“Every time there’s a mass shooting,” says Reason‘s Jacob Sullum, “people who had already been in favor of gun control talk about how we need more gun control. . . they don’t feel a need to really explain how [their particular policy] would have prevented this particular attack.”
Nick Gillespie speaks with Sullum about the Las Vegas mass shooting, the country’s narrative in the wake of tragedies, and why it’s so difficult to have a fact-based discussion about guns, violence, and policy.
In the course of their conversation they discuss:
- The pitfalls of fashioning laws based on unforeseen outliers.
- Why background checks sound good but fall short.
- Why the “gun show loophole” is a misnomer.
- Australia’s experience with buybacks and confiscation.
- How “bump stocks” work and their role in the Vegas mass shooting.
- What constitutionally sound limits can be placed on gun ownership.
- What the NRA gets wrong.
Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below:
Don’t miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.)
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: You’re talking from Dallas, which is in Texas, a big state that likes a lot of guns. What is your personal experience with guns? Do you own guns, do you shoot? I mean, you’ve written so much about it, I’m just curious.
Jacob Sullum: Not a whole lot of experience. When I was a kid, my oldest brother used to take me shooting. He had a .22 rifle and a shotgun, and I think at that point his handgun was, he had a revolver. So, that was sort of my introduction, that and in summer camp, actually, we had riflery. I’m not sure they do this anymore, but it was an NRA-sponsored competition at my Jewish day camp in northeastern Pennsylvania. So, riflery and archery sort of went together. And then in college, in order to easily satisfy one of my P.E. credits, I took a riflery course.
Gillespie: Oh, that’s right, you went to Cornell in upstate New York, and New York state mandates that everyone in colleges and undergrad take physical education, which in itself is kind of an odd artifact of, I don’t know what, you know?
You were in Israel. You lived in Israel recently for how many, what was it, like, two years?
Sullum: Yeah, two years. We just moved back to Dallas.
Gillespie: What was the gun culture like there, because Israel is obviously a famously armed society, but it also is kind of progressive and liberal in other ways, which I guess doesn’t necessarily match up with the US. But what was the gun culture like in Israel?
Sullum: Well, there are guns everywhere. There are 18-year-olds walking around with machine guns, which is a little bit unnerving at first. But even though everyone is issued a machine gun, you know, everybody who is drafted is issued one, and that’s basically the whole Jewish population, except for those who get exemptions, so it’s routine that people have experience with these guns.
They still seem to think Americans are crazy, in the sense of their attachment to guns and the idea that this is an individual right, a human right to self-defense, and that therefore you have the right to arms that are appropriate for self-defense. For them, I’m speaking very broadly, but it seems to be mostly tied up with the idea of national defense, homeland security, preventing Paris attacks, that sort of thing, and there’s less a sense of it being a basic right that’s enshrined in the constitution, or that sort of thing.
But there are people who routinely carry sidearms. You have to be licensed to do it. I know people who do that in Israel, as well as Dallas, but they don’t do it in quite the same way as Americans do.
Gillespie: Well, let’s talk about America. Obviously, on Sunday night, there was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, with almost 60 people being killed in Las Vegas from a shooter shooting with a machine gun, apparently a fully automatic gun, or something, a modified semiautomatic. Shooting from a distance into a crowd that was at a concert outside the Mandalay Bay Casino.
What are the predictable responses to mass shootings, and how is that playing out in this incident?
Sullum: Well, we’ve already seen it. We saw immediately that people said, “Enough is enough. It’s time we passed gun control legislation.” Very often, probably in most cases, they didn’t even specify what sort of legislation they had in mind, and other cases where they did specify what kind of gun controls they wanted, there was no logical connection between what had just happened and the new restrictions that it supposedly justified. And you see this again and again.
Every time there is a mass shooting, people who had always been in favor of gun control talk about how we need more gun control, and this proves that we need more gun control, but then when you say, “Well, how? In what sense?” And there’s often a bait and switch. If they’re somewhat more sophisticated, you saw this with Obama, they will say, “Well, this is not typical of gun violence. Mass shootings are atypical. They’re unusual. They’re relatively rare.”
