Guns don’t kill people; it’s the bullets from guns that kill. After yet another mass murder, this one in Uvalde, Texas, now is a good time to bypass the sterile debate on gun control and deal with ammunition control.
Here is the entire Second Amendment, adopted in 1791: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Then in 1792, reacting to unrest in Pennsylvania over a tax on the production of whiskey and to defeats in Ohio at the hands of an Indian Alliance, Congress passed the Militia Acts. These laws required “every free able-bodied white male citizen” to have a musket or rifle in good working order, cartridges for the gun, and a bag to carry the cartridges and other small equipment in. These men could be called out for military exercises or “into service” against the nation’s enemies. Later “white” was dropped from the laws.
The Militia Acts regulated weapons by requiring people to have them, while of course recognizing that firearms would be kept in private hands. Then, also in 1792, Congress created the new country’s first serious standing army, the Legion of America, also in 1792. The army differed from the militia in several ways: regular soldiers enlisted for several years, underwent regular training, and were assigned to posts sometimes far distant from home. The Legion, led by Anthony Wayne, proved its worth by defeating the Indian Alliance near Toledo in 1794. The regular army and navy then had, by everyone’s expectations, a monopoly on cannon, a strictly military weapon.
The Supreme Court has rarely ruled on gun issues. In 1939, it decided in United States v. Miller that sawed-off shotguns would be banned, because they had no useful purpose in the militia. That ruling emphasized the Second Amendment’s application to the militia and did not mention a private right to keep arms.
But In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that the Second Amendment does specify that private right. However, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an arch-conservative, wrote in the majority opinion that the Second Amendment private right “is not unlimited.” It does not grant the right to have “any weapon whatsoever.” Nor did the decision “cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions” like those on keeping guns from “felons or the mentally ill.” Gun control, he found, is an old American tradition. Scalia did not mention ammunition.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that in 2018, 8.7 billion rounds of ammunition were manufactured in the U.S. That figure keeps rising. Salvador Ramos, who killed 19 children and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, was able to buy two guns and 375 rounds of ammunition several days earlier. In October 2017, Stephen Paddock fired more than 1,000 rounds from a hotel window in Las Vegas, killing 60 people and wounding 411. The number of bullets used in these and other incidents was immensely more than anyone needs for self-defense.
What is a reasonable figure for individual possession of ammunition at any time? That would need to be determined in a national debate. My own view is that 10-12 rounds per gun are sufficient for self-defense.
Limits exist elsewhere. Israel, for example, requires a permit to own a gun and limits the number of rounds for each firearm to 50 per year. Any American who wants to shoot at targets, a legitimate sport, would buy and keep extra ammunition at a gun range. Limiting the number of rounds anyone can have at home would cut down, perhaps drastically, on gun deaths.
Limits on ammunition could be enforced in the way that car license plates are handled. Police scan plates from patrol cars and get immediate results from a national database. Anyone wishing to buy ammunition would go to a store – internet sales would be banned – and a driver’s license or other document would be entered into a database. That should return an instant response. Gun shops are already regulated by states and the federal government.
The present situation, in which the number one cause of children’s deaths is by firearms, is a case of rights in conflict. People have a right to keep and bear arms, but everyone has a right not to be shot.
If the NRA and other groups fear a slippery slope toward the “government taking away our guns,” which is not under discussion, more reasonable citizens must focus on the bloody slope where we already live – and too often die.
Robert W. Thurston is emeritus professor of history at Miami University. He has fired a range of weapons over the decades.