This week, President Joe Biden marked the three-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, by urging Congress to “enact commonsense gun law reforms.” The implication was that the gun controls Biden favors would prevent crimes like the Parkland massacre.
There is little reason to think that’s true. The bills Biden is eager to sign would instead arbitrarily limit Second Amendment rights and threaten the viability of the industry that makes it possible to exercise them.
Biden wants to prohibit production and sale of “assault weapons” and require that current owners either surrender their firearms to the government or follow the same tax and registration requirements that apply to machine guns. Yet he concedes that the 1994 federal “assault weapon” ban, which expired in 2004, had no impact on the lethality of legal firearms.
The problem, according to Biden, was that manufacturers could comply with the law by “making minor modifications to their products — modifications that leave them just as deadly.” But there is no way around that problem, since laws like these are based on “military-style” features, such as folding stocks, threaded barrels, and bayonet mounts, that have nothing to do with a weapon’s destructive power.
Even if the government could eliminate all guns with those features, would-be mass shooters would have plenty of equally lethal alternatives. Several of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history were carried out with weapons that would not be covered by Biden’s ban.
Biden also would ban “high-capacity magazines,” which politicians generally define as magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Americans own millions of those; they are standard for many of the most popular handguns and rifles.
The rationale for the 10-round limit is that the need to switch magazines can create a “critical pause” during which a mass shooter might be overpowered or his victims might escape. But as a federal judge noted when he ruled against California’s ban on “large-capacity magazines” in 2019, that restriction also can create a “lethal pause” for a crime victim “trying to defend her home and family” — a far more common situation.
Also on Biden’s agenda: repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 federal law that generally protects gun manufacturers and distributors from liability for criminal uses of their products. As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I–Vermont, noted in 2016, exposing businesses to potentially ruinous judgments when a legally purchased firearm is used to commit a crime is a prescription for “ending gun manufacturing in America,” meaning “your position is there should not be any guns in America, period.”
Biden also supports background checks for nearly all gun transfers, which in practice would mean requiring the involvement of federally licensed dealers in private sales. That requirement would impose new burdens and costs on law-abiding gun owners without having any impact on run-of-the-mill criminals, who are no more likely to follow Biden’s rule than they are to obey all the other laws they routinely violate.
As for mass shooters, they typically do not have criminal or psychiatric records that would disqualify them from buying guns, meaning they would pass the background checks Biden wants to expand. The Parkland shooter, for example, bought his rifle legally, which makes the invocation of his crime as a justification for expanded background checks rather puzzling.
To the extent that Biden’s policy actually prevented people from buying guns, it would hurt many people who are legally barred from owning firearms even though they have never demonstrated violent tendencies. Prohibited owners include cannabis consumers, even in states where marijuana is legal; anyone with a felony record, no matter the nature of the offense or how long ago it happened; and anyone who has ever undergone involuntary psychiatric treatment, regardless of whether he was deemed a danger to others.
Biden’s “commonsense” gun control prescriptions are “common” in the sense that politicians often push them. Whether they make “sense” is another matter.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
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