Examining the false concepts behind loose firearms and why registration doesn’t reduce gun crime.
When discussing matters of policy, it’s important to define our terms because cloudy thinking can lead to misunderstanding or even outright deceit. Gun control advocates in particular like to use sneaky tactics: they tend to make assertions and then use the grey area of confusion to make their point.
Let’s take the concept of ‘loose firearms‘. For most people, the term is just shorthand for ‘guns that are in some way illegal and used by bad guys‘. People also tend to talk about loose firearms and unregistered firearms while using the two interchangeably. A gun control advocate may say that if each firearm is not registered to the individual, the number of loose (or ‘bad-guy’ owned) firearms would increase. This is an example of using an imprecise label to make a point that, upon examination, is flat-out wrong.
To appreciate why this is the case, it helps to compare firearms purchasing procedures in other countries—specifically in the United States. In the Philippines, each legally purchased firearm must be registered to the name and address of the owner. Laws in the US vary state-by-state but firearm registration is actually uncommon. In fact, American firearms advocates tend to see registration as a severe form of gun control. Owner licensing of each unit is not standard across the board in the US because registration just isn’t an effective way of cutting down crime. (More on this later.)
Keep in mind that a gun that has not been linked to the end-user is not necessarily unaccounted. All legitimately produced and traded firearms are recorded via a serial number by the manufacturer. For simplicity, we can call this manufacturer registration. It is subject to the standard quality checks and taxes. Thus, a paper-trail is left from the manufacturer to the dealer and in the case of retail purchase, to the store and first customer.
License the individual, not the firearm
Under the system of ‘license the individual, not the firearm‘, a loose firearm may then be strictly defined as one that has not undergone manufacturer registration. It cuts down the bulk of legally purchased firearms that are only defined as loose because their licenses have not been renewed. In many cases, the owners of these firearms are generally law-abiding and could not credibly be categorized as one of the bad guys. In this way, the term ‘loose firearm’ would be reserved for those that are smuggled into the country or illegally produced.
After all, we need to ask why a loose firearm is ‘bad’ in the first place. It is bad because we don’t want guns to get into the hands of those who would do society harm. A person who fails to renew a legally purchased firearm becomes a criminal only because he did not follow an arbitrary rule; the lapse itself does no actual harm to society.
According to a recent comment by Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, the vast majority of loose firearms are in the hands of private armies and criminals. While there was no clarification of what made up the ‘criminal’ in this case, certainly private armies are one of the major contributors of bloodshed in the Philippines. Owner registration has so far done nothing to deter these armed groups from carrying out their killings.
Firearms databases and crime fighting
Now let’s examine registration as an aid to fighting crime. Proponents of firearms databases say that the lack of user registration would significantly impede crime prevention or investigation; if a firearm is used in a crime, we need a way to track it down to the owner. It doesn’t take much thought to expose this fallacy.
Under the current system, only the most stupid criminal would use his own legally registered firearm to commit a crime. Premeditated firearms-aided crimes are usually carried out using a gun that has been stolen or acquired on the black-market. Registration cannot help prevent these cases. Furthermore, it is no real use in solving crimes if a legal firearm was used.
Many believe the common TV show device where detectives easily tie a bullet found in the crime scene to the gun through a ballistics test. It might be quick on TV but in real life, things are more complicated. You need to find the gun first before you’re able to run the test. Without the gun, a comparison is impossible so in practical terms, you basically have to catch the criminal first, or at least track down the evidence. The real use of a ballistics test is in the court case: to prove that the gun was used in the crime by comparing the crime scene bullet markings with those on a test-fired round.
Surely, some may say, a ballistics database coupled with the owner registration process would solve this? Just compare the crime-scene bullet with the police ballistics records. That would work, right? Unfortunately this is not the case. The US state of Maryland tried to build up a large database of ballistics fingerprints just for this purpose. It turned out to be a complete failure and was calculated to have cost $2.6 million dollars per conviction.
Furthermore, the database would require the following to work:
- That the firearm used in the crime was legal (rare, as mentioned previously);
- That the bullet and casings are in a state to run the comparison;
- There was no wear-and-tear on the barrel or other parts to significantly alter the markings;
- That the owner did not make after-market modifications to the firearm.
Such tight requirements narrows down the usefulness of such a database as to be impractical.
With this in mind, we really have to question the validity of owner registration as an aid to fighting crime.