Guns don’t kill people; bullets do

The carnage unleashed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, is yet another reminder of how easy it is for anyone to go on the warpath inside a country that remains awash with guns.

Once again the need for more effective gun control has been highlighted. And once again, I guarantee that gun owners are rushing to dealers to expand their home arsenals in anticipation of new laws.

Indeed, the only predictable consequence of another spectacular display of gun violence in America, is that it always boosts gun sales.

As the gun lobby likes to say, guns don’t kill people, and as Daniel Patrick Moynihan more accurately stated: bullets do.

And yet it’s easier to legally buy bullets and stockpile them by the thousand, than it is to legally get a prescription for OxyContin.

The U.S. government deems an array of drugs so dangerous that they are regulated as “controlled substances” — even though none are manufactured in pills containing a lethal dose.

Bullets, on the other hand, while always designed to contain a lethal dose of kinetic force, are as easy to buy as candy.

Guns are indeed relatively harmless — no more dangerous than any other heavy object — absent the fuel supply of violence: ammunition.

While taxation might have some effect, it seems to me that the levers of control would need more precision. Why not set absolute limits on how many bullets an individual can purchase and retain. And why not have those wishing to replenish their stocks be required to return their spent cartridges?

Control the supply and then maybe there’s some chance of stemming the violence.

Four years ago, the New York Times reported: In 1993, a United States senator with one of the great political brains of 20th-century America, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said that we ought to forget gun control as a way to stanch criminal violence. It was hopeless, Senator Moynihan pointed out: even if the sale of new guns was totally forbidden, there were already enough guns in homes and private hands to last the country for 200 years.

“These mostly simple machines last forever,” Mr. Moynihan said.

But he wasn’t through.

“On the other hand, we have only a three-year supply of ammunition.”

His solution: Increase the tax on bullets. He wouldn’t raise the tax on ammunition typically used for target shooting or hunting. But he proposed exorbitant taxes on hollow-tipped bullets designed to penetrate armor and cause devastating damage.

“Ten thousand percent,” Mr. Moynihan said.

That would have made the tax on a 20-cartridge pack of those bullets $1,500. “Guns don’t kill people; bullets do,” said Senator Moynihan, a Democrat who died in 2003.

Another sharp political mind, the comedian Chris Rock, argued that the price of bullets ought to be even higher than what the senator had suggested.

“If a bullet costs $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders,” he said during a routine in the film “Bowling for Columbine.”

In June, the City of New York sold 28,000 pounds of spent shell casings to a an ammunition dealer in Georgia, where they were to be reloaded with bullets. Anyone with $15 can buy a bag of 50, no questions asked, under Georgia law. As The New York Times reported, the city has previously sold shell casings — which are collected at the police target shooting range — to scrap metal dealers, but in this case the highest bidder was the ammunition store.

It was perfectly legal. And jarring, considering that the mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, has made aggressive gun regulation one of his prime causes, at no small risk to any national political ambitions he might harbor. He has arranged sting buys and filed lawsuits against firearms dealers in other states who, in his view, flouted even the easygoing regulatory regimen of recent years.

But surely, it couldn’t make any sense for the city itself to put more bullets into the weapons economy by recycling casing? After all, the city destroys perfectly usable — and sellable — guns that it recovers from criminals. The sale of the casings must have been the product of someone in an unnoticed cubicle in city government, simply following the bidding rules by rote.

You might think that when learning about the sale, the mayor would have said, “Thanks for the tip.”

Instead, City Hall rose in chorus to sing of the constitutional freedom to own guns and the bullets that go in them. Indeed, the city would gladly sell the next batch of shell casings to a high-bidding ammunition dealer, said John Feinblatt, the criminal justice coordinator. (The dealers of super-size soft drinks, now facing mayoral regulation, must be wondering why the founding fathers couldn’t have added “and drink soda” after the right to “bear arms.”)

Asked about the sale on Monday, the mayor said that people could legally own guns and bullets.

Then one of the most experienced and professional of New York television reporters, Mary Murphy of WPIX, asked Mr. Bloomberg if the city was going to change its policy and not sell shell casings to ammunition dealers. Mr. Bloomberg set forth into a minisermon about how it was an act of integrity.

