Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.
Joe Biden’s gun policy platform offers support for almost all conceivable forms of government restrictions on the Second Amendment. This includes bans and restrictions on sales, expansion of registration and background checks, expansion of buyback programs and gun-grabbing statutes, and the closing of all sorts of “loopholes.”1
While we are only at the policy platform stage, where proposals are grandiose and imprecise, Biden’s legislative agenda will clearly be anti–Second Amendment and not a program to reduce crime and violence. First, he wants to stop the “gun violence epidemic” with restriction on rifles when it is handgun shootings, not rifles, that are a problem and one that is mostly confined to big cities controlled by leftists. Second, he wants to go after “assault weapons” and “weapons of war” when he should know that rifles like the AK and AR “sporters” are not military-grade fully automatic weapons. Third, he would like to hold gun manufacturers civilly liable for criminal acts committed with guns, a move which would shut down the industry, the true goal.
In support of the government’s buyback program, i.e., the carrot, Biden has added a gun tax for anyone who wishes to keep their rifles and high-capacity magazines. If you want to avoid the buyback and keep your guns and high-capacity (greater than ten rounds) magazine, you would have to register both under the National Firearms Act, which triggers a $200 tax for each rifle and magazine—the stick. The stick behind the stick is a penalty of up to ten years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine. Registration involves filling out a thirteen-page registration form and providing fingerprints and a photograph of yourself.This is certainly bad enough for gun owners and Americans in general, but if history is a teacher the end results could be much worse, potentially catastrophic.
Joe Biden was sold to the American voter in 2020 as a moderate of the Democrat Party. He was not a conservative, but neither was he an AOC progressive or a Sanders socialist. His image as a white moderate male was also used to help sell the voters on Barack Obama.
There was also a time when Biden was actually a pragmatist on Second Amendment rights. As the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, he helped pass the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, which overturned decades of anti-gun court rulings and regulations to restore most gun owner rights and reexpanded commerce by eliminating restrictions on how and where guns could be sold. The legislation’s passage helped lay the foundation of the modern gun rights movement. According to Biden the pragmatist circa 1985:
During my 12.5 years as a Member of this body, I have never believed that additional gun control or Federal registration of guns would reduce crime. I am convinced that a criminal who wants a firearm can get one through illegal, nontraceable, unregistered sources, with or without gun control. In my opinion a national register or ban of handguns would be impossible to carry out and may not result in reductions in crime.2
Despite his recognition of the futility of using gun control to reduce crime and gun violence, the “pragmatist” turned to the dark side when it became politically expedient to do so. In 1993 he helped pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required background checks through a new national checking system (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System [NICS]). The next year he helped obtain a ten-year ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine sales.
As vice president, he was President Obama’s point man in developing legislative proposals and executive orders to shore up gun control at the national level, and yet even that administration admitted that gun control is almost a futile endeavor and that their efforts amounted to little more than feel-good measures.
While no law or set of laws will end gun violence, it is clear that the American people want action. If even one child’s life can be saved, then we need to act. Now is the time to do the right thing for our children, our communities, and the country we love.3
Indeed, with more than a century of experience we know that gun control does not reduce crime but rather increases it, as John Lott has demonstrated. According to Lott’s evidence and that of independent researchers, no form of gun control has positive effects and most forms have negative effects on crime, murder, and mass shootings. Indeed, the most noteworthy policies that improve these problems are the elimination of gun-free zones and the expansion of concealed carry laws.4
With respect to Biden’s proposed gun tax, what are the expected outcomes? The tax is certainly not designed to raise revenue, as it would raise little and entail a good deal of bureaucratic spending. It would no doubt encourage gun buybacks and reduce gun ownership at the margin, but to what end? It would mostly impact responsible gun owners economically impacted by the lockdowns and unemployment. These are the gun owners who reduce crime rates because of the deterrence factor they provide. The gun tax would also encourage the diversion of guns and high-capacity magazines to the black market.
Most importantly, would the gun tax reduce access to guns and in turn reduce crime and violence? Biden has already admitted that the answer is no: “a criminal who wants a firearm can get one through illegal, nontraceable, unregistered sources, with or without gun control.” Efforts to reduce gun violence through policies of red tape and taxes are doomed to fail and only lead to further inroads of enhanced policies of restrictionism and even outright prohibition.
For example, in order to address the real and imagined problem of narcotics addiction, which was already in decline at the end of the nineteenth century, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed in 1914 to regulate and tax the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and cocaine products.
However, the courts interpreted the legislation to mean that doctors could prescribe these drugs in the course of normal treatment, as a dental anesthetic or for short-term pain management, for example, but not as a treatment for addiction. This turned regulation into prohibition and quickly turned the imaginary crimes of blacks and Asians into very real crimes all across the country. Desperate addicts were willing to pay high prices and commit crimes to satisfy their addictions, and smugglers and drug dealers quickly developed a black market.
Similar negative consequences resulted from the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which started as a tax to reduce imagined crimes by minorities, i.e., Reefer Madness, only to quickly devolve into an outright prohibition. Fortunately, we as a people have recognized this mistake and are moving to legalize cannabis and hemp, i.e., marijuana, in a state-by-state process that works in the face of federal and international law.
As horrific and far-reaching as the consequences of the war on drugs have been, the consequences of “commonsense” gun control laws are potentially much greater in the long run. In a very important contribution, Stephen Holbrook demonstrates that the Nazis used gun registration information instituted and collected by the Weimar Regime to rapidly disarm the Jews and other political adversaries. This in turn greatly facilitated the Holocaust.5 A disarmed American population would similarly be much more vulnerable to political repression.
But putting this possibility aside, Biden’s gun control proposals, including the gun tax, offer no possibility of improved security, while most of them will make us less secure and more prone to crime and violence. Most importantly, they are all an affront and threat to our liberty as enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.