Guest Columnist

Regulate purchases of ammunition

Seized ammunition is displayed to the media during a presentation by law enforcement in February 2012. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)
Seized ammunition is displayed to the media during a presentation by law enforcement in February 2012. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)

Meet Bob. Bob owns a certain item, which is cheap and expendable. However, Bob lives in a country where sale and distribution of this item is strictly regulated, so he doesn’t have very much of it. Purchase requires a government ID, only legal adults can buy, and sales are limited. All purchases are monitored and recorded, and buying large amounts, even over a long period of time, draws the attention of local or national authorities.

This is a common item in Bob’s country — millions of people buy and use it legitimately every day. But the damage it can cause in the hands of a few misguided individuals is serious enough to merit regulating it for the entire population, even for well-meaning guys like Bob.

Several items fit this description, depending on where Bob lives. For U.S. residents, for instance, this is an accurate description of cold medicine, but not lethal ammunition.

America doesn’t regulate cold medicine just because it can. A common component, a drug called pseudoephedrine, can be used in the illegal production of crystal meth. But while crystal meth is no joke, the vast majority of people who buy pseudoephedrine use it only to treat their sickness. And, the amount of pseudoephedrine an average person uses is nowhere near the needs of a meth lab.

Nonetheless, Bob has to jump through legal hoops just to treat his runny nose.

Mass shootings are no joke either. School shootings, in particular, are unspeakably terrible and leave lasting sociological and psychological damage. America has an unusually high number of mass shootings (including school shootings) compared to the rest of the world. According to research from the University of Alabama, excluding attacks from terrorist organizations, “America holds 31 percent of global mass shooters” despite making up only 5 percent of the world’s population.

Each mass shooting brings renewed demands for gun control, and renewed efforts to prevent it. There have been landmark regulations, like the famous assault weapons and high capacity magazine bans, as well as the implementation of background checks and federal and state licensing. There have been efforts to close loopholes in these regulations, like the infamous “gun show loophole.” However, there is one serious topic that has been sorely overlooked in America’s gun control debate: ammunition.

If America can track and control the distribution of cold medicine to tackle the meth problem, couldn’t we do something similar for ammunition, and tackle the mass-shooting problem?

Most developed countries already have thought of this.

Switzerland is the European poster child of American organizations like the National Rifle Association, which look to it as an example of a country that loves its guns, and yet doesn’t have a gun violence problem — only two mass shootings in the last 20 years. Quoting from an NRA article, “In Switzerland, firearms in the hands of every citizen are considered (a) wholesome and a civic duty … the tradition of having a heavily-armed civilian populace has been this small nation’s guarantee of freedom and self-determination.” Based on that tone, America’s strongest gun-regulation opponents would surely agree to using Switzerland as a model in the gun control debate.

Now, let’s compare the nuances of Switzerland’s gun laws with those of America. There are several different methods of regulating licensing, selling procedure, ownership, etc. However, there is a fundamental type of regulation in Switzerland, which also exists in many other European countries, but simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. While the Swiss pride themselves on their right to bear arms, they have implemented a thorough system of tracking and regulating ammunition, without preventing its availability for legitimate use.

In Switzerland, ammo customers must follow the same rules for buying actual guns: providing an ID, a current criminal record, a current weapons acquisition permit, and a home address. Customers can buy ammo only for a legally-owned gun, and must provide proof of ownership. Furthermore, purchases are recorded, and sellers must register ammunition with the government shortly afterward.

None of this prevents the Swiss from having fun with their guns. Quoting that NRA article again: “I have never seen a golf course in Switzerland, but I wish I had a Swiss franc for every shooting range I have seen.” Older children participate in shooting clubs and hunting, and such activities are part of the nation’s identity. Ammunition is carefully regulated, and it doesn’t hinder their freedom to own and use their guns.

Regulations don’t have to be obtrusive to be effective.

According to the director of the Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, only 3 percent of pseudoephedrine purchase attempts statewide are blocked. This means 97 percent were successful. Nonetheless, the laws have had a huge impact on the meth problem in Iowa. The system has prevented the production of $18.8 million worth of meth, and the number of meth labs has dropped 90 percent in the last decade.

From Bob’s perspective, is it worth it? Bob still can get pseudoephedrine. If he demonstrates a legitimate need, he can get a doctor’s prescription that bypasses the rules. Meanwhile, the meth lab has trouble cooking enough meth, and is constantly dodging questions.

These laws don’t stop labs, but production is severely limited, and operations are far more likely to be busted.

Now, instead of cold medicine, imagine we’re talking about ammunition. Bob can still get ammunition. If he has a license for hunting or sporting, he can get hunting or sporting ammo. Or he could do like the Swiss, and buy ammo as he uses it at the range.


Meanwhile, Bob’s neighbor, Eric Harris, is having trouble stocking up enough ammo for a rampage, and is constantly dodging questions. Of course, these laws don’t stop mass murder altogether, but the opportunity for and lethal ability of people like Eric is severely limited, and such “operations” are far more likely to get busted.

• Seth White is a 17-year-old high school student in Cedar Rapids.

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