Skip to main content

In gun control debate, logic goes out the window

By Richard J. Davis, Special to CNN
updated 1:52 PM EST, Sat January 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Davis: Modest gun control proposals become focus of attacks
  • He served in Carter administration, proposed firearm transaction database
  • Even though plan wouldn't have listed gun owners, it was quickly shelved, he says
  • Davis: Let's make sure reasonable steps don't fall victim to irrational opposition

Editor's note: Richard Davis served as the assistant Treasury secretary for enforcement and operations during the Carter administration. He currently practices law in New York.

(CNN) -- President Obama has decided to move ahead with a variety of gun control measures, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed a new assault weapons ban. While Washington debates new proposals on gun control, attention also needs to focus on obstacles to effective enforcement of existing gun laws, including the ban imposed by Congress on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives creating a federal database of firearms transactions.

A discussion of the origin of that ban, which was initially enacted in response to a proposal made when I served as the assistant Treasury secretary overseeing the bureau, is useful to a better understanding of the dynamics of the debate over specific gun control proposals. Sadly, both then and now, logic often loses out.

Richard Davis
Richard Davis

Early in 1978, the proposal we developed was relatively simple: Manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers would file reports of sales of firearms with the bureau, but to avoid the argument that the bureau was impermissibly creating a national registry of gun owners, retailers would not be required to list the name of the retail purchaser.

The rationale for creating a centralized firearms transaction database was twofold. First, it would speed up the ability to trace guns found at crime scenes, since even with the less sophisticated technology then available, such traces would still be able to be done virtually instantaneously.

Gun control advocates march as nation reels from school shootings

Second, and even more significant, it would allow the bureau to analyze the flow of firearms to identify potential diversions to the illegal gun market. For example, if a hundred handguns a week were going to one dealer in a small town in Virginia, that would suggest the possibility that guns were being sold illegally by that dealer to individuals smuggling them to New York or other states. By allowing this kind of analysis, the bureau could target investigative resources on dealers mostly likely to be violating the law.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Proceeding with what can only be described as youthful naiveté, the day the proposed regulations were published, I convened a briefing for interested parties, including the NRA and other anti-gun control groups. After all, none of these proposals would in any way alter the rules relating to gun ownership.

The hope was that understanding the limited nature of the proposal would mute their opposition. I was very wrong. We had to withdraw the proposals, and Congress punitively reduced the bureau's budget and ultimately banned it from creating such firearms transaction databases.

The opposition to the proposed regulations was intense, with opponents writing hundreds of thousands of often angry letters, both to Treasury and to members of Congress. Little of the opposition, however, focused on the actual proposals themselves.

Bloomberg on guns and Sandy Hook shooting
Parents of gun victims share goals
King: Obama gun orders a political move

One common thread to the opposition was the "slippery slope argument," which argued that the regulation would create a centralized list of all gun owners' names -- which it would not have done -- or would lead to the creation of such a list, which would then enable the government to seize everyone's weapons and put us on a path to dictatorship.

Gun violence measures? Would they work?

After all, it was argued, this is what the Nazis had done.

Another often-used argument was that what we were proposing would not stop all criminals from securing or using firearms, and therefore it was not something worth doing.

Arguments like these prevent an honest discussion of any proposal to address the problem of gun violence in America. The assumption that any regulation of firearms sets us on the path to confiscation of weapons is not only ludicrous on its face, it ignores all political reality. And, if the test for any proposal is whether it totally solves the problem being addressed, then no action would be taken addressing so many of society's important issues.

Why require the use of seat belts if wearing a seat belt does not always save a life in an accident? Why prohibit people from carrying guns onto planes if it doesn't eliminate all risk of hijacking? Why prohibit providing assistance to terrorists if it doesn't stop all terrorist acts? Why require tests for the issuance of driver's licenses if it doesn't stop all accidents?

We require these regulations because they address problems that need to be addressed and because if these regulations can save some lives, they are steps worth taking. So it should be with the gun debate.

No proposal, or set of proposals, will ever stop all gun crime. But the 1978 proposals could have stopped some illegal sales of guns by renegade dealers. And things like forced waiting periods for gun purchases, requiring background checks for firearms buyers at gun shows and a ban on assault weapons would certainly save some lives.

NRA chief: Obama makes 'mockery' of American freedoms

Maybe it is thousands of lives over time; maybe it is hundreds. But isn't every life saved worth it? Would it not have been worth it if even some of the lives lost at Sandy Hook could have been saved because the shooter did not have an assault weapon?

Gun control is not the total answer to the problem of mass shootings, but it plainly needs to be part of any meaningful response. Let's hope that this time the debate on gun control will be a more sensible one.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Davis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT