In 1993, a United States senator with one of the great political brains of 20th-century America, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said that we ought to forget gun control as a way to stanch criminal violence. It was hopeless, Senator Moynihan pointed out: even if the sale of new guns was totally forbidden, there were already enough guns in homes and private hands to last the country for 200 years.
“These mostly simple machines last forever,” Mr. Moynihan said.
But he wasn’t through.
“On the other hand, we have only a three-year supply of ammunition.”
His solution: Increase the tax on bullets. He wouldn’t raise the tax on ammunition typically used for target shooting or hunting. But he proposed exorbitant taxes on hollow-tipped bullets designed to penetrate armor and cause devastating damage.
“Ten thousand percent,” Mr. Moynihan said.
That would have made the tax on a 20-cartridge pack of those bullets $1,500. “Guns don’t kill people; bullets do,” said Senator Moynihan, a Democrat who died in 2003.
Another sharp political mind, the comedian Chris Rock, argued that the price of bullets ought to be even higher than what the senator had suggested.
“If a bullet costs $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders,” he said during a routine in the film “Bowling for Columbine.”
In June, the City of New York sold 28,000 pounds of spent shell casings to a an ammunition dealer in Georgia, where they were to be reloaded with bullets. Anyone with $15 can buy a bag of 50, no questions asked, under Georgia law. As The New York Times reported, the city has previously sold shell casings — which are collected at the police target shooting range — to scrap metal dealers, but in this case the highest bidder was the ammunition store.
It was perfectly legal. And jarring, considering that the mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, has made aggressive gun regulation one of his prime causes, at no small risk to any national political ambitions he might harbor. He has arranged sting buys and filed lawsuits against firearms dealers in other states who, in his view, flouted even the easygoing regulatory regimen of recent years.
But surely, it couldn’t make any sense for the city itself to put more bullets into the weapons economy by recycling casing? After all, the city destroys perfectly usable — and sellable — guns that it recovers from criminals. The sale of the casings must have been the product of someone in an unnoticed cubicle in city government, simply following the bidding rules by rote.
You might think that when learning about the sale, the mayor would have said, “Thanks for the tip.”
Instead, City Hall rose in chorus to sing of the constitutional freedom to own guns and the bullets that go in them. Indeed, the city would gladly sell the next batch of shell casings to a high-bidding ammunition dealer, said John Feinblatt, the criminal justice coordinator. (The dealers of super-size soft drinks, now facing mayoral regulation, must be wondering why the founding fathers couldn’t have added “and drink soda” after the right to “bear arms.”)
Asked about the sale on Monday, the mayor said that people could legally own guns and bullets.
Then one of the most experienced and professional of New York television reporters, Mary Murphy of WPIX, asked Mr. Bloomberg if the city was going to change its policy and not sell shell casings to ammunition dealers. Mr. Bloomberg set forth into a minisermon about how it was an act of integrity.