Tuesday, April 24, 2007

An excellent take on gun control

Today I stumbled across this excellent take on gun laws. It was written by John Casteen for Slate in response to Dick Cheney's lawyer massacree, but it's eerily relevant to the Virginia Tech case, revolving as it does around Virginia gun laws.

First, the ugly from the gun lobby side:

The roster of proposed gun bills in Virginia reads like a long series of bad jokes: One bill would do away with the concealed-weapons permit altogether; anyone at all could carry one, as long as they so inform the police if they're ever detained. This law is a shootout waiting to happen, since one can't exactly reveal a weapon without reaching for it. Another bill would prohibit health-care professionals—in the course of educating parents about home safety hazards like drain cleaner and gateless staircases—from suggesting a family may want to keep its guns away from children. And the states also legislate downward: Two proposed laws would repeal all gun ordinances passed by localities before 1995 and forbid them any further regulation of the discharge of weapons within their jurisdictions.

Then, the good:

The gun lobby does, in fact, present solid statistical evidence that armed people defend themselves and others against significant numbers of violent crimes. It also argues, correctly, that terrorist incidents in public buildings and rampage shootings in schools might be resolved more quickly by armed citizens within than by SWAT teams entering from without. There are good reasons for a decent, law-abiding person to own and carry a gun for purposes of recreation or self-defense. Her rights are just as precious as those of a non-gun-owner, and she shouldn't be treated like a criminal until and unless she behaves like one. No good law can erode her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of skeet merely in the interest of keeping others with darker motives from getting their hands on a gun.

The core of the problem:

Evaluating the various bills proffered by the gun lobby should simply be a matter of totting up these rights and measuring them against issues of public safety. But such evaluation currently relies on a risk-benefit analysis that's skewed by state politicians' reliance on the gun vote. Perfect honesty, for instance, might force us to acknowledge that the threat to public safety these pro-gun laws pose probably far outweighs whatever value they may hold in preserving individual liberties, since criminals would be as likely as lawful gun owners to avail themselves of their right to bring a gun on their next trip downtown.

Now, the bad from the gun-control side:

Two examples of poorly conceived gun-control tactics are the federal assault-weapons ban and liability lawsuits against gun manufacturers and dealers. Even the nomenclature of the former—which expired in September 2004—is misleading, since Americans legally bought and owned assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and combat accessories for the duration of the alleged "ban." The bill did nothing to keep these weapons off the street, but the gun-control community claimed it as a major victory; the law didn't need to be effective in practice to be helpful in raising money from the left-leaning public. Again in the interest of candor, one would have to agree that's a cynical and dishonest approach.

The same is true of liability suits, which simply don't target criminals; they target companies, American ones, who provide skilled jobs to American workers. Suing Smith & Wesson as a result of a shooting is like suing GM because of a drunk-driving arrest (or Prada because someone wears white shoes after Labor Day … ). Responsibility should fall to individuals who make dangerous decisions, not to corporations that make inanimate objects.

Finally, his proposed solution:

Universal background checks. The Brady Law already mandates FBI background checks when anyone buys a gun from a federal firearms-licensed gun dealer. There's no question that Brady is constitutional, and that Congress had the right to pass it. Given sufficient legislative spine, then, it follows that they could mandate the same check on all private sales as well.

These off-the-books sales in the secondary market account for roughly 40 percent of annual gun transfers. They make possible the gun-show loophole and straw-man purchases like the one that gave the Columbine killers the semiautomatic pistol in their cache. In fact, the only lawmakers who could possibly oppose universal checks are those who'd argue that known terrorists, sex offenders, felons, maniacs, drunks, drug addicts, and domestic abusers should be able to skip the FBI check and buy their guns from private sellers. That's what our current law allows, which raises the question: Why is the gun-control community not focused on a straightforward law that would directly address one of the main sources of guns used in violent crimes?

I can imagine several practical obstacles to such a measure, mainly the difficulty of enforcing it and the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the way of a gunower trying to get rid of a gun. Can Joe Citizen call the background check database and get a quick answer? And if so, what happens to privacy? What's to keep Mrs. Kravitz from calling up, pretending to have a gun she wants to sell, and checking on the criminal and mental status of all of her neighbors?

Given that, I'd be satisfied with a law that applied to gun shows and other semiformal venues, which accounts for most of the problem anyway. The idea is simple: Make it more difficult for guns to get into the hands of people who should not have them, without unduly hampering the rights of the rest of us to own and carry guns if we wish.

I'd also advocate laws that have nothing to do with gun ownership and everything to do with gun safety. For instance, you should not be able to buy a gun -- especially a handgun -- without undergoing training in its use or showing you have had such training. It might also include an "is a gun right for you?" section, where alternatives -- door locks, an alarm system, guard dogs, baseball bats, whatever -- are discussed, along with their advantages: less dangerous, cheaper, etc. The goal is to have only educated gunowners, who understand clearly why they own a gun and how to use it.

That education should include information on safely storing the weapon. If it's a gun intended for recreational use, then I think it's fine to mandate that it be stored unloaded, or in a locked case, or with the ammo separate, or with a trigger lock, or all of the above. If it's a gun intended for self-defense, however, when it's needed it's needed fast, and you don't want to be fumbling with a lock or loose ammunition. In such a case, the law should be more flexible: mandating that the gun be stored out of sight with the safety engaged and the chamber empty, perhaps, but otherwise simply urging the gunowner to store it as safely as possible while still meeting their needs.

I also think certain crime-solving measures -- like chemically marking the powder in bullets and explosives to help identify their origin -- are reasonable and unobjectionable if technical hurdles can be overcome at a reasonable cost.

The point is, again, to make punishing perpetrators easier without unduly inconveniencing the rest of us.

What about accidental shootings? Sadly, we cannot expect to eliminate them entirely, and attempting to do so could render the gun unusable when you need it most. I think the best we can do is require gunowners to attend safety classes, then hope that their sense of responsibility and love of their children will do the rest. That, and prosecuting them when they are negligent with their firearms.

Concealed carry? Fine, if the applicant otherwise qualifies to own a gun and passes additional classes and more stringent background checks.

These measures aren't going to solve the problem. But it's doubtful the problem is solvable in a conventional sense anyway. It is clear that people are constitutionally allowed to have guns. And given that, it's clear that there will always be a certain number of gun-related accidents and crimes. Gunowners need to accept reasonable restrictions in the name of accountability and public safety; gun-control advocates need to recognize the legitimate concerns and rights of gunowners. And all of us should hope that continued improvements in forensics and policing will make much of this debate moot by continuing to reduce crime overall.

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Blogger Rustmeister said...

Nice write up!

I'd like to comment on some of your suggestions, if I could.

Background checks between private citizens: More than being hard to implement and enforce, it could become a form of gun registry. The only way to ensure background checks are made is to hold the gun owner accountable for the guns they have. The only way to do that is to provide a list of presently owned guns.

The only other way is to make it voluntary and anonymous. This would probably work better than one would think. Most gun owners obey the law and don't want their guns in the wrong hands.

Also, most sellers at gun shows are gun shop owners, and have to perform the NICS checks when they sell a gun. Very few guns are sold/traded at gun shows without one.

As for recreational use vs home defense, the sticky spot comes when we try to determine which guns are suitable for home defense. Even the gun community can't get a consensus on this. Some say shotgun, some say big pistol, some say snubnose .38. In rural areas home defense includes guarding your livestock from predators, so they could need a hunting rifle. Unfortunately, there's not much left to secure. =/

Your final thought on accidental shootings is right on the money. There are very few cases of truly "accidental" shootings. Almost all of them involve a violation of gun safety rules 1-3, therefore they are not accidental, they are negligent.

The only thing that could have stopped the VA killings (as it unfolded) is having Cho's mental problems flagged in NICS. I'm sure (I hope) those requirements will be updated in the near future.

4/26/2007 9:19 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Rustmeister: While I would not advocate a gun registry, I would have no problem with a system that made it easy to trace the ownership trail of a gun that was used in the commission of a crime. We have part of that in place now: the gun's serial number will tell us where the gun was sold, and sometime to whom.

An idea off the top of my head: If we required a paper trail for gun sales -- a form that shows who you got it from, that could be produced on demand like proof of insurance -- then we could do such tracing without having a list of guns in some central repository. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be better than what we have now.

The voluntary method could work, but it requires that private owners be aware of the law and that the background checks be easy, quick and free. Otherwise few people will bother.

That's why I think a practical law would aim at gunshows, which are where most such transactions take place. The law would be relatively simple to enforce and easy to comply with, since private sellers could run background checks through the system of the licensed dealer at the next table. People selling guns out of their house wouldn't be covered, but I think covering 80% of transactions is better than covering none of them.

As far as the recreational vs. self-defense distinction, I did not intend for the government to try to make that determination by class of weapon. I envisioned a system whereby gunowners were educated on the law, and then decided the use of the gun for themselves. If something went wrong, it could then be determined if the gun was stored appropriately for its intended use.

Thanks for the comments.

4/26/2007 9:39 AM  

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