Rob Knop just wrote an article arguing against new gun control laws. He did this hours after someone went nuts at Virginia Tech and shot a whole lot of people. He did so in the full knowledge that many people would find this to be an incredibly insensitive time to make such an argument. He was right that it is an insensitive time to make the argument, and he was also right in his belief that it is at times like this that it is most important to make such arguments.
Rob’s basic point is that we – both as people and as a society – tend to react to tragedies like this by demanding that the government take action to keep the tragedy from happening again. When we take such actions, they frequently come at a price to our liberties. The music and movie industries want to keep people from illegally copying and sharing music and movies, and we wind up with digital rights management software that makes it impossible to do things like make backups of CDs and DVDs that we’ve purchased. A major terrorist incident happens, and we wind up with a law that permits the government to look up your library records.
Events like the tragedy in Virginia today do demand action, but they also demand that care be taken to avoid overreaction. There will, after today, undoubtedly be calls for more gun control legislation. There will certainly be calls for a national dialogue on the issue – and we should have one. Public safety is important, but so is the Constitution – all of it, including the Second Amendment. There does need to be a balance between the two, and it’s going to be a very delicate balance.
Before I talk about what I’d like to see, I’m going to take a second to point out one spectacular bit of stupidity in Rob’s otherwise good article. Toward the end, Rob says:
I would just mention one thing however. First, according to CDC statistics, in 2004 the number of people who died in automobile accidents was about 44,000. The number of people who died from gun homicide was about 11,000. Four times as many people died from cars than from guns. If we’re talking about further restriction of private gun ownership because of the mayhem it causes, shouldn’t we also be talking about further restriction of private automobile ownership?
The key words in that argument are “accidents” and “homicide.” Let’s make sure that we keep that straight, and don’t confuse issues by comparing apples and oranges. Most of the deaths caused by automobiles are not the result of people actively attempting to kill other people. Most of the deaths caused by firearms are. That needs to be clearly pointed out.
It’s also worth pointing out that we do take steps to reduce automobile-related deaths. We require drivers to be licensed, and licensing is contingent on the driver’s ability to demonstrate competence behind the wheel. In many states, we require periodic vehicle safety inspections to insure that the vehicles themselves aren’t a threat to others. New vehicles are subject to a range of safety requirements, and cannot be sold in the US if they don’t meet those standards.
We could, should, and don’t do similar things with guns.
Personally, I am both philosophically and pragmatically opposed to using purchase and possession restriction laws as the primary method of preventing firearm deaths. I do like the way the Second Amendment ensures that the government does not have complete control over the weapons in this country. I’ve been hunting, and enjoyed it, and I (briefly) owned a model M1917 Enfield rifle. I believe that gun ownership is a right, and while I’m not opposed to reasonable restrictions, I do believe that any action taken needs to keep that right firmly in mind.
I also don’t think that purchase and possession restrictions are likely to put any significant dent into gun crime rates, at least in the short term. There are a hell of a lot of weapons out there right now, and there’s no way that any law is going to get them off the streets. There are other possible ways of reducing gun crime, which would probably be more profitable.
One might be to drastically increase the penalties for using a firearm to commit a crime. Let’s get the non-violent drug offenders out of the prisons and into treatment, and let’s free up some beds for folks who use guns to commit a crime. Let’s put laws into effect that treat the weapon as a sentence multiplier – if you take a gun into the store you’re robbing, you’ll do double the time total and double the time before you’re eligible for parole. If you fire the weapon, it’ll double again, with extra years tacked on for every round fired. Triple time if the gun’s illegal, and quadruple if it’s stolen. Put enough gang-bangers away for thirty or forty year minimums, and I’ll bet that the glock becomes a hell of a lot less attractive as a fashion accessory.
At the same time, though, we should also do a lot more to ensure that there is responsible firearm ownership. I grew up in a building where an idiot could easily put a round through three or four apartments just by accident – and there are a lot more buildings like it. We require automobile drivers to demonstrate competence before driving, and I can’t think of any good reason to require anything less from gun owners.
Let’s make people demonstrate competence with a weapon before they can buy one. Let’s make sure they know how to store the weapon safely. Let’s make sure that they know how to clean the weapon without killing anyone. And let’s, by all means, make sure that they know how to shoot the weapon properly and with a semi-reasonable degree of accuracy – let’s make them shoot to qualify before they bring one home.
Gun ownership is a right, but there are also responsibilities that come with the right. We need to make sure that we preserve the right, but we need to make sure that we do more to demand that those who exercise the right also fulfill the responsibilities.