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D.C. Sniper Didn’t Need Legal Loopholes

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Like clockwork, the gun controllers are shamelessly exploiting the D.C.-area sniper horror to press their agenda. How unseemly it is to attempt to parlay every decent American’s revulsion at random serial murder into support for their program, which would do nothing to prevent such crimes in the future.

How many laws is John Allen Muhammad accused of violating? Murder was already against the law. So was possession of a gun by anyone, like Muhammad, under a restraining order. No doubt other laws failed to deter him. Getting the message?

So what do the controllers want? Some say we need a better “assault-weapon” ban. Back in the Clinton years the government outlawed rifles that had various military-type features. The rifles were no more powerful than common hunting rifles, but that didn’t matter to our legislators and president, for whom legislation is like costume jewelry. When the gun-makers redesigned the guns to comply with the law, the controllers cried “loophole” and have been looking for an excuse to ban more guns ever since. Now they believe they have their chance.

The gun-owner controllers like to say that they have no intention of depriving one hunter of his rifle. Oh no? Let’s see them make that statement as they lobby for an assault-weapon ban. The category “assault weapon” is bogus. Any rifle can be used to commit assault. What makes something an assault weapon, rather than a defensive or hunting weapon, is the armed person’s intentions. Likewise, the newspaper description “high-powered rifle” is misleading. What would be the point of a low-powered rifle? These are scare terms designed to thwart clear thinking.

The controllers also intentionally confuse the issue when they say they oppose semiautomatic rifles. These are guns that reload themselves each time the trigger is pulled. But only one bullet is discharged per trigger pull; they are not fully automatic machineguns. We might ask what banning semiautomatics has to do with the D.C.-sniper. Even though the alleged murder weapon, a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15, is semiautomatic, only one shot was fired in each incident. It wouldn’t have mattered to the shooter whether the gun itself placed a fresh cartridge in the chamber or the shooter had to work a bolt action to reload.

The antigun lobby is undeterred by mere facts. For example, that Muhammad was able to obtain a rifle despite the restraining order is interpreted not as evidence of the futility of gun restrictions, but rather as evidence for the existence of intolerable “loopholes.” The antigun-owner organization Americans for Gun Safety (AGS) imagines that he obtained the gun from a private seller, who is not required to run background checks on buyers. Or, says AGS, perhaps Muhammad bought it from a dealer and the background check missed the restraining order. (It also concedes that he may have owned the gun before the restraining order was granted, making the sale, but not the later possession, legal.) As AGS puts it, “Until we improve our background check system and close the obvious loopholes that make our gun laws weak, criminals will easily be able to acquire guns.”

This is nonsense. Doing those things will not make it harder for criminals to get guns. Why would someone with murderous intent buy his gun from a seller who has to run a background check? The problem isn’t a loophole, which intentionally or mistakenly leaves an activity outside the scope of a law. The problem is criminals. They get their guns either by stealing them or buying them in the black market from other criminals. The black market is not the result of a loophole. It’s the result of a prohibition. The activity is already illegal. So passing new laws will have no effect, except to make the black market more attractive to those who use it.

As for the proposal to register the ballistic “fingerprint” of each new gun when it’s manufactured, this will also fail to combat crime. Thugs would obtain guns made before the fingerprinting began, or buy smuggled or stolen guns that couldn’t be traced to them. As usual, only law-abiding gun owners would be harassed and threatened by the registry, which would make eventual confiscation easier.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.