The Biden Plan to End Our Gun Violence Epidemic

By Matthew P. Daley

The Biden Plan is sweeping in scope; defective in its lack of understanding of firearms, crime and criminals; and lacks empirical data. On the other hand, it justifiably claims credit for Biden’s role in passage of the Brady Bill and the now defunct ban on “assault weapons” and high capacity magazines. It also proposes a number of unobjectionable steps, but these will have at best a marginal impact on the problem. The Biden Plan too often proposes policies based more on wishful thinking than serious research. Strangely, it ignores the fact that gun violence in the US has been declining significantly for decades despite a pronounced increase in the number of guns in private hands and it makes no effort to examine why that is the case and how best we can build on those trends or, put otherwise, what works and what does not.

Herewith some of the more important points:

“Assault Weapons”

The Biden Plan rails against “assault weapons” and “weapons of war” without appreciating that throughout American history, there has been little that distinguishes between the service rifle used by the American military and civilian rifles used for self-defense, hunting and target practice. (Obviously, I am not including distinctively military weapons such as artillery pieces, had grenades, rocket launchers, armored fighting vehicles, tanks or cluster bombs in this discussion.) When the colonialists rose in rebellion, individuals brought their own musket or rifle to the Continental Army and only two factors distinguished their privately-owned long guns from those of the British soldiers: the absence of a bayonet lug and the absence of a standardized caliber.

Over two centuries, technological innovation on small arms in the civilian sector were adopted by the military and vice versa. While the US Army and Marines relied on bolt action rifles from the late 1800s to mid-1930s, the civilian sector produced a reliable semi-automatic rifle with a detachable “high capacity” magazine before World War I. There has been a long tradition of releasing surplus military rifles and pistols for sale to the public, but it does not include fully automatic weapons. Biden’s plan would ban the production of many, if not most, new semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines and would require law-abiding owners of both items to either sell them to the government (no mention of fair market price) or register them under the National Firearms Act that regulates machine guns, sub-machine guns, silencers, sawed off shot guns, etc., and pay a hefty tax on each. This would be a major imposition on millions of Americans and would probably be resisted by many, but it would address only a minute portion of firearms deaths, less than one percent.

Improving the National Criminal Background Check System

The Biden Plan has a number of specific proposals to improve the federal background check system which would close various loopholes and which I personally find unobjectionable, but it misses the two major issues: lack of accountability by government officials at all levels and the striking lacunae in how individuals with serious mental illness are identified in the system. Two examples will make the point. Persons convicted of domestic abuse or declared mentally incompetent are banned from purchase or possession of any firearm. This did not stop the Virginia Tech shooter who had been adjudicated in court as mentally defective from purchasing guns legally because his name was not reported to the FBI. Nobody was held accountable. The Aurora Theater shooter had been deemed by his university psychiatrist as so dangerous that she asked the school security force to keep him off campus. However, despite his acknowledgment that he was drawn to mass mayhem, she was not obligated to notify the FBI because he had not identified particular individuals he intended to kill. There is a loophole worth closing.

Good Ideas

The Biden plan would hold adults accountable for allowing minors access to firearms, require gun owners to safely store weapons, to report stolen firearms, and would prioritize prosecution of straw purchasers. The latter point would be helpful in curbing criminal access to firearms. Biden appears not to understand that straw purchases are already a serious federal crime and forgets that during the eight years he was Vice-President, the Justice Department routinely refused to prosecute the overwhelming majority of referrals from ATF for this crime. The Biden Plan would also address “ghost guns,” (guns made without serial numbers) an issue that is real, but again, of little practical impact.

Addressing the epidemic of suicides by firearms

The Biden plan notes that suicides account for roughly 60 percent of gun deaths in the United States and devotes a full four sentences to the topic without addressing any of serious issues involved, including the observed substitution of other means when firearms are less available. Biden promises to have a comprehensive plan that will improve access to mental health services in the near future.

Miscellaneous

The Biden Plan would address domestic violence, online harassment, extremism, and violence against women by creating a task force to study the issues. It calls for evidence-based assessments while ignoring that a strongly bipartisan bill to share behavioral assessment techniques crafted by the US Secret Service has languished in the House Judiciary Committee for two years. The plan also calls for “evidence-based community interventions” to tackle gun violence without incarceration. It notes correctly that gun violence disproportionately affects communities of color, but it does not mention that Blacks commit homicide at about eight times the rate of Whites. At a time when police shootings of Black Americans dominate the media, it thus fails to note that the frequency of police shooting of Blacks is largely explained by the greater frequency of violent crimes committed by Blacks. In today’s environment, certain truths cannot be spoken, a circumstance not conducive to sensible or successful public policy.

Bottom Line

The Biden Plan does have some good ideas, but they address relatively minor parts of the gun violence problem. The obsession with “assault weapons” doubtless springs from their use in a small number of very high-profile shootings. In the end this obsession might be relatively harmless, although each time such legislation appears close to passage, the sales of these firearms takes off like a rocket ship, suggesting a fair amount of latent demand. Yet this focus on “military style weapons” does detract from the potential for progress in more productive areas. If all “assault weapons” could be made to vanish tomorrow, the decline in gun deaths would be a fraction of one percent. Issues of government accountability are ignored, while programs designed to appeal to certain constituencies are promised. The serious mental health problems received short shrift, albeit with a promise of more to come later. I can’t help but seeing the Biden Plan as a campaign document rather than a serious attempt to address gun violence.

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