The Mythical “Gun-Show Loophole”

Another myth perpetrated by anti-gun forces. There are no  transactions permitted at a gun show that are not permitted anywhere else. (State law controls much of private transfer of firearms; I believe what I say is correct for Minnesota, and I think it’s true in a lot of other states as well, but be sure to check what the law really is in your state before transferring any firearms! I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice!)

What the anti-gun forces really want to do is to ban all private transfers of firearms, and force us to go through a federally licensed dealer for each one. This would drastically restrict availability of firearms to legal owners, and probably significantly raise costs. Licensed dealers are hard to find.  There isn’t one in the city of Minneapolis, for example; you have to drive out to the suburbs quite a ways to get to one. The dealers would of course charge money for this service, too. In more rural areas, there may not be one for 100 miles; since one thing “accomplished” during the Clinton administration was to revoke the licenses of a lot of part-time dealers (they targeted everybody without a full-time store-front).

Officially, the goal is to make sure the people who buy through private transactions aren’t people barred from owning firearms.

Of course, it’s already illegal for me to sell to somebody I have reason to believe isn’t allowed to own the firearm, but I’m not required (and in fact I have no means) to run a background check on the buyer. What most people I know do in Minnesota is only sell to people who have a carry permit or a “permit to purchase” issued by their local police; these documents show the person has passed the background check.  This isn’t legally required, but the gun-owners I know don’t like the idea of guns getting into the hands of bad guys any more than anybody else.

More to the point, there isn’t any evidence pointing to legal sales through private owners being a significant source of guns used in crimes.  Most of them are stolen, from stores or police cars or private homes, or smuggled into the country by gangs (who, after all, routinely smuggle in tons of other contraband; do you really believe they won’t have guns if they want guns?). Some are bought by legal purchasers who are friends of the intended illegal recipients (often their girlfriends); these transactions are called “straw purchases” and are already a felony. In other countries, raids on police and military armories have been resorted to.

Incidentally, one of the reasons gun shows are so important is precisely that there aren’t that many gun stores around.  For a lot of people, waiting for a gun show to come by is their best way to see a wide range of merchandise and be able to decide what they want to buy. At a gun show, you get to see merchandise from a lot of dealers from a very large geographic area, conveniently exhibiting in one room for your convenience.

The existence of a vibrant used market in guns helps keep prices down (back to my theme that guns shouldn’t be a tool or hobby reserved for the rich). Collectors do some speculating as well, and late in their lives often cash in much of their collection; requiring each transaction to go through a licensed dealer would be a hideous barrier to selling off a collection, and would no doubt cost these people huge amounts of money (good collections are easily worth tens of thousands of dollars, even if they haven’t invested nearly that much into them, as guns have appreciated a lot over the last few decades).

Where is the line between somebody selling off a collection, and somebody making a living as an unlicensed dealer?  There’s lots of law about this, and the BATFE is fairly active in pursuing unlicensed dealers (in fact, over-active; they lose a lot of cases, that is, the courts decide the person is not in fact acting as an unlicensed dealer). The point is, there isn’t a “problem” with unlicensed dealers. A person who sells off a collection he’s owned for a long time, without buying a lot of new guns he then sells off, is clearly a collector selling a collection, even if the numbers sold are fairly high (for a while); he’s not any sort of dealer, and shouldn’t have the extreme limits applied to dealers applied to him. Even if he happens to rent a table at a gun show to sell some of them.

I won’t even try to go into the additional complexities this would add to gifts and inheritances.

I’d love to talk to anybody who wants to understand this in more detail, has questions, or whatever, in the comments sections here, in email, in person, or however is convenient.

“Assault” Weapons

This term has two nearly-unrelated meanings.  It has a technical military meaning (where it’s a sub-caliber fully-automatic weapon for close combat), and a modern political meaning (where it’s any semi-automatic rifle that looks aggressive). I’m talking largely about the meaning given the term in the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (which was allowed to expire in 2004).

Let’s take a quick look at those two degrees of automation. A “fully-automatic” rifle is a small machine-gun; holding back the trigger causes the rifle to continue firing (until the magazine is empty, which would be pretty quickly with a 30-round magazine and a 600 rounds per minute firing rate, for example). A “semi-automatic” or “auto-loading” rifle is one where the recoil or gas generated from one round is used to load the next round and cock the rifle, ready to fire again. With a semi-automatic rifle, you get one bang per trigger pull.

