Why The “Gun Registration Will Lead To Confiscation” Trope Is Ridiculous

GUN NUTS HAVE A FEW PARROTED TROPES that always come up in any discussion board. There’s one that I’m particularly fond of. It’s a grim montage of dictators and graphic images of their acts of violence and genocide, proclaiming, “It was never about guns– it was about control.” (I read it in the most petulant, Ayn Rand-worshipping voice I can muster). There’s another that says, “what part of ‘shall not be infringed’ don’t you understand?” This refers to a common conception among gun nuts that the 2nd Amendment is exclusively subject to literal interpretation. Never mind the “well-regulated militia” part, we won’t pay that any mind. When it comes down to policy, though, any discussion in which a participant proposes the idea of universal, mandatory gun registration effects pearl-clutching of the highest-order.

Regulation At A Glance

“Registration will lead to confiscation!” the gun nuts cry. They will cite– with dubious historical connections- examples where guns were confiscated after being registered. Why is this such a ridiculous suggestion on their part? Simply put: the government could easily figure out who had guns if they really wanted to– without a national firearm registry.

First, there’s the fallacious, bizarre, and paranoid assumption that the government wants to take your guns– and doesn’t have anything better to do. Do plenty of people want an absolute ban on all firearms? Yeah– a fringe, minority opinion. Most Americans support the right to own guns, at least with some restrictions. There are more than ten million hunters in the United States, and most of them use guns. The sinking ship that is the NRA even has several million members. Then, there are the better part of a million law enforcement officers. There are more guns than people in the United States, and I’ve guessed that there are 60-some million gun owners in the US (this source suggests about 71 million).

A Plurality of Americans Support Stronger Gun Laws

But then, there’s the fact that a plurality of Americans support much tighter gun laws– including bans on “assault rifles” (also known as semiautomatic, military-style “black rifles,” since gun nuts will tell you that tHeRe iS nO sUcH tHiNg aS aN aSsAuLt rIfLe, LiBtUrD!!11). So, that’s perhaps not at stake. But there’s a really basic issue here, and that’s the vast amount of information that is already public– information that could easily tell anyone who probably has a gun already. A lot of gun transactions– catering to both the paranoid and the cost-conscious- are cash. But for the ones that aren’t, plenty of guns are purchased with debit and credit cards.

Black Guns Matter: Firearm Culture and the Protest Movement

And what if guns aren’t purchased with credit or debit cards? As it stands, it’s actually fairly easy to predict a lot of consumer behavior from really basic data. If you looked at someone’s bank and credit card statements, you can make a lot of deductions about what kind of consumer they are. Beyond simple tracking of geographic elements (where someone is spending money), you can also look at things like what types of products someone is buying.

A Comparison of Public And Easily Available Data

Let’s say the government is investigating a crime and subpoenas bank and credit card records for two people, Consumer A and Consumer B, in trying to track down a gun used in a crime.

  • Consumer A: This 33-year old Latina lives in a trendy urban area. She spends money on gas, tolls, utility bills, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. She pays rent with ACH direct deposit to a local company. Recent local transactions include a gastropub and brewery, a bike shop, a local food truck, a local candy shop, a local hardware store, and a catering/concessions company, possibly for a bar tab at an event, a cake shop, and a boutique clothing store across town. She is on voter rolls as a registered Democrat, which indicates that she’s far less likely to own a gun.
  • Consumer B: This consumer is a male and lives in a rural area. He is white and 51 years old. (We already know from the first two factors here– male and rural- that he’s twice as likely to own a gun. White males in rural areas are more than twice as likely to own a gun than Hispanic or Latinas– i.e. specifically women, who generally are less likely to own a gun). This consumer’s largest spending destinations are a local feed supply store– that, regulators note, also legally stocks ammunition- the local Ace Hardware, a local sports bar and grill, and a local sporting goods store that also supplies guns and ammo. While the sporting goods store does not have any record of him buying a gun there, it’s entirely possible that he has in the past. Consumer B subscribes to digital cable TV and internet. Consumer B is registered as an independent voter who, in his state’s open primaries, has voted more Republican than Democrat, suggesting that he’s more likely to own a gun.

So, there we have it. The gubmint already reasonably predict which of these two people owns a gun based on really basic demographic data. This is basic freaking regression analysis that can be done in Microsoft Excel with information obtained largely from The Google. If investigators wanted to hone their prediction a little bit better, they could add in the bank records and use those data as predictors. But it’s not even necessary. Is universal gun registration likely to result in your guns getting taken away?

Girl, please. The government could already do that if they wanted to. For the most part, though, they definitely don’t want to.

So, what WILL work?

Critics of proposals for more stringent gun control argue that it’s not necessary to create more laws until we enforce the laws that we have. This is kind of a thing, but it’s only part of the story. The Trace has reported on major delays and staffing problems with NICS, the automated system that is meant to perform instant background checks on self-reported data from gun buyers. While the NSSF’s Larry Keane has called The Trace, not entirely inaccurately, “an antigun advocacy group bought and paid for by billionaire Michael Bloomberg that masquerades as a news outlet,” he has also mentioned the need for more funding to support NICS. There are efforts to reform the dysfunctional system. But they have mostly been a question of making sure lawful gun owners can buy their guns in an efficient manner. You know, seeing as the still-shockingly-powerful gun lobby doesn’t think that the epidemic of gun violence in this country is a problem.

Would reforming NICS be great? Yeah, and it’s needed. But will firearm registration result in your guns all being confiscated? Nah. The government could already do this if they wanted to. But they don’t want to. Even with how well-funded most police departments are, cops occupy a pretty tight circle heavily overlapping in a Venn diagram shared with right-wingers and gun owners. The key should be to figure out how to make sure guns never fall into the hands of criminals, perpetrators of domestic violence, mentally ill individuals who may pose a threat to themselves or others, and, of course, children. That this list is disparate and expansive just illustrates why a single-pronged approach won’t work. But registration would allow accurate tracking, chains of custody, and hopefully act as a deterrent against violent crime. Maybe next Congress? There are lower-hanging fruits, so, stay tuned for some more on that.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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