Most people who are killed with guns … Well, first of all, most people who are killed with guns commit suicide. But second of all, when you’re talking about homicide, mass shootings are only a small share of them, and you’re talking more about street crime and gang violence, and that sort of thing. Then, so, they segue from the mass shooting into, “Well, how do we try to reduce gang violence?” Which doesn’t really seem to be logically connected. And then they will propose things with that end in mind, or they’ll say, “How can we reduce accidents?” Which, of course, is not really related to the mass shooting, either.
It basically just becomes an excuse to talk about whatever their favorite gun control policies have been all along, and they don’t feel a need to really explain how this would have prevented this particular attack.
Gillespie: Now, I mean, to be fair, it’s also true, and I know I’ve done this. I’ll throw you in the same category as well, those of us who believe in a robust defense of the Second Amendment, we … I mean, have you ever seen a mass shooting that caused you to say, “Hey, you know what, I really got to rethink my position?” It is a kind of restatement of what you also always believed, right?
Sullum: Yes, but my position is sound.
Gillespie: Yeah. No, no.
Sullum: It’s backed by logic.
I think the basic problem when it comes to mass shootings is, you cannot predict ahead of time who is going to do this. You cannot identify these people ahead of time, no matter how often politicians claim that if only we had better screening, or better background checks, we could identify these people ahead of time. It’s not true.
Psychiatrists are terrible at predicting who is going to turn out to be violent in the future, and they’re not any better than the laymen doing that. The red flags that people identify in hindsight, they’re never obvious when they’re happening, and don’t distinguish the person who becomes a mass shooter from anybody else who is completely harmless. So, that’s not going to work, in terms of identifying who are these people who are going to to be committing murder in the future.
And then, the other problem is that the weapons are already out there. There are hundreds of millions of weapons out there already. You cannot take them back, and if you were trying to get serious about reducing the supply, or reducing access to them, then you would be talking about very sweeping restrictions on the freedoms of completely law-abiding, innocent people.
Gillespie: And that are also enshrined in the Constitution. I mean, this is, we’re talking about something analogous to free speech, or freedom of religion, that it’s not even if you want to pass laws that would allow that, that there’s an immediate constitutional challenge that would crop up in other circumstances.
Sullum: Yes. I mean, and that’s the part of it that the Israelis don’t understand, that this is a constitutional right, and any kind of serious gun control that really tries to prevent access to these weapons by people who might in the future turn out to be mass murderers would be unconstitutional. You could not do it consistent with the Second Amendment.
Gillespie: What about –
Sullum: So they –
Gillespie: Oh, continue, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Sullum: No, it’s just, some people then will say, “Well, we should repeal that.” That that was a bad idea, right? At least they’re honest. That’s the honest response. It will be “what we really want is to dramatically reduce the number of guns in circulation, in the hopes that this will help prevent this sort of event.”
Gillespie: Right, and that, of course, also assumes that the guns that would be pulled out of circulation would be as likely as not to be held by criminals, or people likely to commit crimes, as law-abiding citizens, which is probably an inaccurate idea.
Sullum: Yeah, I mean, the opposite is probably the case.
Gillespie: What about the Australian gun buyback system? Because that is something that I’ve seen renewed interest in. It cropped up after a number of recent mass shootings, whether in Connecticut a few years ago, the Sandy Hook shooting, or at the Pulse night club in Orlando. You see a lot of people praising Australia’s willingness to actually buy back … And it’s not … Depending on how you want to talk about it, it’s either they confiscated weapons because it was a mandatory buyback program, or they at least bought the weapons back, and they retired somewhere perhaps as much as a third of the weapons in circulation.
Why is the Australian case, which is getting re-litigated now, or it’s getting championed by gun control activists here, why is there less there to meet the eye?
Sullum: Well, I think it’s controversial as to what impact that actually had on violent crime. Depending on how you parse the data, which years you look at, and whether you’ve taken into account preexisting trends, I’ve seen some people argue that in fact, it did not have a significant impact on what was already happening.
