Why the Assault Weapons Ban Is Ineffective

ImageSenator Feinstein has declared her intention to re-pass the Assault Weapons Ban legislation that was law from 1994 to 2004. Despite the fact that mass shootings still occurred during that time period, and the fact that the legislation never did and still doesn’t do anything to deal with the record number of existing assault weapons, nor did it ever – nor now – deal with the absolutely equally lethal semi-automatic handguns, a startling number of lawmakers are now poised to support the old Assault Weapons Ban. I agree with President Obama that “We cannot tolerate this anymore.” By “this” – too many people seem to forget – we mean the event where someone borrows or steals – or in some cases, own –  (legal) handguns, (legal) hunting rifles, (legal) shotguns, as well as a few civilian versions of military “assault rifles” who, after little or no warning, walk onto a school campus and go on a suicidal killing rampage. People, I come from a family of “gun nuts” and served in the military.

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A hollowpoint .22 mm round, a 9 mm Hydrashok round, and a “normal” 9 mm FMJ parabellum round

Please believe me when I say that the only important difference between legal handguns (even under the Assault Weapons Ban) and the assault weapons people claim are only good for war-fighting is accuracy at long range and high velocity ammunition that is specifically designed to penetrate body armor and light armor. Incidentally, the ammunition most often fired from everything considered an “assault weapon” is either the 5.56 mm or the 7.62 mm FMJ round, which happens to also be designed to pass right through the human body without fragmenting or tumbling, so as to comply with the Geneva Conventions to minimize unnecessary suffering (internal damage). Hunting ammunition is designed to kill animals, while civilian ammunition is designed to kill people (in self-defense). This has the perverse meaning that the assault weapons these people are trying to ban are arguably less lethal than all the other guns available to civilians, because there is a greater chance that military ammunition will pass straight through the body of victims. If such a round doesn’t hit anything vital, you will tend to live. This is not true of a 9 mm “Hydrashock” round – a small, legal style of hollow-tip ammunition whose actual selling point is that it is capable of causing death simply via a hydraulic shock wave formed by the way the bullet deforms, disrupting critical nerves and organs that are merely near the travel path of the bullet. This “selling point” has been analyzed and is technically suspect, but one thing you can be certain of – it and the “hollow point” ammunition like it create much bigger holes in their victims. They are also much cheaper than bulky assault weapon ammunition.

So I wrote Senator Feinstein a two-part letter laying out the problem and explaining a fairly easy alternate policy that actually would prevent mass shootings while also passing 2nd Amendment scrutiny more easily. I hope someone reads it! Here’s part one:

Senator,

I just sent a letter outlining why the Assault Weapons Ban has so many issues that it really isn’t effective legislation at all, and by passing it, you may expend wasted political capital and prevent meaningul change that can actually solve the problem. Yes, it is possible to solve the problem of suicidal shooters.

One straight forward solution is to mandate that all firearms be manufactured – or retrofitted – with RFID tags that announce the gun make and model and serial number. Schools and any other public places that want to restrict firearms on location can now, rather than simply put up a sign, put up an RFID detector on their perimeter that sends an alert or sets off an alarm, depending on what works best for that facility. For schools, the detector probably ought to immediately send a 911 call to the police when a gun crosses the property line (firearms assigned to law enforcement would be separable via the serial number RFID, or depending on the concerns of privacy advocates, a special “law-enforcement” RFID).

Privacy advocates who fear being “tracked” may balk at having their gun’s serial number being checked, but I think it’s an easy case to say that if you don’t want your gun’s position tracked, leave it at home. These RFID readers could be placed in the occasional stoplight
allowing gun owners to find out where their stolen gun is within moments. RFID readers in police vehicles could offer a much better way for officers making a traffic stop to know when a firearm is present.

Embedding these RFIDs within tamper-resistent and tamper-reporting parts of the gun is a fairly cheap way to advance security, but we’ve become very comfortable adding lots of costs to motor vehicles in the interest of safety. Why should we balk at adding $100-$200 to the cost of firearms to make them significantly more safe? One would be to require a CODED safety switch. Right now, the “safety switch” is just a lever. We should make it a numeric keypad, instead. To make the firearm fireable, the user would need to enter a 3 digit code. This effectively integrates the gun “lock” into every gun – like making gun locks mandatory and simultaneously driving gun owners to always use it. Different users of a “family” gun would have different codes, and the registered owner would be able to revoke any user’s code. Guns would automatically revert to “safe” (“locked”) after 15 minutes without use, just like your cell phone.

Some gun owners will complain that entering a 3-digit code will take too long in some situations. No problem. Gun owners with the need to be gun slingers should invest in a fingerprint reader, just as is incorporated on many notebook computers. The keypad would still be there, just in case, and the owner of the gun’s registration can similarly enable and disable several different people’s fingerprints as “authorized users”.

