a gun also poses a stark reminder that guns do cause society harm, and that they need to be handled responsibly.
The big key here is the strict liability. All guns in private hands are sold through a dealer to a private person. If that gun is sold (and the liability with it), it becomes important to establish proof that the liability has gone as well. Since the liability is strict, the legal owner of the gun is automatically culpable regardless of intent without due diligence. That means keeping the records of the sale, following the law to make sure the sale is legal, etc. Otherwise all a gun owner has done is loan a gun out without supervision.
We all know what ways guns need to be kept and owned so that they're not stolen, not misused, not accessed by children, etc. This creates a self enforcing system where the victims or families of victims of gun crime force ALL gun owners in the country to act responsibly, or face financial devastation.
Now we get to the slightly harder piece to manage: private buying and selling of guns.
Current law establishes that a licensed gun dealer who runs a background check on someone has done due diligence that they're not a criminal, and can sell them a gun. Buying guns through mail order and through the internet requires the help of a gun store.
By strengthening the private transfer rule just a little, ignorance is stripped out of the equation. By removing willful ignorance from the liability equation. With every sale scrutinized, due diligence on each transfer of a firearm is just as important to keeping them under control.
In short: If you buy a gun, you are now responsible, in civil court if not criminal, if that gun is used to hurt or kill someone. Period. Being a gun owner means having the personal responsibility to prevent people from using that gun in a crime. The only way to walk away from that responsibility is to destroy the firearm, or transfer it to a responsible individual, and you are personally responsible for making sure that the person who you sell the gun to is legally allowed to receive it. (Federally licensed dealers are automatically allowed to receive guns, so selling a gun to or through a gun store is an example of how, even under a strict system, gun owners aren't left high and dry.)
How does this framework get past classic opposition groups:
Firearms dealers now have an additional source of revenue, as law abiding citizens approach them more frequently to mediate transactions. Gun shops charge a fee to process those transactions.
This system wouldn't actually require any new limitations on ownership, nor would it require any new government intrusion into people's homes. All but the most virulent no-gun-regulation republicans should be able to support such a measure.
Even the NRA should be behind such a proposal, since this idea would create an environment that strengthens the incentives for people to do what the NRA itself even
Strict liability would improve the overall responsibility of gun ownership in this country by rendering irresponsible gun owners financially unable to continue being gun owners. Backdoor gun dealers who make money selling guns anonymously (and under current law, their business model is perfectly legal), would find themselves similarly unable to finance their business.
Since the overwhelming majority of legally owned guns are never used in a crime, but a huge proportion of guns used in crimes are or were recently legally owned, finding ways to enforce what most responsible gun owners do anyway would help a lot.