You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control. I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars … People would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost five thousand dollars: ‘Man I would blow your fucking head off … if I could afford it.’ ‘I’m gonna get me another job, I’m going to start saving some money, and you’re a dead man.’ ‘You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on layaway.’ — Chris Rock
Larry Krasner still needs to learn how to read a room. At his strangely Mayoral-less press conference in Kingsessing on Wednesday, some of which was carried live on national cable TV, Krasner was downright mournful. He devoted one throwaway sentence to enforcing gun laws. “Yes,” he conceded, “We will prosecute this individual to the full extent of the law.” But mostly he reflected on the “sadness” that had engulfed the Southwest Philly community since Monday’s tragic mass shooting. He waxed forlornly about the by-now iconic Inquirer photo of a sole child’s bike at the street corner that had erupted into battlefield carnage not 48 hours prior.
I may be in the minority here, but after such a soul-shattering tragedy, I don’t necessarily want my chief law enforcement officer to channel my pain. What would reassure me is for him to be all “Not in my city” pissed. Mass shootings are essentially viral in nature, and the best antidote to an outbreak is a collective sense of standing on wartime footing. That said, Krasner kept repeating one phrase that did resonate: “Bullets don’t care.”
Not guns don’t care. Bullets don’t care.
Philly goes after ghost guns
This week, Mayor Kenney and City Solicitor Diana Cortes announced a lawsuit against two ghost gun manufacturers. It may indeed be a novel approach. Past efforts of the City to address its gun violence epidemic have been found to run afoul of the state’s preemption statute, prohibiting municipalities from enacting their own gun laws: “… no county or municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.”
It’s time to reframe the debate and try some new ideas instead of rehashing the same old arguments that run up against absolutist Second Amendment support.
Let’s say the city is able to legally sue these two ghost gun manufacturers. There are 400 million guns in America — more guns than people. Are we nearing the point that, even if the preemption weren’t ironclad, it’s no longer realistic that Philadelphia — or any city without airtight closed borders — can pass gun laws that make a serious dent in gun violence?
At the press conference this week, Kenney said, “The root of the problem is the proliferation of guns in our city and our country.” But isn’t the problem actually loaded guns?
Go after bullets instead
Which brings us back to bullets. Why is it easier to buy bullets than a prescription at CVS? “In much of the country, you can walk into a store and buy a box of ammunition, no questions asked,” writes Jennifer Mascia in The Trace. “Federal law is next to nonexistent, and few states fill the gap.”
Turns out, Chris Rock is a policy genius. Bullets, after all, enjoy no Second Amendment protection. In a 2014 ruling, the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals found that “The Second Amendment protects ‘arms,’ ‘weapons,’ and ‘firearms;’’ it does not explicitly protect ammunition.”
So, in the same way that governments affix “sin taxes” to certain goods — tobacco, alcohol, Big Gulps if Michael Bloomberg had had his way — what’s to keep a municipality from taxing the hell out of bullets?
Enact bullet control
Moreover, instead of repeating the same old gun control talking points, maybe the best thing Mayor Kenney and every other big city mayor and police chief and district attorney can do is to start an intense lobbying campaign to federally enact bullet control legislation, or to put pressure on state lawmakers to join the seven states that currently regulate bullet sales. Here in Pennsylvania, State Senators Art Haywood and John Kane, both Democrats, introduced legislation in March that would require background checks and ID requirements for purchasing ammunition. How about going all-out to get some Republican support for that? Of course, that would mean Kenney would have to actually speak to Haywood.
Right now, according to The Giffords Law Center, in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., you can buy bullets only if you have a firearm purchasing permit. In California and New York, bullet buyers have to pass background checks. Many of the same states require sellers of ammunition to be licensed.
Bullets, after all, enjoy no Second Amendment protection.
In January, New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman tried for the eighth consecutive year to enact national bullet control. In January, along with Congressman Kweisi Mfume, she introduced the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act, which would “require face-to-face purchases of ammunition, licensing of ammunition dealers, and reporting [to the U.S. Attorney General] regarding bulk purchases of ammunition.” (The gunmen in the Uvalde, El Paso Walmart, and Sandy Hook shootings bought, respectively, 375, 1,000 and 1,700 rounds of ammunition, many of them deadly “hollow point” bullets — raising precisely zero red flags.)
Let’s pause to shout out the Congresswoman, who was first elected in 2015 to represent her district in Trenton and its surrounding suburbs and every year since has fought for bullet control legislation. Alas, all of the bill’s co-sponsors appear to be Democrats. Few on the other side of the aisle feel like committing career suicide by taking on the NRA, not to mention a MAGA primary challenge.
Other ways to regulate ammo
In addition to Coleman’s bill, the Ammunition Background Check Act is expected to be reintroduced in this Congress. It’s also known as Jaime’s Law, for Jaime Guttenberg, one of the victims of 2018’s Parkland, Florida school shooting. It calls for background checks on bullet purchases, something Fred Guttenberg, Jaime’s activist father, calls “the holy grail of solving the gun violence problem.”
“Someone who can’t walk into a store and buy a gun can walk into a store, buy bullets, and nobody checks,” Guttenberg told The Trace. “If you close that loophole, that is something that will save lives immediately. Because the gun is nothing more than a paperweight without that ammunition.”
Why is it easier to buy bullets than a prescription at CVS?
There is some evidence that these approaches can help stem the rate of gun violence. “Bullet control has shown to be effective in flagging prohibited gun purchasers,” writes Mascia in The Trace. She cites a 2007 Sacramento, California ordinance that required ammunition dealers to share sales data with police leading to 250 convictions. A similar law resulted in the arrest of nearly 3 percent of all ammunition transactions in Los Angeles.
Last year, then-Councilmember Derek Green introduced an ordinance that would have regulated the sale of the type of body armor worn by the Kingsessing shooter (who ought not be named). It didn’t become law. In what universe should body armor be sold to any individual who is not a cop?
Now, after Monday’s mass shooting, maybe it’s time to reframe the debate and try some new ideas instead of rehashing the same old arguments that run up against absolutist Second Amendment support. Maybe we can start with revisiting Green’s bill and making a prophet out of Chris Rock and agreeing with the NRA that, indeed, guns don’t kill people. Bullets do.
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