Gun Control: Rifles and Risk

Steve Russell

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.

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.

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Anonymous's picture
from aiahninchi ohoyo....steve....have you noticed the dramatic increase in gun deaths perpetrated by 'normal' gun owners...deaths of children who 'find' a gun lying around and kill themselves or others with it... when i was a kid, my dad kept all his weapons in plain sight, and my brother and i were forbidden to touch them on pain of a whipping...now some might think that was cruel, but, we never shot each other or anyone else... personally i think the NRA is a bunch of fools who view themselves one step lower than god...'background checks' dont do any good...any fool can say anything to get a gun, then in a split second turn into a gun-toting green eyed monster with murder and mayhem on his mind....and then, arming teachers...i know from experience how bent out of shape a teacher can become by classroom stress...damn...its only a leap to that teacher pulling their 38/45 out of the drawer and blowing away students...i only know 2 things...guns in the hands of any but legitimate ANIMAL (not 'human' animal either)HUNTERS and, the NRA need to go far far away....
Anonymous's picture
Do you think that paranoid schizophrenic people like Jared Loughner should have zero restrictions to gain weapons, Steve F.? Or is it unreasonable that we should at least not make it extra easy for him to get top of the line brand new glocks with 30 round clips with no questions asked?
Anonymous's picture
Pretty much everyone is America is committing suicide. If your overweight, its a slow one. If you smoke, drink and now days, breather certain air, its suicide. Guns are not the only blame or method of killing in america, its the culture that has bred it too.
Anonymous's picture
Happy to have you out of the movement.
Anonymous's picture
I'm not sure of anything very much these days, but if 90+% of the American people, per the polls, want background checks including at gun shows to be the law of the land, and 8 Senators can block their will, that doesn't mean we shoot the Senators. It does mean we work like hell to replace them.
Anonymous's picture
lets have a background check for people that buy alcohol first. then a background check for people who buy cars.the arguement is ridiculous. come and look at my neighborhood. if i could afford to move i would. i love my protection i had simply because those first minutes I am calling the cops i have to defend myself until they get there. if thats all the background check is doing is looking out for the best interest of the people then do it. death by vehicles and alcohol have been far worse than the gun control. they will pick at the 2nd little by little if they let this happen.I say no simply because its the world we live in today. That 19 yo suspect they looking for was probably the only one with the gun in New Orleans and if the law biding citizen was allowed to carry that concealed pistol instead of being the gun free zone that is written in law (that the law biding citizens follow), the outcome would be different now as well as the Sandy hook. People bring out the what if in the negative sense. Lets see how confident the perpitrator is when he/she knows that there are no more gun free zones on walking into malls schools or even the parade that the 19 yo shot into the Mothers Day parade. he was standing alone in that crowd of panicked people. If there was one law biding citizen with his pistol to fire back at this kid they would not be having a manhunt to find him right now. reckless drivers and alcoholics do more damage to families than anything, ndn country knows this much is true we lose lives to these individually or combined. if they was ever to do a background check on the fact they talked suicide or drove drunk or caught driving 60 in a 25 that is signs of no fear of human life or consequences of any kind. I want my kids to be able to defend themselves its bad enough that we have to live in our neighborhood now they wanna pick away at my right to bear arms? pretty soon i will have to turn in my weapons and be at the will of the goverment.that happened way back in the day and see what happened to that little band of law biding citizens that turned in their guns.
Anonymous's picture
Well reasoned and expressed. Thanks!
Michael Madrid's picture
"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 . . . I've often stated this fact to friends and relatives who hunt and to a man they all agreed. There is no valid reason why ANYONE but soldiers in combat should have 30 round magazines. Gun right fanatics believe this is the beginning of the end of firearm ownership in the U.S., but it's not really. I'm almost positive that even the most staunch firearm enthusiasts would agree that limiting magazine capacity would be a good idea if they had been trapped in a public building with an active shooter. Face it gun nuts - it's a lot easier to kill an active shooter if he has to stop and load every five rounds over every 30 rounds. Before the rants start, I'm a disabled Viet Veteran, an ex-police officer and STILL own firearms; I'm just NOT an idiot fanatic.
Michael Madrid
Anonymous's picture
Steve Russell should move to Russia where his dream can come true. There are many countries to move to if your scared. Leave this country alone! I say outlaw vehicles that go faster than 25mpg if you want to save lives! Criminals never register guns & laws only create more criminals. Get rid of the cops & crime will go down 75% or more! Talk real change & not turning honest folks into criminals because they have the right to be armed & protect their families. Go be a good comrade someplace else. We had no jails here till eros arrived & everyone was armed!
Anonymous's picture
Gun rights have nothing to do with hunting so quit with the arguments about deer not wearing "bulletproof vests" or high capacity magazines are not needed for hunting. Many people have AR-15s and similar weapons for one reason - to defend themselves if necessary on the theory that the best defense is a good offense - i.e. to kill someone else before they kill you or someone you want to protect. Why is this not enough reason to allow these people to have these weapons? If you disagree, I guess you want to take these weapons away from police officers. Oh, wait. You didn't expect to hear "police officers". Go back and substitute the phrase "police officers" where I said "many people". If the police are allowed to have such weapons for the reasons I provided, why can't law-abiding citizens have the same weapons for the same reason? And the argument is not that the police are here to protect us and need those weapons. When seconds matter, the police are minutes away.