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Gun Control: Rifles and Risk

Tony Hillerman used to say there’s more cultural distance between city folk and country folk than between non-Indians and Indians. Whether he was right or wrong, the categories overlap substantially.

Most Indians, in the 21st century, remain country folk. With termination and relocation, the government tried to replicate the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, but Indians kept returning home.

So we, or most of us, don’t get heated up about firearms. We took to firearms early—most people don’t understand that the Indians at Greasy Grass were better armed than the 7th Cavalry---and to this day, a rifle is as normal and as dangerous as a chainsaw.

Because the Bill of Rights does not govern Indian land, tribal governments with a land base could ban firearms without regard to the Second Amendment, but because of the rural character of the land and cultures, there is no enthusiasm for doing so. This in spite of homicide and suicide rates that are often much higher than the surrounding states.

The NRA would say that if you make firearms unavailable to suicidal persons, they will find some other method. While that’s a logical argument, the data go the other way. Gun control can in fact move the suicide needle. The data on homicide are less clear, but it’s incontestable that firearms made homicide more efficient.

On Dec. 14, 2012, a crazy man entered an elementary school with a knife and stabbed 22 children and one adult. Fatalities: zero.

On the very same day, another crazy man entered an elementary school with a rifle and opened fire on 20 children and six adults. Fatalities: 26.

Having owned firearms all my adult life, I never expected to have a beef with the NRA. The NRA represented, to me, firearms safety courses and organized shooting competitions.

So I was a little surprised during one of my contested elections when the NRA wanted me to sign on against a bill banning ammunition that would defeat “bulletproof” vests (the makers don’t call them “bulletproof” because they’re not).

I had to tell them that I’d never seen a deer wearing a vest, only humans, and most of the humans were cops, and many of the cops were people I knew in my daily life. So I was in favor of making the vests closer to bulletproof by limiting ammunition.

Then there are high capacity magazines. Where I come from, if you need 30 rounds to accomplish your purpose, there is something wrong with your purpose or your marksmanship.

Then there’s the NRA claim that putting red tape around gun sales would not save lives. The machine gun, by Thompson or Browning, used to be the weapon of choice for criminals in big cities. Machine guns are not outlawed—just stiffly taxed and regulated—and since that became the case, you don’t see fully automatic weapons used in crime.

Then there’s the NRA’s opposition to taggants in explosive powder, which can trace it back to the maker and the batch and therefore when and possibly where it was sold. I have found the following arguments (so far) in support of their position:

1. It would make powder more expensive.

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2. It would not deter bomb makers because they could easily make their own powder.

3. The taggants sometimes incinerate at high temperature so it's a futile gesture.

4. You can't stop anybody crazy enough to make bombs.

These arguments all have a familiar cast. I'm not saying these are all the arguments. I'm just finding out about making bombs as a civil liberty. This is new to me, since I'm from the generation that considered five bucks to blow at the fireworks stand a treat.

You may gather I’ve parted ways with the NRA, and I no longer consider it a tenet of American exceptionalism that we have the best armed wingnuts in the world.

If it’s true that guns don’t kill people but people kill people, why not keep guns away from known crazy people and criminals? That’s the law now if you buy your gun from a licensed firearms dealer.

The only law to come out of the massacre of schoolchildren was not directed at guns, but rather at criminals and crazy people, closing the twin loopholes of gun shows and internet sales.

The Republican Party filibustered this measure, as they filibuster virtually everything in the Obama years, and so 54 to 46 was not enough votes to pass in a 100 member body. It takes 60.

The NRA told us that background checks would do no good at all.

Okay, lets take them at their word.

Make gun owners share both civil and criminal liability for any misuse of their guns, including by family and friends, but make it a complete defense to liability that the transfer was done with a background check, which should be both fast and free.

If background checks are useless, what could possibly go wrong? The NRA wants to shift all the risk of firearms away from the people amused by firearms and toward the public.

They claim the risk is trivial. If that’s so, why not put the risk on gun owners?

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.