OSD 97: Paid the cost to be the boss

How to make the wrong people to do the right thing.

Quick recap of the last three weeks:

  1. The ATF raided Polymer80, on an alchemy-inspired legal theory that:

    • Selling an 80% frame that’s not a gun is fine.

    • Selling gun parts that aren’t a gun is fine.

    • But if you ship both in one box, the box’s contents are transubstantiated into being a gun, and that’s illegal.

  2. The ATF released their preexisting list of “objective factors for classifying weapons with ‘stabilizing braces’”, declaring that they’ve always regarded a significant percentage of AR pistols as SBRs. They also declared their intention to start enforcing that interpretation of the law.

  3. Five days later, they withdrew that guidance. Notably they didn’t say that they’re changing their list of “factors for classifying weapons”, nor did they say they won’t prosecute people for falling afoul of that agency-made list of factors. They’re just taking the discussion offline. For now.

It has been a few days since the latest news on this, so people have already landed on the right way to interpret it: stay frosty, there is obviously something afoot, this isn’t the last we’ve heard from the ATF, etc. So then the question becomes, “What do we do when they come back?”

There’s a lesson here from the recent past, in 2015 when the ATF tried to ban M855 ammo. The surprising part was that they didn’t succeed. The president publicly supported the ban. The law wasn’t clearly on the ATF’s side, but it left enough wiggle room for the agency to at least get a ban in place while years of lawsuits played out. And while a majority of Congress (291 members, to be exact) wrote to the ATF to object, Congress has no direct power (short of passing a new law) to block executive agency reinterpretations of existing law.

There was nothing to stop the M855 ban … and then it got stopped. What happened?

There’s a principle from asymmetric warfare that insurgents win because they simply care a lot more about the outcome. And that has some explanatory power here, but it’s not quite enough — after all, if it’s trivial to squash you, then you’re going to get squashed no matter how little the squasher cares. The important thing is not just to care more, but to translate that fervor into making it very costly to squash you. So costly that even though someone could do it, they decide it’s just not worth all the hassle you’re creating.

Historically, that’s the best predictor for what your gun laws are going to end up looking like. Permitless carry or not, AWBs or not, etc. People have an idea that getting the “right” people in place will produce the “right” results, but that is empirically … not true. What people say ahead of an election is a poor predictor of what they’ll do after it. Their incentives, not their applause lines, are the real predictor.

You could think of that as bad news. But it actually makes this community surprisingly powerful. Because it means you don’t even have to change politicians, you just have to change their incentives. Milton Friedman had a famous line about this:

People have a great misconception in this way: they think the way you solve things is by electing the right people. It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.

He expanded on the same quote in other work:

I have often said we shall not correct the state of affairs by electing the right people; we’ve tried that. The right people before they’re elected become the wrong people after they’re elected. The important thing is to make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. If it is not politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either.

On that front, we have some ammo. A still-unfolding revolution of permissive carry laws at the state level. Seven million new gun owners in 20209-10% of all American gun owners became a gun owner this year. Because of social media, we’re in the middle of the greatest period in history for easy access to info about guns. And all of this is riding a 30-year trend of increasing support for gun rights.

The ATF will come back for braces, but we can start making that prohibitively costly right now. The only reason that supporting the NFA is still acceptable in polite society is that most people don’t know what’s in it. So our job is clear: tell people what’s in it.

Long guns are legal. Short guns are legal. But a medium-length gun is illegal if it has the back of a long gun and the front of a short one. As we explained in “OSD 96: The frog jumps out of the pot”, a lot of people would recoil at sending thousands of people to prison over that. And of those who did support it, who’d be willing to publicly support it? With today’s growing concerns about the dangers and injustices of the carceral state, we can make that very costly indeed.


This week’s links

Home video: California police searching a guy’s house because he registered an AR they (incorrectly) thought was illegal

An underappreciated danger of registration.

Five red flags when choosing a firearms instructor

Most people only have access to local instructors, not the famous instructors we all follow on social media, and this is a handy list of rough heuristics for screening them.

Pistol braces: what you’re not doing about it

From Aaron Cowan of Sage Dynamics.

DGU at a gun range in Pennsylvania

Always wondered if this ever happens.

Forgotten Weapons breaks down the M2

The history and technical design of the gun in extreme detail. And be sure to catch part 2, where Ian takes it to the range.

The PHLster Enigma

Really cool to see companies developing honest-to-goodness new products like this. Looking forward to trying it out. (Fun fact/disclaimer: an OSD cofounder worked on the graphic design for the marketing materials.)

Christmas Eve, 1932

Outdoor Life has been doing a series of these ✨ A E S T H E T I C ✨ vintage reposts.


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