“This is the public’s money that we are stewards of, and deliberately deciding to sell things at lower prices than the marketplace commands makes no sense at all, and if you think about it, would create chaos and corruption like you’ve never seen,” he said.

Ms. Murphy pressed on: “Does it send the wrong message though?”

The mayor scolded her as if she were an errant schoolgirl.

“Miss, Miss,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Either you want to ask a question and I give you an answer, or please come to the next press conference and stand in the back.”

Oh, dear.

Bill Cunningham, a former aide to Senator Moynihan and Mr. Bloomberg, said that the senator would have been delighted to discover that he was aligned on the issue with Chris Rock.

“Pat would have liked that,” Mr. Cunningham said, “although we’d have to answer his query, ‘Who is Mr. Rock?’ ”

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4 thoughts on “Guns don’t kill people; bullets do

  1. Enon Zey

    First, either Moynihan got something completely wrong or the reporter mis-reported. Armor piercing rounds (with a hardened steel or tungsten carbide core) and hollow-point (not hollow-tipped) bullets are entirely different designs for entirely different purposes. The hollow-point’s entire raison d’être is not to penetrate much.

    Second, whenever I hear a gun control proposal centered around raising costs what I hear is that lethal self-defense is only for the affluent, the working poor need not apply.

    Third, taking hollow-points out of the hands of the public would make us less safe, especially in crowded urban environments. If people are going to carry guns for self-defense, we want them to use hollow-points so their rounds don’t go through people and walls.

    Finally, do you really want to raise costs so people practice less with their guns? Do you know why cops fire so many rounds without hitting anybody? It’s because most of them don’t practice enough; they just shoot the minimum necessary to stay qualified. That’s actually understandable; despite all the publicity about cops shooting people, the average cop never fires his weapon in the line of duty during an entire career. Guns actually play a very small role in cops’ lives. OTOH, the people who see something frightening on the evening news (if it bleeds, it leads!) and run out and buy a gun but never train or practice are dangerous, to themselves and others. If someone is going to have a gun for self-defense, he or she needs to be trained and needs to practice regularly. Practice, practice, practice. Many hundreds of rounds in the course of a year. So the weapon is handled confidently and accurately should the need arise and the adrenaline hits.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    “whenever I hear a gun control proposal centered around raising costs what I hear is that lethal self-defense is only for the affluent, the working poor need not apply.”

    I agree — it shouldn’t be possible for anyone to stockpile thousands of rounds of ammunition, rich or poor. That’s why I wrote that taxation is an instrument that lacks the required precision for controlling access to ammunition. Ammunition control would set absolute limits on the number of rounds anyone could hold in their possession.

    Mass shootings commonly involve attackers who carry more weapons and more ammunition than they are likely to use. This suggests that being overarmed is part of the profile since it may provide the culprit with a certain level of invulnerability. At the same time, these individuals typically used legal pathways to arm themselves.

    Maybe some of these shootings would never have occurred if the culprits anticipated they could only enter their chosen arena with, let’s say, 50 bullets.

  3. Enon Zey

    Sorry, I don’t buy your argument.

    Criminals who really wanted to stockpile ammo would do so the same way they acquire guns, through straw purchasers (friends and family) and through theft.

    Law abiding citizens who have guns for competition shooting may go through thousands of rounds in a month, a combination of intense practice and competitions. Somebody who has several guns for target practice and self-defense might run through several hundred rounds in the course of an afternoon at the range. Fifty rounds? That’s not even twenty minutes of practice. Your proposal is not practical.

  4. Paul Woodward Post author

    James Eagan Holme, Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, Aaron Alexis, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — mass shooters, and there are many others, none of whom had previous criminal records. That’s why there could easily be legal mechanisms that might diminish the number of mass shootings even if they did not reduce other criminal use of firearms.

    The major obstacle in identifying those mechanisms is the gun lobby — manufacturers and private owners who place their own interests above the interests of everyone else.

    If this issue was tackled by genuinely democratic means, it’s clear that it would be gun owners — those being a minority of citizens in this country — who would be the ones compelled to make sacrifices. What that means is that a minority of Americans have a higher regard for their gun rights than they have for democracy!

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