Jon Stokes is a founder of Ars Technica and a former editor for Wired. He writes about guns and technology for TechCrunch, AllOutdoor.com, TheFireArmBlog.com and other publications.
I am a gun industry insider, a lifelong gun owner and a vocal advocate for Second Amendment rights. I am a Texan and an American patriot who hauls my family to church every Sunday in a diesel pickup truck, where I sit in the pew and listen to the Word with a 9mm pistol tucked inside the waistband of my fanciest jeans.
Isn't this the part where the author inserts the inevitable “but”—as in, “I’m a firm Second Amendment advocate, but … ”? Well I’ve got no “buts” for you, because I don't need them. I believe there is a way to increase both our individual gun rights and our collective safety, if we can only get gun controllers to quit bitterly clinging to outmoded feature bans and gun registries, and convince gun rights advocates that “liberty” isn’t just about “what's in my gun safe” but also about being able to exercise one’s full spectrum of Second Amendment rights in every part of this great nation.
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The idea is simple but powerful: a federally issued license for simple possession of all semi-automatic firearms. This license would allow us to carefully vet civilian access to semi-automatic weapons, while overriding state-specific weapon bans and eliminating some of the federal paperwork that ties specific firearms to specific owners.
I offer this idea not only because I actually want to live in a world where it, or something like it, is the law of the land, but also because I and my fellow gun nuts are worried that a storm is coming that will sweep away a substantial portion of our gun rights without really making the country safer in return. We're not even five months into a midterm election year, and 2018 has seen a string of high-profile incidents that have darkened the public’s view of civilian gun ownership: February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, followed by this month’s shootings at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, and at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee. In the aftermath of these killings, we’re hearing proposals for anti-gun measures that we thought were widely considered out of bounds in the gun control debate, like a ban on all semi-automatic firearms, a repeal of the Second Amendment, or even an outright ban on the private ownership of guns. Some of us think this will all blow over, as it always does. And maybe it will. But this time definitely feels different.
Our side faces a potent new enemy in the form of private-sector companies like REI, Delta Airlines, Citibank, YouTube and Reddit, which are taking an increasingly anti-gun stance. My fellow gun owners and I are now concerned not just with the potential erosion of our gun rights at the hands of our government, but also with the erosion of our ability to communicate and to educate about this topic in the online spaces that make up so much of modern civic life.
There is fear, despair and anger on both sides, and neither side wants to give an inch. We seem doomed to fight endlessly over the same handful of half-measures that neither side is happy with. A new approach—a federal gun license for semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15s used in the Parkland shooting and at the Nashville Waffle House—has the potential to make us all safer while offering a net increase in liberty for the country’s law-abiding gun owners.
Before I outline what such a license would look like, it’s important to identify the structural barrier that even moderate and discriminating efforts at gun control have run up against in recent decades. And no, that barrier isn’t a certain three-letter gun rights organization, nor is it the collective grievances of some benighted group of deplorables. Rather, it is the two pillars on which most of our modern life now rests: the market, and the forward march of technological innovation.
The newly reintroduced Assault Weapons Ban is emblematic of gun control proponents’ consistent failure to understand how gun technology and the gun market actually work in the 21st century. Gun bans that are based on outlawing certain firearm features (like the vertical foregrip or the adjustable stock) or limiting guns’ capabilities (for instance, by limiting the number of rounds of ammunition they can hold) are relics of a bygone era when you bought a gun and didn’t modify it without the help of a professional gunsmith.
Nowadays, the most popular rifles, shotguns and handguns are explicitly designed as modular weapon platforms, where parts can be mixed and matched with a few simple tools and no specialized expertise. In fact, not only is the AR-15 just such a modular and easily hackable platform, but so is the Army's new standard-issue handgun, the SIG M17 (available to civilians as the P320).
For modern firearms, the “gun” from the perspective of federal law is typically an empty (and increasingly 3D-printable) metal frame or polymer shell with a serial number stamped into it, while all the rest of the parts that actually make the gun work are widely available online to anyone with a credit card.
Calls to end the sale of these modular weapons platforms, and to return to the classic wood-stocked hunting rifles and revolvers of a bygone era, are nothing less than calls to roll back a few decades worth of market-driven technological innovation. It’s just not going to happen. Halfway attempts are doomed, too. Any attempt to grandfather in existing guns will necessarily leave the parts market intact (otherwise, how do you repair them?), and customers who want a “new” gun can buy a new, mostly preassembled parts collection, and then insert it into an existing frame or into a newly (and easily) fabricated one.
