So why the ineffective, inconclusive and seemingly-pointless legislation? As economics professor Walter Williams put it, laws that strip Americans of their fundamental liberties “are always advanced as a single issue.” There’s every reason to believe that politicians and pundits might honestly recognize that mandated background checks for ammunition won’t have much of an effect on crime—yet they know that once Californians, say, have become comfortable with such a law, it will then becomes much easier to pass another, more restrictive law. Gun controllers, for instance, are ceaselessly lecturing gun owners about how under the National Firearms Act of 1934 we effectively cannot own fully automatic weapons, thereby stipulating that gun rights are subject to some limitations. But the NFA’s prohibition on automatic weapons does not ipso facto legitimize any other firearm law—and more importantly, the NFA does not ipso facto legitimize the NFA.
A self-referential appeal to authority hardly justifies a government to continually strip its citizens of their rights. But for many people, it’s a perfectly reasonable justification, which is why little piecemeal maneuvers such as California’s ammunition law are so troubling: if it passes, we can expect a kind of legislative stare decisis a few years down the road, where a new gun control measure cites ammo background checks as an authority. As we’ve seen, gun violence is a complicated and critical issue that deserves a great deal of thought, but our commitment to making America safer should not come at the cost of our vital liberties—and we should be aware of the little but significant efforts to take those vital liberties away.