But again, you have to realize that buyback is a euphemism. This is a mass gun confiscation program. So, even if you think it was effective, that it helped reduce violent crime, it is not constitutionally feasible in the United States. And I know that some people, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, might prefer otherwise. When they talk about it, it sounds nice and voluntary, and even market-oriented, right? We’re going to buy back people’s weapons, and this is a solution, and it sounds voluntary and optional, but it is not. It is a confiscation program.
Gillespie: Well, and then it … It always struck me as odd in reading the details of that, that it didn’t get rid of all of the guns. What are the latest estimates for guns in circulation in private hands in the US? Well over 300 million, so even if you retire a third of those, which I guess is the higher bound of an estimate that took place under the Australian program, you’re still looking at over 200 million plus gun in circulation.
Sullum: Yes, and as you mentioned, what will probably happen is that people who are law-abiding and harmless will be the ones most likely to go to the buyback, whereas people who are not will be less likely to voluntarily hand in their guns, or comply with an order to hand them in, and the people who don’t do that are probably ones who have a professional need, shall we say, for guns.
I mean, look at what currently happens. All of these people who are violent criminals, assuming they have a criminal record already, which by the way, with mass shooters, is generally not the case. Almost all of them have no disqualifying criminal record. But people who are –
Gillespie: And certainly in the case of the Vegas shooter. I mean, as far as we know, there seems to be really no indication that … I mean, it’s not even an Adam Lanza situation, where he has a clearly identifiable kind of affective disorder, or anything like that.
Sullum: And, yes, you don’t have to speculate about whether background checks would have stopped them, because they didn’t. He passed them repeatedly. He bought … As far as we know, he bought all of his guns legally. The people who sold him the guns said they ran the required background check, and what that means is that he has no … he never … he doesn’t have a felony record. He doesn’t have a record of misdemeanor, domestic violence. And he doesn’t have any psychiatric record where he was ordered into treatment, because that would also disqualify him. Those are the main things that would show up on a background check.
Mass shooters, generally speaking, do not have any kind of record that would disqualify them. There are a couple of of examples where people said, “Well, if this had been done, it would have disqualified him,” but in the case of professional criminals, we mostly do have records that would disqualify them. I mean, they can’t just go into a store and expect to pass a background check, and so what do they do? They steal.
It’s not like they give up and don’t get their guns. They have people go in and buy them for them. They buy them through third parties. They buy stolen guns. They buy them on the black market. There’s all kinds of ways to get around that rule, so when they talk about, “Let’s have universal background checks,” that will only work to the extent that people comply with that rule, right?
And there’s no reason … The government cannot possibly monitor every gun transfer, and there’s no reason to think that the people who already are breaking the law by selling to felons, are suddenly going to decide to run background checks.
Gillespie: Explain why the so-called “gun show loophole” is actually a misnomer that confuses or confounds as much as it clarifies.
Sullum: Yes, I mean, it’s not an exception for gun shows, per se. It’s an exception for private sales, meaning sales that don’t involve federally-licensed firearms dealers, and in that case, people are not required to run the background check. The idea is that this is too burdensome … For somebody who doesn’t make a living by selling guns, it’s too burdensome to expect every time they want to sell a gun to a friend or acquaintance, or transfer to a family member, that they’re going to do a background check. And when politicians talk about universal background checks, that means we’re going to make them do those background checks any time there’s a transfer.
In practice, what that means is you have to go through a licensed dealer, because they’re the ones that have the ability to call up the FBI and run the check. So it makes all of these transfers, obviously, more expensive, more cumbersome, with the idea being that you’re going to prevent a certain number of crimes. Not clear that that would actually be the case.
Gillespie: What is the reality of gun violence these days in the United States? What are the magnitudes? You mentioned that a majority of people who … A majority of deaths via guns are suicides. What’s the overall number of homicides, or gun deaths a year? How many are suicides, how many are homicides, how many take place in a mass shooting scenario?
