Bullet control?

At The Atlantic, Philip Bump offers an intriguing alternative to gun control in an age where that might be impossible: bullet control.

Were the government to limit the amount of ammunition made and sold in the United States, there would still be an awful lot available. James Holmes bought 6,000 rounds online before his shooting spree in Aurora, Colorado. Bullets are so easy to come by that it's clear that huge stockpiles exist throughout the country. But unlike guns, bullets are single use. You fire a bullet, you expend its propellant. While attempts to remove guns from the streets would either be incalculably slow or require heavy-handed, dangerous government action, curbing the ability to buy ammunition would mean a natural diminishment of the arsenal that remains. Every time a bullet is fired, that bullet is lost forever.

This reminds me of Roy Amara's remark that we tend to overestimate the short-term impact of a technology, but underestimate it in the long-term. What's the score on small-caliber ammunition that's good at incapacitating people but not much good at killing them? Taser was working on "nonlethal" shotgun shells, but it all seems a long way off from becoming a meaningful (or regulable) decision to consumers.


    1.  So can guns. The goal is not to make it impossible to have or use guns, it’s to force people to think harder about it and work harder to do it. Raising the barrier that’s a way to reduce impulsive mass slaughters.

      If you’re hunting or defending your home you don’t need hundreds of rounds. If you’re overthrowing an oppressive gov’t then you’re gonna need to make your own before it’s over anyway.

      1.  If you want to be *effective* at hunting or defending your home, you have to practice. Practice requires a great deal of ammunition. It is not unreasonable to go through a few hundred rounds in a day at the range.
        Buying bulk ammo is something that hundreds of thousands of responsible gun owners do because it is economical. Cost per round on a case of 1,000 is much lower than if you buy a box of 25…and if stored properly, it will be good for years and years (at which point, the cost will have probably doubled, so you made a wise investment).
        We aren’t all gun-crazy maniacs or apocalypse-prepping loons… we just like to save money.
        If you tax the hell out of ammo, you’ll simply restrict the right to be *good* at using your self-defense weapon to the rich… and criminals will still be able to get it on the black market.
        Just my opinion as a law-following and safe gun owner.

        1. Then make an exception for ammo bought at a range and used there the same day.

          You make a reasonable point, but there are also reasonable solutions that don’t involve having thousands of rounds in your home.

          1. I practice in my back yard. Lots of people live in areas where that’s not a problem. I just go to the store and buy hundreds of rounds at a time. I have never used a gun to kill anything in my life and don’t really intend to, I just enjoy shooting.

          2.  When I say “the range” I don’t mean “a place that is run by a business that sells stuff”… I’ve never in my life gone to a place like that. They tend to only exist in cities (where that’s your only option because of a lack of open countryside).
            I’m talking about public ranges or, try not to be shocked, private property that is set up safely as a range. I could be wrong, but I believe that most people in the US shoot at “ranges” like this vs. the variety run as a business.

          3. Then make an exception for ammo bought at a range and used there the same day.

            Clever, but it grants a de facto monopoly to the range, which then over-charges for the ammo. So maybe something like was done with the telcos, where in exchange for rights-of-way, they were heavily regulated? Maybe regulate the price that ranges can charge for day-use ammo?

            Ah. Wait. But there’s still a problem. I don’t shoot at a range. I live in the country and shoot in my back yard. I can practice all I want without ever having to get in a car. What about me?

            The point is that all of these propositions make assumptions about gun owners (that they don’t practice; that if they do practice, they do so at a range) and have unintended consequences (such as granting monopoly on cheap ammo sales to ranges). I’m not opposed to laws regulating firearms ownership and use, but I am opposed to BAD laws–ill-considered, poorly-understood, vaguely-worded laws with unintended consequences–no matter whether they pertain to firearms or not.

          4. I’m happy to admit I can’t anticipate all the details, important and otherwise, so thank you for pointing them out.

            Nevertheless, I’d be willing to live in a world that says: if you want to get better at shooting things, you need to do so in a controlled environment. I’m sure there is a way to work private property in rural areas into that, but yes, it will be less convenient for you. That’s part of the point.

        2. and criminals will still be able to get it on the black market.

          Actually, many potential mass shooters won’t, because they don’t even know where the black market is, let alone how to access it. 

          1.  Unless you are talking about not selling ammo AT ALL, then a typical mass-shooter (no criminal record) will not *need* to find the black market… they can just stockpile it. I believe it is fairly well known that these folks tend to plan this stuff well in advance. Plenty of time to stockpile 100 rounds or steal it from somebody.

        3. I resent your “law-following and safe gun owner” tag line, when you’re advocating for the kind of arsenal that committed mass murder at Newtown.

          There are safe users of heroin, safe cocaine addicts all around us. Doesn’t mean those drugs should be readily available to all. You seem to think they should. 

          If gun control inconveniences you, Mr. “law-following and safe gun owner,” tough.