What, then, can be done about the violence that plagues our cities and the mass shootings that terrorize us in our malls, theaters, churches and workplaces? I think there is an answer, but it involves forgetting about the “what” and focusing squarely on the “who.”
A federal license for all semi-automatic firearms would rest on two simple and well-defined concepts, one technical and one legal:
1) A “semi-automatic” firearm is one that fires a single round for each pull of the trigger, automatically reloading in between each shot until the ammo is depleted.
2) “Possession” is a legal concept from the drug war that implies that a person has a contraband item “on or about one’s person,” or has “control” over the item, perhaps by having it in a motor vehicle or in a home.
Because both of these things—“possession” and “semi-automatic weapons”—are easy to define, they're easy to regulate.
Combine these two concepts with a thorough but reasonable vetting process, and you have the makings of a straightforward, effective system for keeping the most lethal class of weapons out of the hands of bad actors, while simultaneously lifting the burden of arbitrary weapon bans and federal red tape from law-abiding gun owners.
Under a licensing regime that authorizes license holders for possession of semi-autos, it doesn’t matter whose semi-auto you’re holding, where you got it, how big the magazine is, or how terrifying it looks to the New York Times editorial board. It only matters that you’ve been vetted and are licensed to possess this category of weapon.
License holders could swap such guns among themselves without the need for any sort of official transfer mechanism—like today’s Federal Firearm License transfers—that leaves a paper trail with the state. Right now, all retail gun purchases, and private-party gun transfers in many states, involve a two-step process: First, the purchaser fills out a paper form that links the gun to the buyer, and second, the seller conducts a federal background check. Together, these two components are referred to as an “FFL transfer.” By federal law, these paper records are not allowed to be digitized or made centrally available.
If you were a federal gun license holder, you wouldn’t have to do an FFL transfer whenever you take delivery of a firearm. This would make buying a gun of any type exactly like buying alcohol or any other controlled substance (for example, prescription drugs): flash your authorization, pay your money and walk out the door with whatever it is you bought, wrapped in a paper sack for privacy if you like.
If you weren’t a license holder, then simple possession of any semi-auto weapon would be a felony. Don’t have one on your person, or in your car or home. As for taking possession of the types of guns you could have without a license, then it’s universal background checks and FFL transfers for you—basically the status quo, in most states.
There are a lot of important details to be worked out, like the status of pump-action and lever-action guns, or the specific requirements for getting a license and keeping it current, or due process requirements for restoring a revoked license. Gun control advocates might want any gun that can fire without reloading included in the licensing regime (pump- and lever-action guns), and gun rights advocates might want current federal restrictions on suppressors and short-barreled rifles dropped. These types of issues could surely be ironed out, as long as we can agree on the basic framework of trading all federal and state bans and registries for a national semi-auto licensing regime.
The framework I’m proposing is essentially a grand bargain: The gun control side gives up the possibility of a federal gun registry, specific states abandon their weapon bans and long gun registries, and in exchange the gun rights side accepts a brand new federal licensing scheme with real teeth.
This bargain would be scary for both sides. Cities like New York and Chicago would have to allow licensed, law-abiding citizens to own AR-15s and high-capacity magazines within their borders, and residents of gun-friendly states like Texas would have to accept a more thorough level of vetting of ownership of certain guns than they currently do. The gun rights side would be justifiably concerned that a hostile Congress and president could one day attempt to use the licensing scheme to limit the gun rights of large, law-abiding sections of the population, possibly on some arbitrary pretext.
If we can get past these concerns, this licensing scheme could make us both safer and more free. Gun safety advocates would have the security of knowing that anyone who lawfully possesses a semi-automatic weapon has been thoroughly vetted, and that there are clear criteria in place for temporarily or permanently revoking that license should the gun owner cross agreed-upon lines.
An initial set of licensing requirements would undoubtedly include having one’s fingerprints on file with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a thorough background check that screens for things like domestic violence convictions and inclusion in the government’s terrorist watch list (assuming that list has been fixed by adding a way for innocent people to get their names removed). Gun controllers have long desired a national firearm licensing scheme that includes safe storage requirements and a demonstration of basic weapon proficiency; these things would be part of the negotiations. If they didn’t make the first cut, there would be a place to implement them should they gain popular support. Maybe gun controllers could offer the pro-gun side something it badly wants, like relaxing the federal restrictions on suppressors, in exchange for them.
The requirements above, when combined with background checks for all weapon transfers involving an unlicensed party, amount to universal background checks on steroids. In other words, you get universal background checks as a baseline for everyone, and then for the more dangerous class of weapons you get the extra vetting that the license requirements would provide.