Sullum: Well, I don’t have the precise numbers in front of me, but the mass shootings are a very small percentage of the total. actually have the numbers here somewhere for shooting deaths. It was around, I think, 12,000 in 2016. And then, the number of suicides is bigger than that, so they represent most of the gun fatalities.
Overall, the rates … When you look at long-term, you do have to take the rate into account, not just the absolute numbers. The rate of gun homicides in the US has gone down dramatically since the early ’90s, which is interesting, because this is a period where the overall trend has been for fewer restrictions on gun ownership and carrying guns. I mean, you’ve got a whole bunch of states since then who have moved from a policy where the government has discretion as to whether to let you carry a gun in public, and it’s difficult to get permission, to a scenario, a policy, where as long as you satisfy certain objective criteria, you have a right to carry the gun, and they must give you the carry permit if you meet those criteria.
People predicted when this was happening, when states were passing these laws, that there would be mayhem and bloodshed in the streets, that routine arguments would escalate into bloodshed, and that this was a terrible idea. There’s a lot of arguments as to whether more people carrying guns legally has reduced crime. There’s a whole argument about the deterrent effect of that, but what is clear is that more people carrying guns legally has not led to this surge in violence.
Gillespie: Why is that so … I was going to say, why is that kind of a hidden reality? And in certain ways, America is just much less crime-ridden than it was in the early to mid-’90s, when a lot of criminal behavior seemed to peak, including most violent crime. Rates have been dropping since then, and it seemed that crime kind of receded from the national political stage as an issue until Donald Trump started talking about it, of all people. He campaigned for president on the idea that we were back in the mid-’70s, or something, and you couldn’t walk down the street of any mid-size city in America after about 5:00 without getting jumped and mugged, or shot to death.
I mean, he seemed delusional and out of touch, but now when you … Any time there’s a mass shooting, it seems that people very quickly forget that these are happening against the backdrop of a much safer America, and a much less violent America. Why … Is there a kind of clear reason why people factor out improvements in everyday life when they start talking about policy issues like this?
Sullum: Well, first of all, we should note that there has been an increase in the violent crime rate in the past couple of years.
Sullum: Even allowing for that, though, the rate of violent crime is still much lower than it was in the early ’90s. So, yes, you’re right. There’s been an overall … the long-term trend is toward dramatically lower violent crime rates, and when people see the mass shooting, they tend to forget that, because it’s dramatic, because it attracts a lot of attention, because it’s unusual. It’s one of these paradoxes that the things that are unusual and therefore actually very low-risk are the ones that attract the most attention, because they’re unusual.
Gillespie: So, this is why people generally are more afraid to fly than to drive, even though flying has zero fatalities, essentially, compared to driving, but people are more worried about flying in a plane.
Sullum: Yeah. Driving is, per mile, travel is much more dangerous. You’re much more likely to get killed. Partly that’s a function of, people feel like they’re more in control when they’re actually the ones doing the driving, but I think a big part of it is that plane crashes make the news, because they’re unusual, whereas car crashes are rarely even reported things in the paper.
Gillespie: The Vegas shooting was not only historically violent, but it was unique in a number of other ways, including mostly, apparently, the weapons of choice of the shooter, but also the idea that he was kind of at a distance. Or, I mean, he was at a distance, and he was using either an actual automatic weapon, or a modified semiautomatic, but does that change anything in the way that we should think about this mass shooting?
And I realize this isn’t the … There have been other cases of this, but this calls to mind the 1966 shooting in the University of Texas bell tower, where essentially a guy with marksman-like precision, actually, was picking off people on one of the main greens on campus. Is it … Does this matter, the fact that this seems to have opened up a new way of a kind of killing … Picking people off en masse?
Sullum: Yeah, I mean, his biggest advantage in this case was the fact that he was high up, and he had rifles, and he was aiming at a big crowd of people. It doesn’t take that much skill when you have a big crowd, and you have this advantage where you’re firing at them from above, because then even the instinct that you might have to crouch or lie down, or lie behind a barrier, the kind of things that the people might do when they’re under fire, it’s not going to help you if you’re shooting from above. Yes, I mean, it’s different in that sense.