          1.  If the current laws (and the constitution) inconvenience you, tough.
            A 2011 Gallup poll estimates that 47% of US households own guns. Generalizations based on relatively few psychopaths accomplish nothing, even if it feels good at the moment.

          2. I hate to break it to you, but unless you are part of a “well-regulated militia”, you don’t have a constitutional right to own a gun. No matter what definition you use, it must involve being part of a group that regularly practices military maneuvers.

            Also, the very statement that “a well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state”, is now demonstrably false. You would literally need to argue that random groups of accountants and burger flippers with small arms could effectively fight off the US military. It’s insane. 

            Anyway, there’s no reason to believe that the constitution grants you, as an unaffiliated individual, the right to own a weapon.

    2.  ditto: anyone who grows up in even the least remote branch of a creek knows someone who has both a bullet mold, press, and a keg of ready powder. In fact, many of us hillbillies make them at home because 1. it’s vastly cheaper and 2. you can make more powerful bullets than off-the-shelf products.Also, this is extremely, eXTREmELY low-tech, cheap equipment. One would have expected even a modicum of research from the Atlantic. Makes me so mad I could just…behave in an entirely rational way.

      1. Ummm… if they regulate ammo, that “keg of ready powder” is going to be a lot harder to come by too. You’ll have to start making your own gunpowder. It’s not impossible, but it’s a higher barrier to entry than just owning a lathe (you’ll be making your own cartridges too) and a mold.

        And you’d better believe that anyone who buys their bullet-making materials with anything other than cash is going to wind up in a database somewhere.

        1. I can only imagine the mess that banning gunpowder would cause–all those hillbilly chemists making meth will be stocking up on cotton, nitric acid and sulphuric acid…

        2.  It would help – eventually – but that would be a very long eventually. We’re not talking about a liter of powder here, and during the interim before any regulation that went into effect would cause the biggest equipment and stockpiling exercise in history. The databases don’t help much either – unless we begin to prosecute FutureCrime. The other issue is that the licenses to purchase are insanely ridiculously easy to obtain – currently. CAC permits as well. The background and cool-down periods are a joke; they have next to zero effect. Piecemeal efforts do help, but only so much. i think that you can definitely get an absolute ban on assault weapons through fairly soon – if weapons in circulation are grandfathered in. The problem is getting rid of those 4million weapons, and – probably – the best way to do that is to give people an offer they can’t refuse – buy them, at a very high price. It would cause some smuggling, but not much i think, and get rid of a lot of them for say, 10-15 billion. that’s not chump change; a week’s worth of weapons smuggled to Syrian rebels maybe

        3. Gunpowder is also very easy to make. The recipe can be found online and in old military field manuals. It would take more effort for sure, but these shooters generally go to great lengths planing these attacks.

      2. That’s the thing that’s been bugging me about this whole debate too; a bunch of people who have no idea what they’re talking about shooting their mouths off and being smug about it because ‘they’re not one of the crazies’.

    3. My dad used to load his own; he’d melt down lead, gather old brass, measure gunpowder, etc. The key thing I could see being regulated/taxed in that equation is the primer (the thing the gun hammer hits to ignite the gunpowder), that’s the thing that really needs a professional manufacture. 

      1. Right, I was going to mention this.  Reloaders generally buy primers because they’re too hard to make yourself.  Of course if they got expensive then maybe people would start figuring it out.  Necessity is the mother of invention after all. 

        I don’t expect we’ll ever see a story about a mass shooting involving muzzle loaded flintlocks. 

    4.  I have about 2000 rounds of 8 mm Mauser because it was Romanian surplus and I go it for about $200 and I wanted a heavy rifle i could go plinking with, the Yugo 24/47 Mauser.

      Supplies of those guns and ammo were on the market for a couple years.  They come and go, you buy when you can.

  1. Honestly, I think taxing bullets and guns purchased in the United States on a sliding scale, per homocide, would align interests.  So, $1M per death, and 10,000 annual deaths in the US = $10B in taxes.  This would pay for healthcare and benefits for families of victims.  And the manufacturers would be very interested in getting the death rate to go down.

    1. IMO Switzerland has a “well regulated militia” in that citizens who get training as part of national service are then armed and ready to defend the country should the need arise.

      The USA does not. It just doesn’t. Crazy and ignorant people with ready access to automatic weapons does not a well-regulated militia make, whether the NRA or even the supreme court may think so.

  2. i like the idea that stems from one thing that even gun owners prize more: money. have a massive buyback program, and make the money paid out worth more than the guns were originally. it would at least reduce the number out there. it could be a start.

    1. Buyback programs aren’t very good at getting guns out of the hands of criminals or crazies though.  At best it reduces the number of guns out there that are available to to be stolen. 

  3. Bullet limits is something Israel does as well. I think James Brady (of Brady Bill fame) was the original bullet-control proponent.

