So: former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently suggested that, to accomplish “more effective and more lasting [gun-control] reform,” we Americans should repeal the Second Amendment. He goes on to rehash his arguments he first made in the dissent to D.C. v. Heller, the landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of individual Americans (you and me) to have guns in our homes for self-defense. (Stevens thinks that right only belongs to “the militia.”) He goes on to advocate instituting a ban on civilian ownership of *all* semiautomatic weapons, raising the legal minimum age for gun purchases to 21, and comprehensive background checks on all firearms transactions, while making it clear that he views that as a good start — not the end game.
What is the end game? For many total civilian disarmament: No guns in civilian hands, period. Never mind that doing exactly that hasn’t really worked out in recent history, at least not for the people without guns. But this is America; we have a lot of guns. So what happens if the Second Amendment is actually repealed?
First off, we have to realize that the anti-gunners are talking about civilian-owned guns. The government — military, police, and national guard — keep theirs. Now, let’s assume we’re following Old Man Stevens’ recipe here and we’re going back to the Wild West (a time period he’s probably personally familiar with, given he’s NINETY-SEVEN years old). “No semiautomatics” means wheel-guns and lever-actions for you, buckaroo. But who obeys — and more importantly, who doesn’t? There are really four broad categories:
1) The compliant. “Please, sir, may I have another?” These are the folks who would, with varying degrees of trepidation, turn their guns in if so required. Anecdotal evidence from various state-level registration (not surrender) requirements indicate that this population is fairly small; estimates vary from around 10% compliance when Connecticut enacted an “assault-weapons” registration, to around 4% when New York’s SAFE law took effect. Insofar as actual confiscation is concerned, there really is no data for any U.S. jurisdiction; the closest we can really come is when the city of Los Angeles banned the possession of “high-capacity” magazines in 2015, requiring that they be destroyed, moved out of the city, or surrendered to law enforcement. At last check, the Los Angeles Police Department reported zero lawful surrenders. Zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch.
Of course, the guns themselves are subject to registration at time of purchase, which means that the government has some idea who has what; not the case with magazines, which have no tracking methodology. So we can safely assume that their will be some who opt to surrender their registered weapons, rather than face the possibility of a late-night no-knock visit from the gun-confiscation fairies. This scenario leads us pretty directly to category #2:
2). The defiant. “From my cold dead hands,” Molon Labe, you’ll get the bullets first, etc: These are the people who would simply refuse to comply. Going back to the Connecticut and New York numbers, we can extrapolate that this would constitute the vast majority of gun owners. It bears pointing out that neither state had any way to track those guns prior to the enactment of the statutes, so the risk in defiance is pretty low. Same with LA’s magazine ban; they can’t take what they don’t know exists. Several states, California chief among them, do require registration of all firearms transactions, so the databases do exist; the question then becomes how to differentiate between permitted and banned classes of firearms, since a lot of that information is not included in the registration process. This would mean that, in many cases, individual firearms owners would be responsible for identifying, and then surrendering, guns subject to any ban. Welcome category #3:
3) The deceptive. “I had a bizarre boating accident.” In 2016, California gun owners took the double blow of the so-called Gunmageddon gun-control bills and Proposition 63, which enacted some of the most sweeping gun-control restrictions in recent history. Among them was a redefining of what constituted an “assault weapon,” already illegal in the Golden State by way of the 1989 AW ban. In short, the new law outlawed a common workaround (the “bullet-button”) to one facet of that ban, and instituted a new registration period for current legal possessors to either register their newly-classed “assault weapons,” modify them to compliance, or dispose of them. While the registration period is still open as of this writing, it seems from this observer’s perspective that most California gun owners are leaning towards either modification or some route other than registration. One informal poll on a California gun owner’s site showed only a 20% registration rate; over 50% opted for a solution that changed the legal classification of the gun by deleting certain banned “features,” thus exempting it from registration.
And that’s just the guns that the state knows to exist, from initial purchase registrations. There’s also the whole issue of so-called “80% guns,” which are firearms home-built from mostly-completed shells. These uncompleted guns are exempt from any legal registration requirement, because at the time of purchase they are not firearms. California instituted a registration requirement for these types of guns (once completed) in 2016; no word yet on compliance, as the registration window is still open. There’s been a lot of hoopla in the media recently regarding these so-called “ghost guns,” primarily regarding criminals evading background-check laws to acquire guns, and it’s that segment of society that brings us to our fourth and final category:
4). The criminal. By definition, criminals don’t follow laws. While this seems to be logically self-evident, the current arc in gun-control legislation seems to assume that increasing the number of regulations surrounding gun ownership will correlate with a decrease in gun crime. The arguments both in support and contradiction of that assertion are widespread, so I won’t go into them here. Suffice to say, however, that any nationwide effort to actually remove certain classes of guns from “the street” are likely to be effective only where criminals and law enforcement intersect; in other words, when criminals are arrested for actual gun crimes, or guns are found on them in the course of other law enforcement action. Likewise the current regulatory push towards background checks and other restrictions on ammunition purchases; for a law-abiding gun owner, 50 rounds of any one caliber are a few minutes of practice at the range. For the criminal who only fires his gun in the commission of a crime, it’s a lifetime supply. And with an estimated 350 million guns, and some 8 trillion rounds of ammunition in private hands in the U.S., it logically follows that the criminal element will always have access to illicit firearms. This has historically been true even in nations where gun ownership is tightly controlled; on a worldwide basis, there is no statistical correlation between legal gun ownership and gun crime (specifically, homicide). Even the gun-control-lobby’s favorite example, Australia, saw no appreciable decline in their overall homicide rate following their much-heralded gun buyback. (It also bears noting that Australia’s buyback only reduced the overall number of firearms in that nation by around 20%.)