In terms of the rate of fire, it looks like what he used was this thing called a “bump stock,” which is a legal accessory that allows you to speed up the rate of fire. It does not make the gun automatic, because it still only fires once per trigger pull, but what happens is, instead of pulling your trigger finger over and over again, where there’s a limit as to how fast you can do that, you hold your trigger finger stationary, and this device, the stock kind of makes the gun slide back and forth. You use your other hand to pull, to exert this pressure on the barrel forward, in that you fire the trigger, the recoil pushes it back into place again, and you repeat. So, instead of doing the trigger motion over and over again, you are basically exerting pressure on the barrel, and between that and the recoil, it allows you to fire much faster than you otherwise could.
So, that seems to be what happened, and it’s probably why people thought he was firing a machine gun, because the rate of fire was much faster than what you would think it would be with a semiautomatic, but it’s not clear how much difference it made in terms of the casualties, because there’s a trade off, when you’re using this kind of accessory, between the rate of fire and accuracy, and it tends to be not be very accurate because of the kind of action you’re doing. With yanking on the rifle and using the recoil, it tends to affect the aim, and it’s not as accurate as it would otherwise be. Arguably, if you fired not so fast, but took better aim, you could have killed more people.
So, that’s the first thing. It’s not clear that it really … It is scarier in the sense that you hear the gun firing faster than you would expect, and that makes it scarier. It’s not clear whether it actually had an important impact on the casualties.
I was going to say, if you look at other mass shootings, this is the first time this has ever come up. I don’t know of any other case where fast shooting was even an issue, so you have cases … You know, it’s similar to the thing with so-called assault weapons, where they say, “Well, this is the favored weapon of mass shooters,” and it actually isn’t. Ordinary handguns are the favored weapon. You can kill lots of people with ordinary handguns. You can kill lots of people with ordinary hunting rifles. If you look at the number of casualties in different cases, people … Without using this device, you can get up there into the 50s, or the 30s, so it’s not at all clear that it really makes a difference, although I’m sure we’ll see, assuming that this turns out to be true, that he actually used this accessory, I’m sure we’ll see legislation to ban it.
Gillespie: Right, right. Do you … Are there changes in gun laws, and access to guns, that you think could help to prevent or minimize either mass shootings specifically, or homicides more generally? Or have we reached the limit of policy to really affect this?
Sullum: I have not heard any proposals that make sense to me, in the sense that they actually would be effective. And you have these two basic constrictions. There are things that you could do that would be effective, but they would … the cost of them in terms of freedom would be unacceptable, at least for me.
Gillespie: Such as … ?
Sullum: Complications, assuming you could find the guns. Taking them all away, yes, that would fix it. No one had a gun, it wouldn’t make a difference. But the problem we have, in a situation like that, where you start to take away weapons, is the people who keep the guns may be the more dangerous ones, and that usually makes things worse.
Gillespie: Right, because then you give them an open field, really, or relatively, they have more advantage. So, nothing … You wrote at reason.com recently, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times had eight suggestions for how to prevent the next Vegas shooting, and you point out in the piece that at least six of those have absolutely nothing to do with mass shootings, and then two kind of do. Where does that kind of analysis go wrong?
You were talking about earlier that it’s just that there’s kind of a pre-existing agenda that has to do with just enhancing gun control, or laws against owning guns, that’s almost independent of any kind of serious analysis of the impact of the effects of that kind of thing. And then there are actually, mass shootings are just basically, essentially unpredictable, so you can’t really target mass shootings. Is that essentially your argument?
Sullum: Well, yes. But I think what’s going on here is, basically, mass shootings get a lot of attention. It has something to do with guns. People who already favor these gun control policies use mass shootings as a way of getting attention, and a way of increasing the sense of urgency, but then when it comes right down to it, they cannot logically explain how the policy they’re proposing actually would affect this sort of crime. Now, they may have arguments about how it will affect other sorts of crime, or possibly suicides, or possibly accidents. Accidents, by the way, are way down in the past two decades. It’s a relatively rare occurrence, especially involving children, which is the kind of case people usually imagine.