    Is it just me or do other people want to treat gun control as a design challenge instead of an absolutist constitutional issue? Design requirements: craft law that 1) maintains general right to own firearms, 2) affords for shooting practice, hunting, and personal defense in the face of imminent harm, and 3) significantly diminishes likelihood of death. Seems like taking that approach would lead to reasonable regulations like bullet control, assault weapons bans, licensure with annual safety/marksmanship tests, less-lethal bullets.

    I mean, we know we won’t bring gun deaths to zero. But we Americans average about 10,000 firearms homicides a year. Can’t we at least commit to bring that down?

  4. Let me suggest another option – a bullet propellant that degrades over time to the point it will no longer fire. Fresh bullets purchased for hunting or at a range for target practice will be fine for a week or month. But, they could not be accumulated and stockpiled for long periods of time.

    1. So you’re saying that people will no longer be allowed to use firearms for self defense, correct?
      And you’re also saying that the supply chain will have to be quite short and retailers will not be able to have anything on the shelf for more than a few days?


    2. My “defense” ammo is high-quality and expensive. I almost never fire it, and practice with “cheap” ammo. This law would require me to either buy a lot of expensive ammo, or to use lower-quality, less-effective ammunition for defense.

      None of that matters if one does not recognize defensive use of firearms as valid.

  5. Cars are not used by mentally ill people to massacre large groups of innocent people on a regular basis. Deaths by car are nearly all accidents. Gun rampages are not accidents.  Stop with this.  Enough.


  7. The NRA gun addicts on this thread, claiming gun control is impossible, illegal, or just inconvenient to them, are enemies of public safety, and need to be treated as such by truly law-abiding people. They are setting themselves up as enemies of civil order, and need to be rolled over. 

    They are excusing mass murder. 

    1. truly law-abiding people

      I’m not sure what your definition of “law-abiding” is, but there’s no gray area there. Either you’re law-abiding or you’re not. It’s not like there are some of us who are “technically” obeying the law, but “not really,” and others of us who are “truly law-abiding.” You can’t split that hair; it’s indivisible.

  8. this is an old idea. Aside from Chris Rock suggesting bullet control, An un-attributed Harvard Law Review note made the same point in 1995, albeit more verbosely @ Note: Absolute Liability for Ammunition Manufacturers, 108 Harv. L. Rev. 1679 (1995).

  9. To all who defend having guns because they like to shoot in their backyards or because they are sport shooting enthusiasts or whatever:

    Your right to have fun with guns does not trump our right to not have people shoot our children. STFU. 

  10. How about we get rid of drivers licenses by making gas cost $40 a gallon?

    Oh right, because that would be a stupid idea.

      1. That gets back to the question of “who” is advocating “what” and whether they are able to articulate it in a straightforward manner.  It’s not raising the bar that high.

        1. A lot of concerned, sane people are simply advocating stricter gun and ammo control to help avert future massacres.

          What bar is it you think you’re raising?

  11. The guns or ammo don’t need to be regulated – the people do. Crazy people need to be labeled as such, so they can’t  pass a background check that all gun buyers from FFLs must go through.

    The VAST majority of guns are used for sport or defense and ends up hurting NO ONE. Just because there are a few crazies with guns doesn’t mean we should penalized the millions of sane, safe users. How logical is that?

    1.  Who is hurt if we do everything in our power to reduce the number of guns out in the world?

      Who is hurt if we allow guns to be purchased? Adam Lanza’s mother bought her guns legally. He took them and killed children. If his mom hadn’t had the guns, those kids might be alive. Yeah, he might have stabbed people or done something else, but there would have been a less direct path to easily killing 6 year old children.

      If his mom hadn’t been allowed to buy her guns, she would have had to come up with a different hobby or find another way to entertain herself. That is too bad. But not as too bad as a bunch of dead children.

    2. Exactly the kind of blinkered perspective I’d expect from someone with your profile name and pic.

      How about we put it this way — the VAST majority of guns and ammo purchased by mass murderers are purchased legally, killing MANY. Just because a lot of people want easy access to guns doesn’t mean we should continue making it easy for insane people to murder of dozens of innocent people on a regular basis.

      1. It should be hard for insane people to buy guns. The Conn. shooter stole his, last I read.  If we had something resembling mental health care in America, we could flag people who are unstable, thus failing any back ground checks.

        ETA: “Exactly the kind of blinkered perspective I’d expect from someone with your profile name and pic.”

        It is an issue I am passionate about. Most attacks on guns stems from fear and ignorance, not rational logic. I hope to help some people see that.

        1. What is it, exactly, that makes you cling so “passionately” to your guns? Where does all that emotion comes from?

  12. Bullet control is like Prop 37 in California where nothing is made explicit.

    Until someone is willing to spend more than 5 minutes fleshing out the idea and then defend the specifics, they need to let the grownups talk. 

  13. Hmmm. This would also calm some nervous about 3D printed guns, as yes, you can print a plastic gun and shoot off a few REAL rounds. Plastic bullets? Wouldn’t do anywhere near as much damage.

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