Firing Blanks

Firing Blanks

Firing Blanks

How you look at things.
May 5 1999 4:27 AM

Firing Blanks

The NRA's bogus argument against gun control.

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In recent days, the National Rifle Association and its allies have argued that additional gun laws would not have helped avert the April 20 Colorado high-school massacre, because gun laws already on the books proved useless. Why propose "more gun laws" since the Colorado killers had broken "17 laws" anyway, asked House Republican Conference chairman J.C. Watts Jr., R-Okla. Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer ("18 gun laws were violated") and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., ("17 to 19 laws ... We have lots of laws on the books") echoed this construction. The NRA's latest tally, provided to Slate Tuesday, lists 20 laws allegedly violated in the massacre. But on closer inspection, the list evaporates.

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A. Distractions. The first four laws cited by the NRA concern bombs.

1. Possession of a "destructive device" (i.e., bomb).

2. Manufacturing a "destructive device" (i.e., bomb).

3. Use of an explosive or incendiary device in the commission of a felony.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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4. Setting a device designed to cause an explosion upon being triggered.

What do bomb laws have to do with gun laws? According to the NRA, nothing. "Incredibly, we've been asked if we would support an instant check on explosives purchases," NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre noted with disgust in a speech at Saturday's NRA convention. "Well, I don't have to tell you, we're not the National Explosives Association." So, why does the NRA include bomb laws on its list? To pad the total.

B.Tautologies. Nine other laws on the list concern the use of guns to commit the massacre.

5. Use of a firearm or "destructive device" (i.e., bomb) to commit a murder that is prosecutable in a federal court.

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6. Possession of a firearm or "destructive device" (i.e., bomb) in furtherance of a crime of violence that is prosecutable in a federal court.

7. Brandishing a firearm or "destructive device" (i.e., bomb) in furtherance of a crime of violence that may be prosecuted in a federal court.

8. Discharging a firearm or "destructive device" (i.e., bomb) in furtherance of a crime of violence that may be prosecuted in a federal court.

9. Conspiracy to commit a crime of violence prosecutable in federal court.

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15. Possession of a firearm on school property.

16. Discharge of a firearm on school property, with a reckless disregard for another's safety.

18. Intentionally aiming a firearm at another person.

19. Displaying a firearm in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm.

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The salient feature of these nine laws is that the killers violated them during the massacre, not beforehand. To say that these laws were violated is merely to say that the massacre happened, i.e., that two kids walked into a school and brandished, aimed, and discharged firearms in a manner calculated to alarm people, endanger the safety of others, and further a crime of violence. It is meaningless to bring up these laws in a discussion of prevention. Like murder laws, they are designed to prevent a killer's second crime, not his first.

C.Laws not violated or not known to have been violated.

12. Possession of a handgun by a person under age 18.

13. Providing a handgun to a person under age 18.

14. Licensed dealers may sell rifles and shotguns only to persons age 18 or over, and handguns to persons age 21 or over. ... Persons under age 18 are prohibited from possessing handguns from anyone (dealer or not).

17. Possession, interstate transportation, sale, etc., of a stolen firearm.

20. Possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number.

"It is not known, however, whether the 17-year-old perpetrator possessed the handgun used in the crime," concedes the NRA. The other perpetrator was 18 years old. According to the New York Times, the man who evidently bought the gun and passed it to the killers was 22 years old, and investigators don't know whether he "sold, gave or lent the gun or which gunman ... was the recipient." As for the other three guns, the Times says the 17-year-old perpetrator's 18-year-old girlfriend "has admitted buying two shotguns and a rifle for him. But she was not charged because it is legal in Colorado for a minor to own shotguns and rifles." There is no evidence that any of the guns was stolen. Also, the NRA concedes that it has only been "suggested that at least one of the firearms used in the crime had an obliterated serial number."

D.Duplicates. Two statutes on the list ban possession of certain kinds of weapons, essentially duplicating other statutes on the list that ban acquisition of those weapons.

10. Possession of a short-barreled shotgun.

12. Possession of a handgun by a person under age 18.

E. Formalities. So the list of relevant laws known to have been violated boils down to one:

11. Manufacturing a "sawed-off" shotgun.

This law prohibited the two perpetrators from making a sawed-off shotgun. However, no law prohibited them from acquiring both a shotgun and a saw. So this law means nothing.

Would the additional laws proposed by President Clinton last week have made any difference? One of them would prohibit 18- to 20-year-olds from possessing handguns. If that law had been passed and effectively enforced, it would have prevented the elder gunman from acquiring the handgun used in the massacre. Another of Clinton's proposals would hold negligent parents liable for crimes committed with guns by their kids. This law might or might not have prompted the parents of the Colorado killers to intervene before the massacre.

It is always possible that more gun laws would not have helped. But the NRA's bogus list proves nothing.