The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Chris Rock could not be more different in physical appearance and career, yet both—within a few years of each other—came to the same conclusion about gun deaths: control access to ammunition. In the early 1990s, Moynihan pushed legislation to control ammunition sales, in part, by increasing the price from $20 per box to $2,000 as a means to curb criminal violence. The Senator memorably quipped, “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do”—a challenge that co-opted a theme of the pro-gun forces then a mantra for an expanded Second Amendment right to bear arms.
In 1999, Chris Rock in an HBO special delivered this:
You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control. Men, we need to control the bullets, that’s right. I think all bullets should cost $5,000 … $5,000 per bullet.…You know why? Cause if a bullet cost $5,000 there would be no more innocent bystanders. Yeah! Every time somebody got shot we’d say, “Damn, he must have done something.… Shit he’s got $50,000 worth of bullets in his ass.” And people would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost $5,000. “Man, I would blow your fucking head off … if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me another job, I’m gonna start saving some money, and you’re a dead man. You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on lay away.”
So even if you get shot by a stray bullet, you wouldn’t have to go to no doctor to get it taken out. Whovever shot you will take their bullet back, like, “I believe you got my property.”
New York (2013) and California (2017) have both passed significant laws directed at controlling the access to and sales of ammunition to safeguard the 59 million residents of the two states (18% of the nation). The legislation in both states shares several common features: limiting magazine capacity, restricting out-of-state personal and online sales, dealer licensure, background checks for purchasers, and creation of a database registry. The underlying strategic policy objective recognizes that weapons are virtually maintenance-free and permanently durable, while ammunition, unless stored properly as “prepper” gear, tends to be fungible and consistently consumed.
For a variety of reasons, the New York statute has experienced a number of barriers to implementation, although California’s seems to be succeeding. In April 2017, the NRA challenged California by way of a lawsuit that is still pending, with one of a panel of plaintiffs who is an Olympic medalist claiming an “undue burden” because she fires 500 to 1000 rounds per day. State sport and hunting organizations complain that the law is an “end run” around gun control. Notably, the NRA challenge is absent any substantive Second Amendment jurisprudence, as a press release from the organization states the statute “will do nothing to stop terrorists or violent criminals.” It may simply be that any Second Amendment nexus is too tenuous for the usual red-meat bluster and a failure on bullet control would be a mortal wound.
In March of this year, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D–CT) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D–FL–23) introduced bills to require background checks for purchases of ammunition, citing similar efforts in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D–AZ–8) recently appeared at forums in Northern Virginia supporting Democratic candidates including Virginia State Senator Jennifer Wexton and criticizing Rep. Barbara Comstock’s (R–VA–10) support of and receipt of contributions from the NRA—the Virginia-based gun rights behemoth. Giffords’s gun control organization (https://giffords.org/) offers model statutory language to be used by states for ammunition-control legislation.
It remains to be seen how states may respond to the call for ammunition control. Certainly, it promises a far easier Constitutional Second Amendment test—if one exists—as well as an attractive alternative to the more expensive and consumptive efforts that meet head-to-head with the NRA.
All 50 states have reciprocal concealed carry provisions exacerbating the spread of both the potential use of firearms as well as ammunition. For example, Utah issued over 300,000 licenses for concealed carry to residents of other states. This firearms and ammunition pandemic has rapidly outstripped both law enforcement and civilian measures to stem the violence fueled by weapons.
Moynihan’s and Rock’s wisdom needs increased attention. Why not control the bullets?