Jeffrey Zalles is president of the Marin County, Calif., chapter of the Brady Campaign. The views expressed are his own.
In August, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof noted that gun violence claims one life every 16 minutes in the United States. Think about it. Every day, more than 90 American families are broken by gun violence. If you’re like most people, you have come to feel that achieving any significant reduction in this disturbing statistic is hopeless. Because there are more than 300 million guns in private hands in the United States. Because the gun lobby is just too strong. Because gun-control proponents have fought for years with little to show for it at the federal level.
But this can’t go on forever. We will eventually reach a tipping point whereby a majority of Americans, fed up and fearing for their safety, will finally work their will in the form of strict gun-control measures or even a rewrite or repeal of the Second Amendment.
There is a way to end the standoff before we reach that tipping point, to wipe the slate clean by quickly and drastically reducing gun violence without infringing on gun rights. But first, those who support gun rights must recognize that the biggest threat to those rights lies in the pervasiveness of gun violence, while those on the other side must accept that 300 million guns aren’t going away anytime soon.
The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that in the United States there was a 200-year supply of guns but a four-year supply of ammunition. So what if we stopped worrying about the guns and instead focused on the bullets? Two steps would work wonders:
First, license buyers of ammunition. This license would take the form of a photo ID, and obtaining it could be as easy as watching a video, answering some gun-safety questions, paying a small fee and passing a background check.
No doubt, gun owners would scream that such a requirement represented a big-government intrusion into their privacy and constitutional rights. But what if the National Rifle Association, and not the government, was responsible for issuing licenses? Such a role would simply represent a return to the organization’s roots. The NRA was founded in 1871 to advance marksmanship, promote gun safety and provide training to gun owners. It’s only recently that it became political.
Second, mark the shells. All bullets could be stamped with a serial number, and stores could scan a buyer’s license and a barcode on the box. Since shell casings recovered at a crime scene could easily be traced back to stores and buyers, there would be a powerful incentive to see that bullets were handled responsibly.
How might the country benefit from this system? Almost immediately, it would become increasingly difficult for those who shouldn’t have ammunition to acquire it. After a while, the guns in the possession of criminals would become virtually useless. Of course, this wouldn’t put an end to all gun violence, but my guess is that thousands of lives would be saved every year. A reduction that large could be enough to end once and for all the battle between pro- and anti-gun forces.
A focus on ammunition wouldn’t infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. Instead it would guarantee the protection of those rights — while saving many lives.