The threat of temporary or permanent license revocation would create added leverage to enforce laws around disorderly conduct, road rage, domestic violence and similar offenses that may indicate that a person is a danger to others but don’t always rise to the level of a felony that gets them flagged as a prohibited person in the current background check system.
Finally, law enforcement officers would gain a powerful new tool for identifying and prosecuting bad actors: the ability to apprehend anyone caught in possession of a semi-auto without a valid license.
In exchange for the above rules, law-abiding gun owners would enjoy a new freedom to move to any state without surrendering any of their firearms, and to travel anywhere in the country without fear of being jailed for being pulled over with the wrong size magazine in their car. Most important, the many Second Amendment advocates for whom the threat of a national gun registry (and possible future gun confiscation) is a major concern could rest easier, knowing that such a registry would be taken off the table as a practical matter.
And all citizens would benefit from a fundamental shift in the tired, acrimonious American gun debate away from often comically inane fights over the particulars of weapon design (“how does a pistol grip turn an ordinary rifle into a weapon of mass destruction?”) and toward a more rational set of disputes around the requirements for semi-auto licensure, the grounds for license revocation, and the necessary due process requirements for license restoration.
I know you’re thinking that this scheme sounds too simple, and has a ton of obvious holes in it. It so happens that I’ve talked this idea through with a lot of really smart people on all sides of this debate. I've heard most of the good objections and have answers for them.
Let’s start with the pro-gun side:
Objection : A registry of people is more frightening than a registry of guns.
Me : You’re already in a ton of public and private databases that contain the most intimate details of your life. Everyone from Facebook to Google to Equifax to the Social Security Administration has a big, fat file on you. So if your objection to this scheme is that putting citizens in a government-accessible database is tyranny, then it’s already well past time for you to pick up your AR-15 and get your revolution on. (Just don’t use the internet to coordinate your revolution, or half a dozen government agencies will have all the details shortly after you and your fellow patriots have finished working them out.)
I’ve talked to at least one gun-rights person who doesn’t like this idea who is nonetheless enrolled in TSA Precheck. So just imagine this license as TSA Precheck, but for guns.
You should also recognize that the only thing currently standing between us and a de facto federal gun registry is an innocuous-sounding law banning the digitization of, and centralized access to, all FFL records. The anti-gunners are currently pushing for this law to be repealed under the banner of “common sense.” By taking the FFL process out of the loop for all transfers between license holders, this proposal takes even this backdoor registry attempt off the table as a practical matter.div">>
Objection : Are you going to confiscate my semi-autos if I refuse to get a license?
Me : No, I’m not. I imagine there would be something like a three- to five-year grace period, during which time existing semi-auto owners would either get a license or transfer their guns to someone who does have a license.
Objection : I live in a state where I can buy any gun I want from a private party, without a background check or FFL transfer that puts me into a government database. So this decreases my liberty because now I’ll need a license to do something I can currently do without one.
Me : You’re not thinking big-picture enough. Yes, you're blessed to live in Gun Country right now, but what if you get a new job and have to move? Do you have the liberty to move anywhere in the United States and take your guns with you? Do you have the liberty to take your AR-15 “truck gun” with you when you vacation in a less-free state? No, you absolutely do not. But under my scheme, you will, because this whole thing is a nonstarter if the law that institutes the licensing regime doesn’t also prevent states from putting in place their own arbitrary feature bans.
Objection : I object to federal gun laws trumping local gun laws. Let states make their own gun laws.
Me : Sorry, friend, but you lost all credibility on that score when you backed the NRA’s push for federal legislation to force all states to recognize each others’ concealed carry permits (National Concealed Carry Reciprocity), which is nothing less than a federal override of state and local gun laws. Besides, are you really telling me you don't want to see the feds tell New Jersey and California where to stuff their gun bans?
Objection : Gun ownership is a constitutional right, and we don’t license constitutional rights. You don’t need a special license for free speech, for instance.
Me : You wouldn’t need a license to own lots and lots of guns of different types under this scheme, either. You would just need a license to own semi-autos, just like you need a license to broadcast over certain parts of the public airways.
Objection : Wouldn’t this federal license be a “kill switch” on the right to keep and bear arms? As you’ve conceded, a hostile federal government could change the requirements in such a way that bars almost all of us from getting guns.
