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With Arizona Shooting in Mind, Debate Over High-Capacity Clips Continues

My Congresswoman, Jane Harman, was one of the only ones on the floor of the House yesterday to use the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords as an opportunity to talk about gun control efforts.

Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat, used her floor remarks on the resolution to urge Congress to restrict access to assault weapons and extended magazine clips. A federal ban on the sale of assault weapons expired in 2004 and wasn’t renewed by lawmakers.

“We should revisit sensible federal laws to control access to guns and ammunition,” she said.

Harman said the exact same thing in 2007, after the Virginia Tech shooting. Needless to say, her position isn’t shared by the majority of the Congress.

Short of reinstating the entire assault weapons ban, is there an opening to perhaps pass the McCarthy/Lautenberg bill, which would restrict access to high-capacity magazine clips, because of the facts of the Tucson shooting, where Jared Loughner was able to shoot 31 bullets without reloading, and gave bystanders the moment of opportunity to disarm him only after the clip ran out?

I’m skeptical, but this was interesting:

A leading gun-rights advocate says there is no constitutional barrier to restricting the sale of high capacity gun magazines such as the one used by accused Tucson shooter Jared Loughner and that such proposals are justified to prevent “looney tunes” from committing more gun massacres.

Robert A. Levy, who served as co-counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case that established a Second Amendment right to bear arms, said there was no reason the court’s decision in that case should apply to the purchase of high-capacity gun magazines.

“I don’t see any constitutional bar to regulating high-capacity magazines,” Levy said in an interview with NBC. “Justice [Antonin] Scalia made it quite clear some regulations are permitted. The Second Amendment is not absolute.”

Levy is chairman of the board of the Cato Institute. If he’s willing to acknowledge that banning high-capacity clips makes sense, can we hope that others will come to the same conclusion when the question is put to them?

This will call for some leadership. So far in the President’s two years, despite campaigning on renewing the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole, the only gun legislation he’s signed expanded concealed carry rights to national parks. But as Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig note, this is literally the least we can do. . . [cont’d.]:

A high-capacity magazine in effect turns a semiautomatic firearm into a weapon of mass destruction. The public interest in getting such weapons off the street was recognized by Congress back in 1934, when, with the support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the National Firearms Act was enacted. It effectively stopped commerce in machine guns of the sort wielded to such deadly effect by John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and the employees of Murder Inc.

Banning high-capacity magazines is a modest, incremental step that would achieve modest benefits. Research by Koper and others shows that in the majority of gun homicides in the U.S., only a few shots are fired. Only about 3% of all criminal homicides involve multiple killings. But as Tucson tragically reminds us, mass shootings have a vastly disproportionate impact on our sense of well-being and security.

Sadly, the President has said almost nothing on this issue so far. In his speech last night he called the debate over how to prevent such tragedies as we saw in Tucson “an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.” So he can show that by going ahead and engaging in it.

UPDATE: Another New York Democrat, Gary Ackerman, will introduce a bill to stop gun dealers who have had their license revoked from selling weapons from “their personal collections.” That’s fine, and I support it because it allows these sales outside the typical background check, but it has no connection to the actual event from Saturday, which I feel is the only way to break the NRA deadlock. Looking at the history of gun laws responding to violent events, you probably need that connection.

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David Dayen

David Dayen