A Promising New Approach on Assault Weapons

September 12th, 2014

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Just four months after 20 students and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School with an AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, 60 Senators voted down an amendment to ban assault weapons. It was a heartbreaking moment for many of us. For decades, advocates in the gun safety movement have held up the assault weapons ban as a standard, the marker by which they measure any progress. And it was the first piece of legislation most Americans called to mind in the days after Sandy Hook—it seemed unimaginable that in less than 5 minutes, 154 bullets were fired and 26 innocents were left dead. But if in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in American history, an assault weapon ban was still out of reach, what does that say about its future? After all, no one thinks the Senate is going to get any bluer after the elections in November.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that an assault weapons ban can’t pass anytime soon—in fact, to many it could feel akin to admitting defeat. But today, the Center for American Progress (CAP) courageously released a new report that did just that, and by doing so, they have reframed the debate, turning attention to a whole new set of policies that have an exponentially greater chance of enactment and would greatly reduce gun violence—including violence perpetrated by assault weapons. The report, Assault Weapons Revisited: Policy Options for Regulating Rifles, Shotguns, and Other Firearms 20 Years After the Passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, recognizes the limits of our current politics, but instead of conceding the issue, it offers a smart new framework for regulating some of the most dangerous guns in America. The current political impracticality of a ban does nothing to diminish widespread support for other gun safety policies that can save lives if we approach the problem differently, and they offer 6 specific ways to do so:

Require background checks for all gun sales: This is a no-brainer. Background checks are fast, easy, and effective at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.

Require dealers to report multiple sales of long guns: Since 1975, gun dealers have been required to report sales of multiple handguns to a single buyer—and there’s no reason that rule should apply to the sale of a few antique revolvers, but not to the purchase of dozens of military-style assault weapons.

Equalize interstate sales of long guns and handguns: CAP’s report offers a policy equalizer that even gun enthusiasts should support: allow gun dealers to sell both handguns and long guns to out-of-state residents, but require those sales to be reported to ATF and state police in the buyer’s home state.

Require federal firearms licenses for individuals that manufacture guns using 3D printers: We’ve long supported cracking down on guns created by 3D printers, and this is a fair—rather than punitive—way to do so.

Bar possession and use of machine guns by individuals under the age of 16: If there is anything to be learned from the horrible incident last month in which a 9-year-old accidentally shot and killed her shooting range instructor when she lost control of an Uzi, it’s that children shouldn’t have even temporary access to machine guns until they’re old enough to control them.

Require a permit for possession of assault rifles: This is the most innovative of the CAP proposals—a new take on keeping assault weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. Instead of banning these deadly weapons flat out, the report calls for a common-sense permitting process like those already required by most states to carry a concealed weapon.

These are excellent ideas, and by shifting to how we can protect Americans from the most lethal weapons on the market beyond simply banning them, CAP is resurrecting the discussion and opening the door for these and other ideas, like adding enhanced penalties for crimes committed with semiautomatic or assault weapons so as to make it riskier for criminals to use them. Taken together, the policy proposals in this report offer a new direction in the gun debate: away from ideologically-mandated policies of the past, and towards changing the entrenched dynamics of gun politics to make America safer for everyone.