THE PODIUM: Assault-weapons bans won’t work; only gun permits will

Author: John Head - March 8, 2018 - Updated: March 7, 2018

John Head

A law banning assault rifles, such as the federal ban adopted in 1994, is feel-good legislation, giving the appearance that something is being done to address the problem, when the truth of the matter is that it will not.

The first problem is that an assault rifle cannot be defined.  Previous attempts to ban assault rifles describe them in terms of appearances.  But, what makes them so deadly is functionality, not how they look.  The essential functions of the so-called assault rifle and pistol are shared with most firearms that exist.

Second, even if effective, a ban of assault weapons (assault rifles, assault pistols and large capacity ammunition magazines), which involve up to 25 percent of the shooting incidents, does not address the much larger problem of death and injuries resulting from an array of semi-automatic weaponry, ranging from small caliber “Saturday Night Specials” to rifles and pistols with the same firepower as the military grade assault rifle and pistol.  Thus, if action is taken to ban assault weapons and, even if the ban is effective, it will not affect the other 75 percent of the picture.

Third, an assault-weapons ban does not affect the millions of assault weapons already on the street.  And, as before, the manufacturers will merely step around the ban with compliant “after ban” assault weapons for sale.

The background check system, although needing some improvements, largely works as it was intended.  But, the NICs database was not designed to capture disqualifying attributes which, in hindsight, everyone agrees were “red flags.”  If the system of background checks, which employ a database of objective criteria (e.g., arrest for violent crime, convictions of certain felonies, mental health adjudications), is amped up to include “red flags,” the system would be too draconian to be either accepted or effective.

Missing from the current set of laws is that there isn’t anyone, with responsibility for public safety coupled with authority, to exercise judgment as to whether a person going through a background check should be able to buy, possess and carry a gun, and to buy ammunition.  Some basic questions are presented:

  • Should someone with authority and responsibility for public safety have the authority to exercise judgment?  Is there anyone better placed than the local sheriff or chief of police?
  • Should there be a requirement, in addition to a background check, to show fitness, competence or need for a firearm?
  • Should the showing of need take into account the type of weapon as well as ammunition?
  • Should there be a balance between the right to buy a gun, carry it and to buy ammunition on the one hand and, on the other, the desire for safety from unlawful or reckless use of it by everyone else?

Assuming affirmative answers to the above, here is what can and should be done at the state level:

Colorado has a statute providing that the sheriff “shall” issue a permit to carry a concealed weapon, provided an applicant has some rudimentary training and passes a background check.  This statute should be amended with the following supplementary provisions:

  • Expand the statute to cover all firearms as well as ammunition.
  • Provide that any person, subject to certain exceptions, must have a permit to purchase, possess and carry a firearm, and to purchase ammunition.
  • Provide that the sheriff, or chief law enforcement officer, in the county of residence of the applicant, may issue a permit upon the applicant passing a background check and, in addition, shows, by experience or training, a competence with the particular firearm, a reasonable need for it and that the particular firearm proposed to be covered by the permit matches the need.
  • The default permit should be for “open carry.”  If a concealed carry permit is sought, there should be an additional showing of a need to conceal the weapon.
  • Authorize the sheriff or chief law enforcement officer, as the case may be, to consider information acquired in the course of law enforcement activities, including 911 calls, reports from family members, mental health professionals, and the like.
  • Provide that the sheriff or chief law enforcement officer, as the case may be, has immunity from suit from any shooting victim so long as the discretion granted is not recklessly exercised.
  • Provide for a speedy, economical, administrative appeal of any decision to either issue a permit or, on the other hand, decline to issue a permit.

The gun lobby’s slogan is, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”  Unless these are just words, signifying nothing, why not apply the spirit of them, together with a little common sense, to construct a reasonable mechanism to limit the unqualified and unfit from their heretofore unfettered access to guns?

Read The Podium weekly; it’s where prominent players in Colorado politics address the big issues of the day.

John Head

John Head

John Head, who earned his J.D. from the University of Denver in 1972, was one of the organizers of the bipartisan SAFE Colorado in the wake of the Columbine shooting. SAFE Colorado sponsored Amendment 22, which was approved by 70 percent of voters in November 2000 and closed the gun-show loophole in Colorado.