How do we stop the parade of gun deaths?

By Nicholas Kristof

In California, a 9-year-old child was one of four people shot dead at a real estate office Wednesday. Shortly before that, 10 people were massacred in a Colorado grocery store, and eight people were executed in Atlanta-area spas.

More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in U.S. history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million).

No one is spared. In a typical year, more children from infancy through 4 years old are fatally shot in the United States (about 80) than police officers (about 50 or fewer).

The main challenge for effective policy is that the United States may now have more guns (around 400 million) than people (330 million). The United States has 4% of the world’s population but about 40% of the firearms in civilian hands.

When Europeans lose their tempers, they punch someone; Americans pull out a handgun. Foreigners express road rage by cursing; a driver in North Carolina recently expressed his by firing shots into another car, killing a mother of six. Abroad, brutish husbands put wives in hospitals; American husbands put wives in coffins.

The guns used in highly publicized mass shootings get the most attention, and they reflect the changing American arsenal. I’m writing this on my family farm in Oregon where I grew up with firearms; there’s a .22 rifle in the closet. Those kinds of hunting rifles are rarely used in crimes, but in recent decades the “cool” weapons in some circles have become military-style semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 and AK-47 and military-style pistols like the Glock 17 that were designed to kill people.

“Assault rifles are the weapons of choice when someone wants to kill as many people as possible,” noted Michael Weisser, a gun store owner, author, NRA member and self-described “gun nut” who has also sponsored a petition to ban assault rifles. “Since 2012 there have been 10 mass shootings resulting in 30 or more dead or wounded victims. Every single one of these shootings was accomplished with an AR or an AK.”

I’m sympathetic to the aim, but also wary. I’m not sure it’s possible to get any gun legislation through Congress right now, and certainly not a ban on assault weapons. It’s also true that while liberals loved the assault weapons ban for the 10 years it was in effect, there is no strong evidence that it saved lives — but it did turn the AR-15 into a conservative icon, so that today there appear to be more AR and AK rifles in private hands than in the U.S. military. And most crime and deaths involve handguns, not rifles.

But there is a way to stem the tide of a new type of gun that is proliferating unchecked. President Joe Biden can use executive action to crack down on “ghost guns,” which avoid regulation and serial numbers because they are sold unfinished or as kits.

“Ghost guns have taken off, and they’re untraceable,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, a gun violence expert at the University of California at Davis.

Law enforcement agencies recovered about 10,000 ghost guns in 2019, and they account for 30% of all firearms taken in gun trafficking investigations in California. Ghost guns have been used in at least three mass shootings in California, Wintemute said.

White nationalists have seized upon the chance to build secret arsenals through ghost guns. Last year, a supporter of the extremist boogaloo movement allegedly used a ghost weapon to kill a law enforcement officer, and the men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, also had ghost guns.

A computer-controlled milling machine called the Ghost Gunner 3, the size of a laser printer, makes it even easier to produce ghost guns. It is now available for mail order for $2,120 and can churn out many imitation Glock handguns or AR-15 assault rifles in a day.

“Ghost Gunner 3 allows you to manufacture firearms with confidence and ease, in the privacy of your own home,” the website boasts. For those on a budget, “layaway options available.”

Ghost guns evade the law because the federal government defines firearms so as not to include so-called 80-percenter guns, which are not quite finished but can be quickly turned into a finished weapon. The Ghost Gunner 3 uses 80-percenter units as the base for complete weapons.

If you order a disassembled couch kit from Ikea, you’re still ordering a couch, stated Daniel Webster, a gun policy expert at Johns Hopkins University. The Biden administration should take executive action to redefine a firearm to include kits and 80-percenters.

“This is a huge and important thing to address,” Webster said. “It’s a huge threat.”

We also need universal background checks, red flag laws, curbs on people with violent misdemeanor records acquiring weapons, and more. But given the difficulty of pushing meaningful gun safety legislation through Congress, I understand why Biden is focusing on infrastructure rather than firearms legislation: Significant reforms just won’t get through Congress even as more than 100 Americans die each day from guns.

But Biden should move urgently to take executive action, to reduce the threat of ghost guns, to gather better gun data and to publicize where weapons used in crimes come from. States should also move forward. We can continue to lay the groundwork.

It’s also true that some of the most cost-effective steps to reduce gun violence don’t involve firearms directly and thus are less controversial. They include investments in “violence interrupters,” who stop urban cycles of violence, or support for programs like Becoming a Man that help at-risk youths build a better future.

All of this isn’t enough to stop the parade of gun deaths. It’s frustratingly inadequate. But even modest steps are both urgently needed and an essential way forward.

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