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COMMENTARY: Bill is a step toward creating gun registry

The term “ghost gun” sounds scary. Who could want guns that no one could trace?

As such, Democrats in Nevada passed a law in 2021 making possessing or selling a gun without a serial number unlawful. Federal law already made it a felony for people to sell such a gun, but hobbyists could still make homemade guns for personal use.

The Nevada law went so far as to require serial numbers on blocks of metal that could ultimately be milled and made into parts of a gun. The claimed goal was to ensure that no hobbyist in Nevada could make a gun without a serial number. But a Nevada judge in December 2021 found parts of the law to be unconstitutional and vague. Legislative Democrats are pushing through a new bill to respond to the judge’s ruling. A vote in the state Senate could take place as early as Monday.

Democrats say the bill will help prevent violent crime. Serial numbers “will help to ensure that law enforcement officers can retrieve the information they need to solve crimes,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said last August.

Homemade guns have existed since even before the United States became a country, and it was never terribly difficult to make a gun with simple machine tools. But now their production has become nearly impossible to regulate. With 3-D metal printers, people can now make firearms that are indistinguishable from those purchased in stores.

And despite what people see on TV shows such as “Law & Order,” serial numbers on guns don’t help law enforcement solve crimes.

In theory, when criminals leave registered guns at a crime scene, police can use the serial numbers to trace the weapons back to the perpetrators. But in real life, guns are rarely left at crime scenes, and the few times they are, it is usually because the gunmen have been seriously injured or killed. With both the criminal and weapon present at the scene, police can solve these crimes without registration or serial numbers. In the exceedingly unusual instances where registered guns are left at the scene, they aren’t often registered to the person who committed the crime.

Police in jurisdictions from Hawaii to Chicago to Pennsylvania to New York have had registration for decades yet can’t point to any crimes they have been able to solve with it. The Honolulu police chief told the Hawaii Senate that he couldn’t find any crimes that had been solved due to registration and licensing. The chief also said his officers devoted about 50,000 hours a year to registering and licensing guns. Police could have spent that time on traditional, time-tested law enforcement activities. Even entire countries such as Canada haven’t had success with registration.

New York and Maryland spent tens of millions of dollars compiling a registration database that even contained the unique ballistic “fingerprints” of each new gun sold over 15 years. But even these states, which strongly favor gun control, eventually abolished their systems because they never solved a single crime.

So why push so hard for these serial numbers on metal blocks? Federal law prohibits the creation of a national firearm registry, but the Biden administration has made one anyway. As of the beginning of last year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had collected nearly 1 billion firearm purchase records. It created a searchable digital database containing 866 million transactions, including 54 million made in 2021. The point of serial numbers on homemade guns is to make sure that they will be included in the database.

Countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia have used registration to ban and confiscate guns. But they aren’t alone. California, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have also used registration to know who legally owned different types of guns before banning them.

Knowing who owns guns will help a future administration target their confiscation. How else to you explain a policy that costs so much and has no crime-reducing benefits?

Ira Hansen and Jeff Stone are Republicans serving in the Nevada Senate. John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center.

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