Wednesday, March 03, 2004

And in other news: Nothing happened yesterday in the Senate. The upper house spent all day trying to further mangle gun laws, only to decide that it wasn't worth the trouble.

Three items were on the docket. One was a bill that would limit the liability of gun manufacturers to protect them from lawsuits implicating the industry when their products were used in crimes. Senators also tacked on an amendment to the bill that would extend the 1994 assault weapons ban, which is set to expire in September. And senators added another amendment that would require private sellers to conduct criminal background checks when they sell guns at gun shows.

The Senate eventually gave up and killed the bill 90 to 8. Frankly, it's probably unnecessary for any of these items to pass.

The amendment to close the gun show "loophole", as gun opponents call it, wouldn't serve much of a purpose. Gun shows predominantly feature licensed gun dealers, who are already required by law to conduct criminal background checks (which is a good thing) wherever they are.

If the gun-show law passed, it would mostly affect the guy who brought in his grandfather's .22-caliber rifle to see if anyone would want to buy it. If the transaction were made between neighbors, no background check would be necessary. But if the transaction took place at a gun show, under the proposed law, the guy would somehow have to investigate the background of the buyer. It wouldn't be impossible, but it would be an unnecessary burden.

Proponents of the law say it prevents private gun runners from selling to criminals. From what I've seen at gun shows, the organizations that run them don't allow private individuals set up booths with large stockpiles of weapons. If you have a few guns to sell, that's fine. If you have an arsenal, you'd better be a licensed dealer. And the easy way around the law would be for the shady characters to meet at the gun show, then get together privately later to avoid the gun-show regulations. Then Congress would be clamoring to close that "loophole", which would essentially prevent any and all private sales of firearms.

The assault weapons ban has always perplexed me. The 1994 law doesn't ban guns because they're considered more deadly or whatnot. The current law simply bans guns based on cosmetic characteristics -- ie, if they resemble something out of the military.

The popular belief is that "assault weapons" are the same as "assault rifles", another name fully automatic machine guns. That's not true. Assault weapons are semi-automatic. Fully automatic weapons have been outlawed since 1934.

The 1994 law doesn't ban all semi-automatic weapons, just those that look scary.

For example, the law bans the manufacture of semiautomatic rifles that have a detachable magazine and at least two of the following characteristics: a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor, and a grenade launcher.

Now the "grenade launcher" may sound serious, but the grenades and their respective launchers have been heavily regulated by the federal government for some time. Lawmakers just threw that one in there to scare people. The folding/telescopic stock could arguably make a weapon easier to conceal, lending credence to the theory that it would be used to commit crimes. But you can still buy guns with stubbed stocks, or you can just hack it off yourself.

Criminals have not put bayonet mounts to much use. And a flash suppressor could be useful in case a person has to fire on an intruder at night. A bright flash in a dimly lit room could temporarily interfere with the gun owner's eyesight, which would make a dangerous situation even more risky.

The truth is, an AK-47, banned under the law, is no more deadly than a semiautomatic .30.30, which is not banned and is fairly common. All the cosmetic additions don't do anything to make a gun more lethal.

To top it all off, these "assault weapons" are still legal to own or sell, as long as they were manufactured before the date of the ban.

The liability reform on gun manufacturers seems unnecessary, even if you consider how trigger happy lawyers have been becoming in suing entire industries. While lawsuits against the fast-food industry haven't gone anywhere, ridiculous lawsuits against the tobacco industry have cost companies billions of dollars (yes, Big Tobacco knew cigarettes were harmful, but so did the people who chose to smoke them).

It appears some lawyers are itching to go after gun makers because certain people use guns to commit crimes. That would be like trying to sue the auto industry because people disobey the speed limit. (And who knows, that could still happen. I can picture a lawyer arguing that because the speedometer goes up to 135 mph, the industry is baiting people to drive faster.)

While it looks like the gun industry is an unfair target, gun manufacturers don't deserve special protections that other industries don't receive. If this is deemed to be a serious problem, then broader tort reform is needed.

So the Senate called it quits. But it's funny -- I find that when Congress does absolutely nothing, that's when I'm the most happy with our government.


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