Ann Brown was chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from 1994 to 2002.
When I chaired the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, I was grateful that we had authority to regulate lead in household paint. Banning the use of lead-based paint in homes has prevented brain damage in countless children over the years.
So why wouldn’t Congress allow us authority over another dangerous consumer product often made with lead?
Specifically, why not bullets?
On Tuesday, President Obama unveiled a package of executive actions that he hopes will reduce gun deaths in the United States. I urge him to put one more proposal on the table: regulating ammunition. The idea is workable, and Americans could support it.
This idea isn’t new. In 1974, the CPSC’s first chairman made clear his belief that the agency could probably regulate ammunition, and a court agreed — whereupon a frightened Congress passed laws making it impossible even to try. Now is the time for the president to begin pushing to correct that mistake.
Do I say this swayed by all the horrific mass shootings we have seen in the past few years? Only in part. These are the tragic, visible tip of an iceberg. While mass shootings attract headlines and our grief, bigger problems with guns often go unnoticed: the hundreds killed annually in intimate-partner violence; those killed by kids too young to know what pulling a trigger can do; the 21,000 Americans who commit suicide with a firearm each year.
I admire the president for doing what he did this week. But the chance of achieving even a small reduction in this carnage through executive action is, well, small. And the chance of getting more effective gun-control measures through Congress this year is about zero.
How can we do more when the National Rifle Association has persuaded Congress to put roadblocks in front of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research into gun deaths? When more than half of Americans oppose tighter gun control even after a year of such bloodshed?
Would Americans favor regulating ammunition any more than they would favor regulating guns?
Yes, for three reasons.
First, ammunition limits are clearly not prohibited by the Second Amendment. Some communities and states around the country — Sacramento, Los Angeles and Connecticut, for example — already regulate bullets. Is this effective? In 2008, Sacramento seized thousands of rounds, identifying 156 people prohibited from owning guns or ammunition in the process, while the city’s murder rate declined more than 30 percent between 2008 and 2013. It’s been “a slam-dunk solid,” one Sacramento detective told a reporter.
More important, unlike gun limits, Americans generally support restrictions on ammunition — 80 percent of them in one 2013 Fox News poll.
And, finally, we have the technology to do it. James Holmes bought more than 4,000 rounds online before his 2012 rampage in a Colorado movie theater. Twenty years ago, when purchases were offline, it would have been tough to spot someone like that. Today it would be easy.
Why should my old agency be the one to do the regulating?
One reason: We need a national standard. Having a hodgepodge of agencies and regulations govern ammunition would make flouting any regulation as simple as, say, driving across the Key Bridge from the District to Virginia.
Second, we need an authority that knows that one size does not fit all.
That is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Under Republican and Democratic presidents, the commission has worked with manufacturers to create flexible guidelines for all kinds of hazardous products. It didn’t ban cribs, walkers, toasters — or paint. It worked out ways to address what made them dangerous — and saved children in the process.
The same flexible approach can work with ammunition. When someone who may be dangerous is prevented from buying ammunition, any gun he has hidden becomes like a car without gas: a useless hunk of metal.
There are many ways to move ahead. We could license ammunition purchases like drivers, ban online purchases and mandate background checks for buyers. But it would be pointless for me to outline the precise steps that should be taken up front — except for the first one: ending Congress’s disgraceful attempt to chill research. Funding to study regulating ammunition should begin now.
Times and cultures change.
When I was chair of the CPSC, I would have laughed if you told me same-sex marriage would become legal. It did. In 1984, a nonprofit staffer first thought up family and medical leave. It passed a decade later. Obamacare? Key parts of it can be traced back 25 years to the conservative Heritage Foundation. Today, it’s law. What we can’t win in 2016 we might win in 2020.
And regulating ammunition should attract some Republican support. In 2007, California condors were being poisoned by lead ammunition in carcasses left behind by hunters. To save them, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning lead ammunition in state wilderness areas. Do Republicans believe in regulating ammunition to save condors but not children? I don’t think so.
It’s time to propose a step that won’t trigger a constitutional debate and to move forward on an idea that Americans favor in addition to ones they oppose. It’s time to start exploring sensible ways to stop gun violence and save lives by regulating ammunition.