As we celebrate America’s independence, let’s pause and consider a question that touches on one of our nation’s most contentious debates.
Who is the biggest buyer of guns in the United States?
It’s not the National Rifle Association. Or hunters. Or homeowners seeking protection from burglars. Or criminals. Or the “Proud Boys” and the “Oath Keepers.” Or even those camouflage-clad, so-called “suburban commandos” who want to walk around malls with an AR-15 draped over their shoulders.
Yes, fellow taxpayers, you are the biggest buyers of guns now in America.
That simple fact is behind one of the most innovative plans to promote gun safety that began here in New Jersey. Here’s how it works:
Police departments and other law enforcement agencies across America, large and small, spend billions in taxpayer dollars on guns each year. The estimates vary, in part because our nation is home to so many agencies that use firearms.
Those agencies put out public bids to firearms makers and dealers when they need new guns and ammo. And, just like any other contractor seeking a public contract for repaving a road or installing a new roof on city hall, gun-makers and dealers compete with each other to offer the best deal with the lowest price.
One estimate by the Brady Foundation, a gun control group, puts the annual cash outlay for guns and bullets at $5 billion a year. But that’s just for guns at America’s largest municipal police departments. That doesn’t count the money needed to buy bullets and other equipment for cops, such as holsters.
And it doesn’t include the vast array of police departments in small towns or state and federal agencies such as the FBI, the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals who also send out public bids for firearms. Or the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.
In other words, this is no small purchase and no small bidding war.
And if you add the U.S. military to the tax dollars earmarked for guns and ammo, experts say, the overall bill could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
With this in mind, gun control advocates ask another basic question: If the local, state and federal agencies spend so much tax money on guns and ammo, why not use the power of the purse — and public bidding — to force gun manufacturers and dealers to embrace more safety measures? In other words, make dollars and cents the prime pressure tool in the debate over how to improve commonsense safety measures for guns.
It’s striking that more gun control advocates are not embracing this strategy. Maybe they should.
The process is simple. As with many outlays of taxpayer dollars, government agencies turn to a public bidding process. Local governments ask for bids when they upgrade a town’s sidewalks or schools. Likewise, police departments ask for bids from firearms manufacturers or dealers when they buy new guns and bullets.
So, as part of the bidding process for guns and ammo, why not call on gun-makers and dealers to impose safety measures?
So far, the debate over guns has been reduced to a finger-pointing argument over morals and the meaning of a grammatically murky amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was written when ordinary people relied on single-shot, slow-loading muskets and had no idea their ancestors would be toting guns some 200 years later that could fire dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds merely with the pull of a trigger.
As we all know, the national debate over guns is basically frozen. Neither side is willing to budge. Gun-makers and dealers, meanwhile, essentially sit on the sidelines, with little pressure on them to impose their own regulations on what they sell.
Yes, Congress managed to recently cobble together a bipartisan piece of legislation — quickly signed by President Joe Biden — that would improve background checks on new gun buyers and provide more money to fortify schools and other so-called “soft targets.” The idea behind the recent law was for Congress and the White House to do something to assure the American public that its elected representatives actually had a pulse — and a heart — and that they were trying to make the nation safer amid the horrifying uptick in mass shootings this year, including massacres at a Buffalo grocery and a Texas elementary school.
But the new law does virtually nothing to limit the sale of the kinds of weapons that are most often used in mass shootings — military-grade assault-style rifles such as the AR-15 or a vast array of semi-automatic handguns. Nor does the law do much to curtail the purchase of mass quantities of ammunition.
In other words, the new law is the equivalent of a Band-Aid.
This brings us to the potential strategy, slowly being embraced by some in America’s gun control movement, to turn to tax outlays by government agencies to increase the pressure on gun-makers and dealers to improve safety.
It’s a tenuous, risky strategy, experts say. And it could result in even more contentious debating.
Gun-makers and dealers are interested in profits — and, therefore, selling as many guns as they can. But what if they decided to self-regulate? Or to be more blunt: What if the government bidding process forced gun-makers and dealers to finally join the national movement to make guns safer?
For example, suppose dealers campaigned for a more intense method of national background checks on gun buyers? Or limits on the purchase of ammunition? Or — and here’s where the issue gets even more controversial — increased safety measures on assault-style rifles that would prevent people from loading high-capacity magazines? Or, better yet, a national ban on the manufacture and sale of magazines that hold more than, say, five or six rounds?
Or how about gun dealers and manufacturers stepping into the rousing debate over laws that curtail the number of people who are allowed to carry a concealed weapon? Or even laws that allow for so-called “open carrying?”
Only a few municipal police departments — notably Jersey City’s — have included demands for upgraded safety when circulating bids for gun purchases. But those demands are modest.
A few dozen other municipal agencies across America have signed on. But no large urban police department has joined in this strategy. And federal agencies are still uninvolved. Meanwhile, state governments seem reluctant to jump into this fight.
Only New Jersey, after Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order two years ago, has called on its local police departments to begin the process of using taxpayer dollars to pressure gun-makers and dealers to upgrade safety.
But the process here in the Garden State is in the early stages, with police departments still wrestling with the kinds of demands they want to make in bids for new guns and bullets. Murphy’s executive order also calls on financial institutions that bankroll gun-makers and dealers to call for improved safety if they want to participate in tax-funded bidding contracts.
Earlier this year, the Brady Foundation issued a report praising Murphy and New Jersey’s efforts to experiment with the pressure of tax dollars. The foundation said the New Jersey system was “successful both in promoting gun safety and laying a strong foundation for future action on its behalf.”
But the report also conceded that not enough police agencies have participated in the new strategy. Much more research needs to be done to assess the overall impact of this kind of plan.
Not surprisingly, gun rights advocates see the New Jersey plan as an imposition and a violation of the Second Amendment of the U.S Constitution if police agencies used the pressure of procurement contracts to gain an upper hand in gun safety.
“There’s only one decision that should factor into procurement by police: What is the best firearm for the agency and its members to be using?” said Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs. “Politics should not enter into decisions about what police officers are going to use to do their job.”
Why not? Why shouldn’t politics be part of the process? America has no problem with its elected officials imposing safety measures when it spends taxpayers’ money on schools and highways. Why not guns?
As America celebrates another Fourth of July holiday, it’s time to face what guns have done to our nation’s independence. We’re caught in a bloody bind now where a mass shooting occurs each day on average in our nation.
Taxpayers need to speak up. One way to do that is to place some demands on how their taxes are spent on guns.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.