Elliot Spitzer’s Proposal to Make Semiautomatics “[Un]available to Private Purchasers”

As I note below, Elliot Spitzer, writing in Slate, seems to want to make semiautomatics “[un]available to private purchasers.” (He says “If the president and the mayor truly believe that semi-automatic weapons should not be available to private purchasers,” but in context it appears that he thinks they should indeed believe this.)

The Defense Department and the city of New York are among the largest purchasers of guns. If the president and the mayor truly believe that semi-automatic weapons should not be available to private purchasers, and that magazines with more than 10 bullets should not be sold over the counter, they should simply say that, from now on, the federal government and the city of New York, as a matter of public safety, will not buy any weapons or ammunition from companies that do not agree to pull semi-automatics from their stock and refuse to produce magazines with more than 10 rounds other than for sale to the government. President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg should announce that semiautomatic handguns with high-capacity magazines — the kind used in Oak Creek; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Virginia Tech — can no longer be sold to private citizens by any company that wants to do business with the federal government and the city of New York.

The major gun manufacturers will agree to the limits imposed by their major customers.

Use the power of the government as a purchaser, as a consumer, to get the companies marketing these products to change their behavior. And do it now. Stop blaming the legislature and act, immediately.

Two observations:

1. If the president and the mayor want to make “semi-automatic weapons” “[un]available to private purchasers,” we have to realize just how broad this restriction would be. According to the ATF, over 80% of all handguns manufactured in 2011 are semiautomatics, and my sense is that the bulk of civilian purchases are semiautomatics as well. [UPDATE: The National Sports Shooting Federation’s Firearms Retailer Survey Report (2012) (collecting 2008-11 data) reports that over 75% of handguns that reporting retailers sold were semiautomatic.]

The fraction is likely smaller for rifles [UPDATE: the NSSF report states that 18.9% of total gun sales were “AR/modern sporting rifle” and 15% were “traditional rifle”], and smaller still for shotguns, but we’re still talking about a huge amount of commonplace weapons, not just a few supposed outlier weapons (which is how, for instance, the bans on so-called “assault weapons” were sold). Gun control supporters may well say that it’s good to make even this large a set of weapons “[un]available to private purchasers”; but it’s worth noting this, especially in light of repeated claims that gun control backers are only calling for modest, narrow restrictions.

2. I’m not sure whether direct bans on semiautomatics would be unconstitutional (see generally my Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms article for some thoughts on such matters), but they might be, given how common such weapons are (something Heller said was important when it struck down the total handgun ban). If so, then governmental attempts to pressure manufacturers into not selling such guns to the public would likely themselves be unconstitutional conditions, unless manufacturers could still sell the guns through affiliate corporations, see Planned Parenthood of Mid-Missouri & Eastern Kansas, Inc. v. Dempsey (8th Cir. 1999) (reaching such a conclusion as to restriction on government subsidies to organizations that perform or advocate for abortions).