Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Do you now or have you ever owned a high-capacity magazine?

So Carolyn McCarthy, who knows nothing about guns but is certain she knows how to regulate them based on technical features, having decided that the Tucson shooting is an irresistible opportunity to score political points, has proposed a ban on "high capacity" magazines.

There's not too much to be said about this. It's stupid on many levels*, and it's clearly unconstitutional on multiple levels**, and it's very unlikely to pass in the current political climate.

But a quick word for anybody who, quite understandably, might not be up on what exactly this bill does.

On a personal level, I'm not big on the kind of guns you're meant to think this bill targets. I like pre-WWII pistols. I like revolvers. I like lever-action and bolt-action rifles with fixed, non-tactical magazines you can reload one cartridge at a time. I like tiny pocket pistols. I like the kind of old-fashioned guns you'd take on an expedition to find the source of the Nile or King Solomon's mines. I have little interest in modern plastic 9mms, and less in the kind of competitive shooting sports that are (in my opinion) the only practical application for 30+ round magazines.

And yet the McCarthy bill would target quite a few of the guns I'm interested in.

Supporters of McCarthyism are trying to frame this as an attack on 33-round extended magazines--and an extension of the capacity limit we had from 1994 to 2004, the last meaningful victory for gun control in this country--but in fact it's a good bit more ambitious than that. First off, it would criminalize all magazines that hold 11 or more rounds. That's well below the standard capacity for the overwhelming majority of ordinary guns bought for self defense in the United States. Hell, common defensive handguns have had capacities greater than ten rounds since 1935. We're not talking about high-cap extended magazines here; we're talking about 90% of the civilian magazines on the market. These are the mags that come with the guns.

More absurdly, this bill doesn't just target the removable magazines used in semiautomatic pistols; it targets all magazines, including those integral magazines fixed to old-fashioned manual rifles, which in turn criminalizes the whole gun. Have an antique manual-action rifle from the middle of the nineteenth century? Or a 90-year-old knockabout lever-action .22--the longest-produced rifle in the world? Not for long, you don't.

Which brings me to the final point: the 1994-2004 ban was a prohibition on manufacture and import for private citizens, not a ban on possession; you could buy, sell, and own full-cap and high-cap magazines that were manufactured before 1994. This arrangement was stupid and unconstitutional, but it at least made an effort to avoid trampling on property and due process rights so openly that people would get really pissed off. McCarthy's bill makes no such attempt, explicitly making two particularly obnoxious changes to the model bill: first, no transfers are allowed, period. No sales, no purchases, no gifts, and no inheritance. Second, it changes the crime from "transfer of a post-ban magazine" to "possession of a magazine, but if you can prove you owned it before the ban went into effect, you can use that as a defense in court". Exercise a Constitutionally protected right, and you're considered guilty until proven innocent.


Again, the very concept of magazine capacity limits is stupid and illegal on its face, and in a free society the correct response to "OMG high-bullet clips designed for mass murder THINK OF THE CHILDREN!" is to offer a valium and a pat on the head. But in a world where people routinely consider abridging individual rights in hopes of marginally increasing safety, it's important to make sure people know just what the gun control advocates are actually reaching for with this bill, and how far it goes beyond the "ban 33-round murder clips" sound bite.

[* - As though ten rounds fired into a crowd is fine; as though three ten-round magazines are really meaningfully different from a 30-round magazine, given how quickly and easily semiautomatic pistols reload; as though there was a shred of evidence large-capacity magazines have any noticeable affect on murder rates in the first place.]

[** - The militia reference in the 2A's prefatory clause explicitly defines its scope as protecting military weapons, a category that undebatably includes >10 round magazines; and the Supreme Court's decision in Heller explicitly set a "common use" test that full-capacity magazines clearly pass.]

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