So, they may have arguments about why they think this may help limit the supply of guns to criminals, right? Something like that? To professional criminals. Or how it might make suicide less likely, or successful suicide. One of the things Kristof mentioned was safe storage requirements, right? So, if you have a depressed teenager, and he can’t get access to the gun that’s in the house, then maybe he’ll still be alive. That kind of thing. It has nothing to do with mass shootings.
I don’t think it’s any more complicated than this being an excuse to talk about the policy they already favor, just because they know it’s going to be in the news. It’s going to attract a lot of attention, that people will feel this sense of urgency and a need to do something, and here’s something.
Gillespie: Do you, can you take it out of the realm of a bad faith act, or a … I’m always looking for a moment where I can inject gun control into the conversation, and a mass shooting is a great time to do that. How do you talk about the kind of political economy coming out of this, particularly if you’re a supporter of the Second Amendment and robust gun rights? Is there something that you can say to people who are understandably freaked out by this kind of stuff, or that are deeply troubled by it? Is there … or is that kind of, we’re just at a point where we have to admit … or we send our condolences, and we feel some level of grief and horror at what happened, but there really is no policy implication coming out of something like Las Vegas.
Sullum: Yes. I mean, that’s the hard thing, because people always want to know, “Well, what’s your solution?” Right? “You don’t like these ideas, give me yours.” I don’t have a solution. Some things don’t have solutions, you know, and that’s a hard thing to say, but it’s true, because of the constraints that I mentioned, having to do with the impossibility of identifying people ahead of time, and the impossibility of meaningfully affecting access to guns without having a very restrictive policy that would be unconstitutional. So, given those two constraints, this kind of crime is basically impossible to prevent.
Looking at it from another point of view, even if you’re not talking about gun control measures, the security measures, right? There already have been stories about how can you really secure this kind of outdoor event? Well, you could stop having outdoor music events. You could search everyone that arrives at the hotel in Las Vegas. You could periodically search the rooms, make sure they don’t have guns there. You could search their luggage as they come in. There are measures that you could imagine, that would make this particular kind of event less likely, but they would come at a tremendous cost, and I don’t think people are …
Gillespie: And that’s a cost … Yeah, you had mentioned being in Israel, and Israel has a … It’s a much higher-security state, for a lot of obvious reasons, and it does come at a cost, to the extent that something like the TSA protocols that were put into place after 9/11 are still in place. It’s not clear that they do anything to actually reduce terrorism, the problem on planes that might have been solved by merely barricading cockpit doors shortly after 9/11. But, yeah, it seems unlikely that Americans would be willing to pay those costs on a daily basis, of either certain things that just can’t happen anymore, or where you’re talking about radically altering day-to-day behavior.
Sullum: Yeah. In a free society, there are soft targets everywhere, and the fact that mass killers, whether they’re unbalanced, angry, depressed people, or terrorists, do not kill more Americans is actually amazing. I mean, there’s so many targets to choose from, and when it comes to terrorism especially, you have to figure that ISIS is just really incompetent, right? Not that they don’t have the right personnel, or have trouble recruiting people. Potentially, you could be having these events every day, every hour. There’s so many targets to choose from that it is practically impossible to secure. It’s only because they don’t have the wherewithal to do more of these attacks.
Gillespie: Well, let me ask you, as a final topic of conversation, you consider yourself a libertarian, not an anarchist, right?
Sullum: It depends what day you ask, I guess.
Gillespie: Well, what I mean by that is, you … Or, to put it a little bit differently, the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, to keep and bear arms, but is that right unlimited, and if it is limited, what are the limits for you? What are legitimate limits or regulations that are put on gun ownership, gun sales, gun possession? Years ago, as I’m sure you’ll remember, Peter Bagge wrote an essay. The cartoonist wrote a cartoon essay for Reason about the right to own a bazooka. And that’s something most people are like, “Okay, that’s ridiculous,” or owning a tank.