Me : This would be a concern, but it’s already a concern. We may have to rely on the courts for protection. The gun control side is mistaken if it thinks it’s going to immediately begin to dictate entirely new terms of American gun ownership unilaterally in November. President Donald Trump is in the process of packing the federal courts with conservative judges, and he may get another Supreme Court pick before he leaves office. So even if gun controllers can get Congress to move their way, there's no guarantee that new laws will survive the inevitable court challenges. (Justice Clarence Thomas recently hinted that he thinks state and local assault weapon bans are unconstitutional.) Plus, there’s no possibility of a gun registry under this scheme, so no matter how bad it gets there’s even less of a threat of confiscation than there is under the current system.
Objection : The Constitution is my carry permit, and it’s also my semi-auto license.
Me : Alright, then. Good luck with that.
Now, the objections from the gun control side:
Objection : This licensing scheme looks impossible to enforce if we don't back it with a gun registry that ties specific guns to specific licensees.
Me : You’re confused by the fact that we happen to pair drivers’ licenses with vehicle registration, even though licensing and registration are separate things that happen for separate reasons.
A driver’s license just says, “This person is authorized to drive a vehicle of this class. Any vehicle, really, no matter who owns it.” We also require vehicle registration for a variety of other reasons (mainly related to insurance, liability and theft) that have nothing to do with keeping people who shouldn’t be driving from getting behind the wheel.
The specific goal of this semi-auto licensing scheme is to keep people who shouldn’t be shooting from picking up a semi-auto, and not to do other gun control things you'd really love to do—like tracing crime guns, or confiscating guns from people whose licenses have lapsed.
Also, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Universal background checks are also impossible to enforce without a gun registry. If you don't know what guns I own, then how can you know which gun I just traded to my golf buddy for a nice set of clubs? You can't. So you don’t have a registry currently, and you wouldn’t have a registry under this scheme. But at least under this scheme you wouldn’t need a registry, because you would have federally licensed gun ownership instead.
Objection : OK, but if we don't have a gun registry and we do away with FFL transfers for license holders, then what's to stop a license holder from selling a gun to a non-license holder?
Me : The law is what will stop them. As gun controllers are always fond of reminding people like me, criminalization is a deterrent. It would be illegal for a license holder to transfer a semi-auto to someone without a license, just like it’s currently illegal in many states for anyone to transfer any gun without an FFL transfer. In fact, you should go to jail and lose all your gun rights if you get caught—your license should be revoked, and you should be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database.
Besides, if you're someone who is willing to commit a felony in order to sell a gun to someone illegally and in a way that can’t be traced to you, then you can already do that by just grinding off the gun's serial number before you sell it on the black market.
This lack of a registry or of any paperwork at all accompanying the transfer of a weapon between two licensees may not be what you want, but it’s not any worse than the status quo. You’re not really giving anything up, here. And again, you’re getting federally licensed gun ownership for the most dangerous and popular category of weapons!
The ATF says it was “potentially a violation of federal law” for the Nashville shooter’s father to return his AR-15 to him. With a federal license, there wouldn’t be any question. In fact, in all of the recent active-shooter cases where the shooter had a history with police and red flags from family members, a licensing scheme could have provided a system to prevent the shooters from legally obtaining semi-automatic weapons.
Objection : You haven't said what the licensing requirements are. I think that anyone who wants to own a semi-auto should have four letters of recommendation, a yearly psychiatric evaluation, be a graduate of Ranger School, and have participated in at least one “Jeopardy!” Tournament of Champions.
Me : Yeah, we're going to fight over that. A lot, probably. But that fight would be way more reality-centered and sane than our current fights over pistol grips and barrel shrouds and telescoping stocks.
Objection : Someone could openly carry an AR-15 in Times Square under these rules!
Me : It will probably surprise you to learn that there’s actually no New York state law against the open carry of rifles, so the only thing currently prohibiting the AR-15-in-Times-Square scenario is a New York City ordinance. A federal gun license would not affect state and local open- or concealed-carry laws, which are a separate issue.
Objection : This won’t decrease the number of guns in circulation, or take guns that are really scary-looking to me out of civilian hands, or generally advance the cause of total civilian disarmament.
Me : Yep, you’re right. It won't do any of those things, and in fact it would probably do the opposite. A greater number of (vetted) law abiders would have more military-style weapons with full-sized magazines in cities and states where they can’t currently get them. If that’s unacceptable to you, then you and the guy who thinks the Constitution is his carry permit can fight meme wars on Facebook while the rest of us work on ways to keep the hundreds of millions of unregistered guns that are already in circulation out of the hands of criminals, domestic abusers and would-be mass shooters.b aria-hidden="true"">> Share on Facebook b aria-hidden="true"">> Share on Twitter h6">
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