NYT praises NFA as “Gun Control That Actually Works”

Whatever position we take on gun control, the question of practicality remains key to whether such laws would ever work.  Given the number of guns in the country in private hands—three hundred million is what gets claimed over and over, but these days that’s likely to be a low estimate—the idea that the situation in Europe or Australia, much less Japan could be imposed in the United States seems unrealistic.

But in the view of Alan Berlow, writing for The New York Times, gun control not only could work, but already has.  His article, “Gun Control That Actually Works,” argues that registration of guns and licensing of owners would not lead to confiscation.  He bases this assertion on what he regards as the success of National Firearms Act of 1934.

Berlow tells us that most Americans have never heard of the NFA, though he should have spent more time getting to know people that writers for the Times often ignore.  Knowledge of this early imposition of gun control nationwide is something that is widely known in the gun community.  But then awareness of facts about guns and crime isn’t something that can be assumed.

But has the NFA worked?  Berlow is correct in saying that legally owned fully automatic firearms are rarely used in crimes.  Does this imply that similar controls on all guns would have the same result?

We’re told that “the case for licensing and registration is stronger now than ever.”  But this makes a claim that depends on what was possible in 1934, not today.

For one thing, the NFA came after the end of Prohibition.  America had experienced a self-inflicted period of violence, created by another effort to control the private behavior of citizens.  This time was also in the depths of the Great Depression.  The mood of the time was that government had a large role in saving the people.  Whether this is realistic, it certainly isn’t shared now.  Americans were willing to believe Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assurances.  Since then, we’ve lived through a variety of presidents who convinced large numbers of us that government deserves to be treated with suspicion.

Another difference is population.  In the early 30s, a bit more than 125 million people lived in the United States.  How many of them were gun owners isn’t known.  The General Social Survey started asking about gun ownership in 1973.  At that time, 49% of respondents said they had a gun in the home.  In 1980, the survey began asking how many owned guns personally and found that number to be 29%.  That has floated downward in the GSS to 22%, though Gallup reported 29% in 2013.  That makes today’s gun owners equal some three quarters of the U.S. population in 1934.  It’s common to wonder if there aren’t more gun owners in the country than the surveys indicate.  How many of us would tell a stranger on the phone that we own firearms—presuming we’ve answered the call, that is.  And gun owners today have the history of gun control since the NFA to show them how ineffective such laws are.

Berlow believes that “people who register weapons rarely commit crimes. Registration fosters responsibility and its tremendous success forcefully undermines the N.R.A.’s nonsensical claims that reasonable limits on gun ownership are a serious burden to law-abiding gun owners.”  This assumes incorrectly that legal gun owners are the majority of the problem when it comes to gun violence and also assumes in error that licensing and registration aren’t a law too far.  And despite Berlow’s claims about how the NFA hasn’t led to confiscation, we’ve seen what registration allowed in Britain and Australia.  Getting away with new controls is easier when the consequences are only theoretical.

But more than that, Berlow is tacitly assuming that all guns are the same.  Hollywood wants us to believe that a full-auto gun is a magic wand.  It rarely runs dry, and it sends a wall of lead down range that cannot be dodged.  But real life doesn’t support that conclusion.  Rapid fire in drive-by shootings, for example, often fail to hit, much less kill the intended target.  Even if full-auto were practical for civilian self-defense or for criminal attacks, feeding such guns runs quickly into serious money.  Jeff Cooper once expressed the desire that if he were to be attacked, his enemies would have their weapons set on full-auto, while he would squeeze off one round at a time from his M1911.

The NFA is a worthy target for repeal by advocates of gun rights at some point in the future.  But Berlow’s claims fail to take the realities of gun ownership in our nation and the guns he discusses.  That law isn’t proof that a general imposition on all firearms would succeed in contemporary America.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.