If guns are equipped with a WiFi or Bluetooth connection (which have become pretty cheap), they could support even more advanced features, such as logging and reporting instances of being un-locked AND fired – including the exact time – either to the owner’s computer or, preferably, a public website. The public website would make these events available for after-the-fact checking, but would not keep the gun-owner’s personal information anywhere in the system. I’m a software engineer, so I know how to do this very well. When reporting “events” the gun would generate a large, random number that will serve as the “key” for that event in a totally separate database. So public website “A” would receive the random number, the type of event (unlock, shot), and the datetime the event happened, while website “B” would be sent the random number and the gun’s serial number. No one but law enforcement and other authorized users would be able to consolidate both databases to see WHICH gun fired when, and you would need to go to a third database to determine who owns that firearm. A fourth database could store what unlock-code was used to unlock the gun – a good indicator of exactly who shot the gun, while guns with fingerprint readers would be able to report a “hash” (a type of identifier) of the firing person’s fingerprint.

Additionally, why not make guns emit a radio “chirp” when they are taken-off (and remain-off-) safety or fired? This way, when an officer is making a traffic stop, their vehicle can not only tell them whether a firearm RFID is in the car, but also continuously keep the officer informed of whether a weapon is being activated within the vehicle (and the same technology can be used in buildings, keeping officers aware of where guns are and whether they are unlocked – and even who is holding them.

I believe our approach on motivating citizen behavior has fallen too much in the line of SCARING people into doing whatever it is that the legislation wants. We pass laws with huge fines and sentences to push people, even when some of the “crimes” didn’t actually hurt anyone – we’ve been making certain behaviors criminal simply because they MAY be associated with things that harm others. I think this is a mistake, and makes government seem over-reaching and arbitrary. Instead, we need to use technology to simply “nudge” human behavior via non-criminal transparency. For instance, you don’t necessarily need to have a huge penalty associated with carrying a concealed weapon in a building that doesn’t want them if the building can easily install detectors at the doors that announce for everyone (including security guards) to know that a person is carrying a firearm. A $500 ticket and the simple shame of alarms blaring – their secret being trivially exposed – will result in guns being left at home – or at least in the car.

We could use a lot more legislation like this rather than the lazy way we’ve been going, increasing penalties when the real cause for the alleged “criminal” behavior arises from very non-criminal causes.

Of course, we should also improve access to mental health care, too. Gun safeties could also check any user trying to unlock a gun against an online database of people with mental illness or any other red flags. This need not result in the user being unable to unlock the weapon – weapon safety’s could take context into account. People with marginal indicators for mental issues or depression might be okay to unlock a gun in normal/approved locations (like shooting ranges), but not when near locations with lots of crowds or, say, government buildings. Similarly, law enforcement could have a “kill signal” that causes all civilian guns to go into “lockdown” when the signal is received. Guns could also be equipped with GPS devices, such that both law enforcement AND gun owners could setup location-based policies via a public website, from locking any firearms near a concert or sports events (even in surrounding parking areas), to sending the gun owner an email if their firearm finds itself leaving the gun-owner’s state. This could also provide impetus for local governments to setup community WiFi networks that provide limited services and empower this kind of “smart” regulatory framework.

Essentially, nothing I’ve proposed would increase costs of guns more than we already pay for almost any cell phone. Is that really too much to ask, when many of these guns cost well over $1000? A price increase of 10%-30% would seem to be very little to ask for such an increase in public safety without really infringing on “the right to bear arms” (other than adding a little to the price). But a firearms sales tax could also be used to fund the building of the infrastructure to enable some of these more advanced policies, such as public websites to track firearms (if gun owners can use these web sites for free, they might actually PREFER these policies over the current state of things.) I also think we should phase in the retro-fit/conversion of older firearms to having the new safety. Ie, the government would subsidize 75% of the cost up to 12 months before the due date, with the subsidy falling slightly every day, such that it reaches “0%” on the due date. This way, gun owners have every reason to get their weapons switched, legal, and in the system, and the public knows that they really are a lot more safe after that due date. We should also follow Australia in offering a Federal gun buy-back program for anyone that doesn’t want to convert a gun, but doesn’t want to be committing a crime by possessing an unconverted firearm after the due date. There should also be a “no questions asked” gun-amnesty program, where firearms can be turned in anonymously after the retrofit-requirement date, such as by dropping them off at a dedicated drop box at post offices, since unconverted firearms will be “found” for many years going forward. Antique guns (for display) should still be required to have a permanent RFID (locator) attached and/or an obstruction welded into their barrel’s.

Thanks for reading,

Jared Hansen

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About stormculture

In pursuit of reality.
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