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A Contract on Gun Makers

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This spring’s massacre in Virginia provoked the usual flurry of televised grief and political pontification. This was followed by a Newtonian reaction from gun owners and the National Rifle Association (NRA). The action-reaction commentary that accompanies each new massacre is so predictable it is viewed as little more than stock footage; only the massacre location and the body count change. One wonders—with real dread—what kind of body count it would take to break out of the current steady-state cycle of political inertia.

Rather than wait for some larger American-made killing field to occur, it might be possible to use existing federal contracting rules and regulations to slow the flood of high-powered weapons and exotic ammunition into the civilian market.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and the various federal law enforcement agencies regularly solicit contracts for new weapons and ammunition from arms manufacturers. These usually are substantial contracts providing long-term profits. Competition for contracts is fierce. A quick look at an online list of U.S. gun manufacturers (home.comcast.net/~americanfirearmpage/firearms.htm) gives some idea of the number of potential bidders for federal weapons contracts.

Contracts, of course, make demands of the contractors. There are rigid technical specifications, delivery dates, maximum per unit costs, affirmative action and small business stipulations, and environmental and safety issues, to name but a few. So why not stipulate that contractors not sell to the civilian public, or re-import from third parties, the same weapons and ammunition they sell under contract to the Fed?

Manufacturers might howl at such language, but no one will be holding a gun to their heads insisting they bid for those contracts. They would be free to leave the federal market to their competitors. Of course, there is a huge profit difference between selling assault rifles to the DoD—which uses guns and bullets like you and I use oxygen—and selling to the smaller civilian market of Walter Mittys, Rambo wannabes, survivalists, gangsters, and the mentally ill.

Federal contracting rules are not very “sexy” remedies to the problem of casual mass murder, but neither was using tax evasion to nail Al Capone. Still, it got him off the street, and federal contracts similarly could get many types of high-capacity guns off the street.

Contracting regulations might also muzzle that ferocious mouth of the American gun manufacturers, the NRA. While the NRA agitates its members by wrapping itself in the (alleged) language of the Constitution and the self-evident right of self-defense, it is hard to get people equally agitated about a sentence in a federal procurement contract. No one is going to write to his or her congressman or send money to the NRA because Colt or Smith & Wesson does not like the wording in their multimillion-dollar contracts.

Federal contracting is a low-profile political solution that avoids Second Amendment debates by placing the burden of public gun sales and availability on the manufacturers. It will not necessarily prevent another Virginia Tech-style massacre, but eventually it should dry up the supply of larger, more powerful assault weapons, which are favored by terrorists, criminals, and delusional individuals on the edge of becoming one of the former.

 

Edward McSweegan is a microbiologist and writes a column on infectious diseases for The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Md.
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