You often hear people talking about “high-powered assault weapons”. This always makes me laugh, because being low powered is part of the military definition, and the civilian definition doesn’t relate to power at all. Most of the rifles classified as “assault weapons” by the 1994 ban fired the NATO 5.56mm round (or very similar civilian .223 Remington round) or the Russian 7.62×39 round.  The .223 (650 foot-pounds at 200 yards)  is too weak to be legal for deer in many states. The 7.62×39 (900 foot-pounds at 200 yards) is just barely powerful enough to be legal for deer, putting it at the very bottom of the range of big-game hunting rounds (along with the classic .30-30 (900 foot-pounds at 200 yards)).  Both are far, far less powerful than for example the .30-06 (1700 foot-pounds at 200 yards), which is itself a midrange round, marginal except in the most expert hands for even big North American game like moose (don’t even think about taking on Cape buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus with a .30-06; yeah, I know people have done it).

Civilians can legally own machine guns in many states, if they meet the state requirements plus pay a special transfer tax and grant special permissions (including the right to conduct surprise visits at any time) to the BATFE. The transfer tax is $200.  In addition, they can (these days) only buy machine guns manufactured before 1986, so the prices are astronomical (ten thousand dollars and up). For these reasons, very very few people actually do (mostly serious hobbiests who get licensed as machine gun manufacturers so they can make their own). Legal civilian machine-guns don’t seem to ever show up at crime scenes.

The 1994 federal ban named certain specific models, and in addition to that specified features that, if a rifle had too many of, would automatically ban it.  From Wikipedia, those characteristics were:

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
  • Folding stock
  • Conspicuous pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
  • Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device which enables the launching or firing of rifle grenades)

So far as anybody has been able to tell, this list has nothing whatsoever to do with utility in criminal activities or even popularity among criminals.  What it is, is an attempt to ban “evil black rifles”.

The AR-15 is the most popular evil black rifle.

The AR-15 Rifle
The AR-15 Rifle

There are at least four reasons why they shouldn’t be banned:

  1. Nobody has shown any benefit to be gained from banning them.
  2. Our individual right to keep and bear arms (affirmed by the 2nd amendment to the US Constitution) certainly includes military-type weapons.
  3. They include many of the cheapest hunting rifles available (military surplus SKSs, for example). They also include many of the rifles that fire cheap (surplus) ammunition. Firearms should not be a hobby reserved for the rich!
  4. The characteristics that make them subject to the ban are not related to any danger factor.

There should be no need to show a “need” for civilian ownership of this kind of firearm; the burden of proof should rest on the other side, to show some compelling reason for banning them. But as long as I’m scribbling on the topic, I’ll point out that these rifles are widely used in marksmanship competition, home defense, varmint and small game hunting, “plinking” (informal non-competitive target shooting), and some of them for hunting larger game (where legal). Collectors also like to have examples of them, because of their military heritage.

I don’t think I can describe very well the degree to which the assault weapons ban was reviled in the gun community. Baldly, it was viewed as the first big move towards banning most guns and confiscating existing guns (a move which the gun community believes is intended by the anti-gun groups; they’ve admitted it in public now and then, so I think that’s accurate). Taking away fun, popular, widely-used guns, some of them inexpensive, for no apparent reason (and, with 10 years of statistics to sort through, no sign of any benefit), could only be something done for spite and as part of a larger plan.  It was also viewed as a clear sign that the people supporting it “just don’t get it”.  They don’t get that these guns are not especially dangerous, not widely used in crime, and are widely popular among gun people.

And despite his assurances (couched in language carefully avoiding the question), I’m afraid our president elect would support a new attempt at an assault weapons ban.  I really hope I’m wrong–because we need him for eight years.  And if he really motivates the gun rights bloc, we may not have him (or a supportive congress) that long.

Please, if you can possibly bring yourself to do it, actively resist another assault weapons ban. If it were passed, it would accomplish nothing good, and even trying and failing would be very polarizing. And it’s a distraction from much more important things that are worth fighting over, like health care, and the economy and taxes and financial regulation, and extricating ourselves from Iraq, and starting to restore our world stature. I’d love to talk to anybody who wants to know more about the subject.

What You Are Seeing

I think I actually know what’s going on in this photo, so let’s write it down and see what I learn.

The mortar was loaded like this: powder in the depression in the bottom, fuse coming in lying over that, then bowling ball.  Then two ziploc bags of gasoline were placed on top of the bowling ball.

Here’s what we’re seeing in the photo:

B is the bowling ball itself.

A1 and A2 are the two ziploc bags, ruptured and just about done spewing a mist of gasoline (the enlargement at left makes this a bit clearer).

C is the mist of gasoline recently released (see also E and F).

D is the flame front, as it works its way up the cloud of mist.

E shows actual droplets of gasoline, not yet vaporized (may not be clear at screen resolution, but is quite clear at full res).

F shows actual droplets at the side, as well; the flame front has not yet consumed them.

Note that the projectile B has already passed the bags A1 and A2.  This is not that surprising, given their relative density and aerodynamic coefficients.