Even a lot of people who are pro-Second Amendment would say, “Yeah, machine guns can legitimately be … The right to own a machine gun can be infringed upon by the government,” which it has been. What are the limits for you, when it comes to the Second Amendment? Like, where you don’t have free reign, or maybe you do. I’m not sure.
Sullum: Yeah, well, there are two distinct questions, I think. One has to do with, what does the Second Amendment authorize? Or, I guess we shouldn’t say it that way. What limits does the Second Amendment impose upon government policy? That’s one question. The other question is, what limits should there be? From a libertarian point of view on gun policy. The answer … And those aren’t necessarily the same answer.
You do see, libertarians have an argument about, “What if I want to have a nuclear device? I’m not going to use it. I’m not bothering anybody. I just like to have it there, sitting in my living room.” And the response to that is usually that, “Well, there’s no conceivable way you could use that where lots of people wouldn’t die, so maybe you want to make an exception for that, because it’s just such a hazardous condition that we’re not going to allow it.”
But then once you get past that, it gets a little harder. I think, even if you look at the Second Amendment, in terms of what it was intended to cover, it’s very problematic to argue it doesn’t cover machine guns, because it was meant to cover the kinds of guns that soldiers would have carried, and this is the kind of gun that soldiers currently carry. Selective fire weapons that can fire automatically, or semi-automatically.
So, there isn’t a very good argument, I don’t think, based on the intent of the Second Amendment, for why machine guns should be banned, or why it’s okay, why it’s constitutional to ban machine guns. In terms of the limits on the kinds of weapons you can have under the Second Amendment, it says “bear,” right? So, it has to be something you can carry.
Gillespie: And that would be …
Sullum: Tanks, no, right? Nuclear weapons, no. It has to be something you can carry. It has to be something that typically a soldier would carry. So, maybe not bazookas. Bazookas are too unusual, even for soldiers to carry, that you wouldn’t be covered. But those are the questions you would have to get into.
Gillespie: What about limits? Oh, okay, go ahead. Yeah, please.
Sullum: No, my own … I don’t often press that argument about machine guns, but when asked, I will give my honest opinion, because I don’t think that it’s going to happen. People aren’t proposing to legalize machine guns, it’s not really an active debate at this point.
Gillespie: But part of your argument would be, too, that it really wouldn’t have that much of an impact, because the point is, is that people who legally own guns rarely commit crimes with them, so whether or not somebody has a legal fully-automatic or semiautomatic weapon, it’s probably not going to show up in the crime statistics.
Sullum: Yes. I mean, you don’t see … And this is one reason people were skeptical about that the machine gun was used in Las Vegas, because it almost never happens. And there are, by the way, there are a bunch of these guns that are legally owned, that were manufactured prior to 1986, that are legally owned by civilians. It’s very strictly regulated and taxed, but it can be done.
Gillespie: And I know in and around Vegas itself, there’s a lot of shooting ranges that actually advertise that you can shoot a fully automatic, a machine gun there, because it is so rare to come across. It’s a tourist attraction.
Sullum: Yeah, and they don’t play any kind of significant role in crime, so …
Gillespie: But what about the types of people that … I know that in the past, and this came out in a number of relatively recent mass shootings, where it was clear that the shooters, the guy in Aurora, Illinois, Jared Loughner in Arizona, Adam Lanza in Connecticut. I mean, these were people who seemed to have very profound … they were profoundly unstable people, and a lot came out, and I think even people like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, and I know Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, said that what we’re really looking at here is not a gun control issue, but a mental illness issue.
What are the limits that can legitimately, from a libertarian perspective, be levied against certain types of people from owning guns? Are you okay with things like, if you get convicted for domestic abuse, or violent assault, you lose your gun rights? If you have certain types of psychological conditions, you lose your gun rights. Is that a legitimate infringement on people’s rights, or is that going too far, as well?
