A Sensible Gun Policy
Lars Poulsen - 2020-04-06
(First draft, 2019-08-06)
I have been thinking a lot about how we in the USA back away from
the policies that create a mass shooting every day. Here is what I
believe at this point. I welcome suggestions for improvements.
The Short Summary
For those who won't read the long version without knowing where I
- Re-think the second amendment: It is about the Militia, also
known as the National Guard.
- Require a license to own a gun, just like a driver's license.
- Many people have a good reason to own a gun. Let them have a
license for a gun that makes sense considering what their need is.
- Register all guns. Just like we register our motor vehicles.
- Allow sales of ammunition only to licensed owners of registered guns.
The Second Amendment
“A well regulated Militia,
being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the
people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Bill of Rights, 1791
These few words have been read
differently over time. For a long time, they were not believed to
confer on every resident of the country and unrestricted right to own
whatever weapons he wanted without regards to his community. Rather,
they were understood to mean that the country should have a “citizen
army” that kept guns at home, and practiced regularly, subject
to a stringent set of rules. In other words, what the British call a
“home guard” - or as we now call it, the National Guard.
This changed slowly after conservatives gradually took over the Supreme
Court beginning in the 1980s and culminating with the 2008 case
“District of Columbia v. Heller”,
where the court struck down a gun control regulation in the District
of Columbia on a 5-4 vote, and with the majority decision written by
Justice Antonin Scalia declaring that the words up to the second
comma were just a preface and that the amendment declared a nearly
unrestricted individual right for every citizen to bear arms.
We need to reverse “Heller” - or at least ignore it.
"Assault Rifle Ban"?
Many seem to believe that there is a category of weapons that they call
"assault rifles" that we should just not allow civilians to own.
Unfortunately, we have never been able to define such a class of
guns. The laws that have been tried in this area defined the banned
guns in such a way that they could be circumvented with trivial
modifications. Scary-looking military-style guns have functionally
identical counterparts that look like your uncle's hunting rifle,
few lawmakers are eager to ban your uncle's favorite hunting rifle.
Once we acknowledge
that there are people that should not have guns, the easiest way to
control who is and who is not safe to have one, is to establish a
license system. A license should be issued to anyone who can
demonstrate a reasonable reason why they should have a firearm, and
the note which kind of firearm is appropriate for them. Some good
reasons would be:
- They are a member of the National Guard.
The well-regulated guard will decide which
waepon they need to participate in the guard. Assault rifles may be
appropriate for that service. Probably we could allow the Guard to
issue licenses to their members on this basis.
- They are farmers or ranchers
who need to kill predators to protect their livestock.
They need to be able to kill wolves, coyotes and mountain lions from
a considerable distance. Long-barrelled rifles are the obvious tool
for this, but I don't think that rapid-fire semiautomatic weapons
are needed for this. A bolt-action rifle would be fine. I think
proof of ownership of farmland would be a reasonable default
requirement for this, although a county might license specially good
marksment to do this on a contract basis. Some demonstration of
marksmanship proficiency and a gun safety exam also make sense to
- They are hunters.
They should be able to demonstrate that they have access to a place
where they can hunt legally, but in this country, where the public
is allowed to hunt on public lands, that would be pretty much
anyone. Depending on what kind of game they are after, a shotgun or
a rifle (bolt-action) may be appropriate, but two to six shots
before reloading is an appropriate limit. A minimum level of
marksmanship and gun safety should be required, as well as a test of
game laws, hunting seasons and ability to distinguish between
species with different hunting seasons.
- They have a need for personal protection.
For this, I see no need for long barrels. A
small-caliber semi-automatic pistol seems to me to be the right
- They are a collector.
The State will determine what their requirement is, but
if they are not going to shoot, they do not need ammunition.
- They are in a competitive marksmanship club.
They shoot only at the club's
facilities, and their gun is kept there. They should have a license,
based on gun safety test. The club will issue ammunition as
I do not want to see people accumulate large
private arsenals, and I want to control ammunition to a degree. This
requires a registry, where the history of the weapon can be found. If
a gun is found on a crime scene, the person to whom it was last
registered, should have some liability if they cannot account for who
took possession after that time.
Also, when they buy ammunition, it should be
verified that they have a licensed firearm that fits that ammunition.
Common sense to keep some accountability.
Categories of Guns
Guns can be divided into a few major categories:
- sidearms (pistols and revolvers) versus long guns (rifles and shotguns)
- single-shot and bolt-action versus semi-automatic (auto-reloading)
Short or Long Barrel
There is a pretty clear division between small guns (sometimes called sidearms)
such as pistols or revolvers on one hand, and long-barreled guns such as shotguns and rifles on the other hand.
Small guns can be easily concealed, and they are usually not very precise,
but when used for self defense, they are typically used at distances where
precision does not matter much.
The longer barrel on a rifle allows for more precise aiming, so that
they can hit a target from a larger distance. A shotgun (which fires an
ounce or so of small pellets) is not very precise, but the "cloud" of
pellets make it likely that you can still hit a target - such as
a smallish bird - at some distance.
I believe that most pistols are semi-automatic, i.e. when you fire a shot,
they eject the spent cartridge and load the next cartridge into the chamber,
ready for the next shot.
Shotguns usually have two barrels with a single cartridge loaded in each,
and with a separate trigger for each. Auto-reloading is less practical,
because the cartridge is physically large, compared to a pistol or rifle
Rifles are almost always either bolt-action (the shooter must pull a
lever after each shot to eject the spent cartridle and advance the next
one into the firing chamber) or semi-automatic (the recoil from the shot
essentially pull that lever for you). They could just as easily continue
and fire the next shot, i.e. enabling a burst of consecutive shot very
close together, but it is illegal for civilians to own such a gun in the
Bolt Action vs Semi-Automatic
For livestock protection and for hunting, we do
not need rapid fire. A slow, precision aimed rifle is better
sportsmanship and actually more effective.
But for various reasons, some good, some not so
good, semiautomatic rifles derived from the Army infantry assault
rifle/carbine have become overwhelmingly popular and sometimes it
seems like that is what dominates gun store displays everywhere, even
at Sears, K-Mart, Walmart etc.
The best “good” reason is, that most
people looking to buy a gun for hunting will be familiar with this
type of gun. If they have been in the military since 1970, that is
what they have trained and practiced (and maybe fought) with, so that
is what they feel most safe with. I know that when I served in the
Danish Army in 1972-1973, the weapon we were issued was the Garand M1
(which was called the M50 in Denmark, based on the year it was
introduced thee). So if I had wanted to go hunting, that is what I
would have wanted.
The AR-14/AR-15 style rifle mechanisms are sold
with a variety of styles of stock, from Uzi-style metal frames to
nice polished walnut stocks that look civilized, but the basic
mechanism is the same, and they share the ability for rapid fire and
for accepting various styles and capacities of magazines. Politicians
have tried to separate them into “assault rifles” and
“hunting rifles” based on appearances, but that has never
really worked, because there is no meaningful functional distinction.
What About All the Guns that are Already Out There?
When we change the rules of the game dramatically,
the transition is difficult. Some “grandfather clauses”
will be necessary.
- If you have a semi-automatic rifle and you want to keep it,
you must register it or sell it. Until you get a
gun license, you will identify yourself by your driver's license or
other state ID card.
- If you want to own a gun a year from now,
you must apply for a license and start working to fulfill its
- To encourage owners of semi-automatic rifles
to dispose of them, the government may sponsor a buyback program. It
may also be possible to develop a conversion kit that turns a
semi-automatic rifle into a permitted category that can be licensed
for hunting use.
The transition will be difficult, but the rewards will be worth it.
If we don't try, we can't succeed.
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