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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT