When our grandchildren read about America in the second decade of the 21st century, they will find much that surprises them. Here is something that astonishes me and will most certainly astonish them: It is far easier to buy an assault rifle than to open a small checking account in the United States.
Buying an assault rifle is easy. You need not show formal identification, submit to a record check, experience any delay, provide a valid address or permit a record to be kept of your purchase. If you buy in the “shadow gun system” at a gun show, there are no requirements at all.
Opening even the most basic bank account is far more arduous. The process begins with a rigorous ID check. You must provide an address that will be checked out, as will the source of the funds deposited in your account. Depending on how risky you appear, there may be long delays, and the bank may insist on visiting your domicile. If you are not opening an account for an individual but for a small business, the process is far more involved. An elaborate regulatory system watches “the shadows” so you can’t store your money in a nonbank financial institution without being monitored.
Why this discrepancy? Yes, financial abuse can happen, but why should we check accounts, unlike assault rifles, when accounts do not kill? The right to be secure in holding one’s money seems as fundamental as the right to carry an assault rifle. I suspect the cost of requiring full background checks and registration for assault-rifle purchasers would be a pittance relative to the costs imposed on the financial system by Know Your Customer rules.
Much of what is wrong with our democracy goes back to the role of money in politics. Not so with the assault rifle-bank account paradox. Wealthy bankers complain with limited success about being overregulated. The vast majority of the members of the National Rifle Association are in the middle class.
I cannot explain our society’s choices here. Just as the Salem witch trials are inexplicable to us, our support for assault rifles will be inexplicable to our descendants.
Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard, is a former treasury secretary and director of the National Economic Council in the White House. He is writing occasional posts on Wonkblog about issues of national and international economics and policymaking.