Sullum: Generally speaking, it’s going too far. I mean, the current qualifications are already too broad, because, for example, any felony record, right? It doesn’t have to involve violence or guns at all. It could be a drug crime. It could be a consensual interaction that the government has arbitrarily decided to make into a crime, and because you did that, and you were caught, you can never … You lose your Second Amendment rights forever. You can never own a gun legally.
If you smoke pot, you cannot legally own a gun under federal law. If you borrow your spouse’s pain medication because your knee is acting up, you’re an unlawful user of a controlled substance, and you’re not legally allowed to own that. That’s absurd. Lots of other examples, like somebody who was forcibly treated for suicidal tendencies as a young man, thirty years later, he’s not allowed to own a gun unless he can get a petition to get his constitutional rights back. That’s absurd.
So, in general, I would say the disqualifications are already too broad. They’re talking about broadening them for things like, you robbed a bank with a gun. After you’ve served your time and get out, should you maybe not be allowed to have guns anymore, or at least not have guns for a while? I can see an argument to be made about that sort of thing, but I would look at it more as a sort of condition attached to your parole, or part of your sentence, where … Show that you can be law-abiding for a certain period of time, and then you can buy guns again. I’m open to that sort of thing, but the current system goes way beyond that.
Gillespie: I mean, because there’s an enviable consistency in what you’re talking about, here, and I know that you’ve written about, for instance, sex offenders who are held in custody, even after they serve their time on the unproven notion that they cannot be rehabilitated and hence let back into society, but I mean, what you’re talking about is something that very few people seem to be interested in. The idea that if you go to jail, or you go to prison, and you do your time, you’ve paid your debt, and things should be wiped clear, not that you should still be in this kind of gray area where you’re free to work, or you’re free to exit prison, but you have fundamental rights denied to you. I suspect that a lot of people involved in the gun debate don’t really extend kind of basic principles across multiple policy areas.
Sullum: Yeah, I mean, it’s like if you libel someone, or you commit fraud. Let’s say it’s a felony. You commit fraud using words, right? So now you’ve lost your right to freedom of speech for the rest of … It’s analogous to that. You have misused this freedom to commit a crime, therefore you cannot have this freedom anymore, ever. I think that’s absurd.
I can see time-limited restrictions that are imposed as part of a sentence for certain kind of violent crimes, when it comes to guns, but not a general ban approved. Certainly not a general ban for anybody with a felony record. Even for people with violent felonies, I think it needs to be much more limited.
And then when you get into the psychological limits, this is a whole can of worms. The NRA talked about this, too, by the way. This is their response to “No, we don’t need gun control, we need people control. We need to have databases of every mental illness.” Well, this is like, half the population at one point or another is diagnosable, according to the APA. So, what do you mean by mental illness, and who is covered by this? And then when you look at the actual …
Gillespie: And it’s clear … I mean, in terms of consistency as well. You, over the years, have been a pretty strong critic of the NRA, who, for all of the … they’re constantly fingered as the real villain in all of that, in that they buy off Congress and all of that, but they have a pretty peculiar and idiosyncratic reading of the Second Amendment as well, right?
Sullum: Yes. Well, they basically accept current federal law, which to my mind goes way too far, in terms of restrictions that are imposed. In terms of, on very slight pretext, taking away people’s constitutional rights. So, yes, they don’t … I guess they don’t sympathize much with pot smokers, but it’s completely absurd that somebody who … You know, it’s legal in an increasing number of states. Somebody who smokes pot from time to time may not legally own a gun. It’s absurd.
Gillespie: So you’re saying …
Sullum: But they don’t take up that issue.
Gillespie: You’re as much … I mean, you’re a First Amendment absolutist, and a Second Amendment absolutist.
Sullum: In the sense that I think they both actually have teeth, and they constrain government action, yes. They should not … These rights should not be taken away for frivolous reasons, and that’s what the government does.
Gillespie: All right. We will leave it there. Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason Magazine, and reason.com, a syndicated columnist for Creator Syndicate, and the author most recently of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. Thanks for talking to me on the Reason podcast today.
Sullum: Sure. Thank you.
Gillespie: For Reason, I’m Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and rate and review us while you’re there.