I have long opposed most sorts of gun control. The main reason is the same reason I oppose drug prohibition: There is no way to enforce a ban on a thing, except through police-state tactics (and I don’t like living in a police state).
How do you ban a thing? You can pass a law against possession, but that law is unenforceable except by house-to-house searches. You can’t even enforce a ban on carrying concealed weapons except by stopping and frisking everyone out on the street. (Please don’t suggest only stopping and frisking “suspicious” people, unless you have first-hand experience with looking like one.) Since there’s no victim to report the crime (“I was illegally possessed at!”), you only find the criminals by chance, unless you’re willing to go full war-on-drugs with undercover agents, coerced informants, wiretaps, search warrants executed by SWAT teams and so on.
You could impose a high penalty on possession of a gun, and then only enforce the law when a gun came to the attention of the police. That would probably get the guns off the street—a gun hidden under the floorboards isn’t much of a threat—except of course for the “only criminals will have guns” issue: High penalties don’t much deter people who are already committing crimes with high penalties. Plus, it leads to all the classic slippery-slope arguments. Selective enforcement (searches used to harass disfavored people) and unfair results (unlucky people spending 20 years in prison for a gun they didn’t know was in the boxes of grandfather’s personal effects) being just two of the downsides.
Besides, guns are useful tools. If we have a ban that applies as well to the police and the military, then we’ve denied them tools that they may need to do their jobs. But if the ban doesn’t apply to them, then we have to draw the line in a specific place—or a series of specific places. If police qualify, how about campus police? Transit police? Park rangers? Do bodyguards qualify? How about armored-truck guards? Stalking victims? The result is once again selective enforcement and unfair results, this time with a side order of political shenanigans. Some people who need the tool will be denied it. Other people who thought they were allowed the tool will have their lives destroyed when a court rules that they were not.
Much more sound than laws against things is laws against behavior. It’s illegal everywhere to shoot someone or to threaten someone with a gun or even to discharge a gun in a populated area. These are the sorts of laws that gun-control opponents always point to as the right way to control guns. But they self-evidently don’t work. Even if you discount suicides and accidents, there are 12,000 homicides a year in the United States—with about 90% committed with a firearm.
So, what other behaviors could we regulate? There is often talk of regulating the sale of firearms. Being in the business of selling firearms is already extensively regulated, but currently it’s legal to sell (or give away) a firearm without being in the business—sales between friends and gifts between relatives are legal, and don’t require that you be a licensed firearms dealer. That could be changed. You could make selling firearms be like selling prescription drugs, which only a licensed pharmacist can do. Many currently legal, perfectly ordinary behaviors would be illegal, or else the laws would have to be very carefully drafted. Could a father buy his son his first .22 rifle? Could an Olympic-champion riflewoman let her aspiring-sharpshooter daughter take mom’s match-grade pistol to the shooting range to practice with? If a down-on-his luck man pawned a family heirloom firearm, would he be committing a crime if the pawn shop owner’s firearms license were not in order? What if the pawn shop clerk were a felon?
Registering guns is often proposed, although I don’t see how doing so would reduce violence. Further, I think gun-owner fears of gun registries being useful primarily as a tool for eventual confiscation is well-founded: What other use would a registry have? The parallel is less with registering cars (which are big and operate in public where people can see them) and more with registering typewriters (which are small and are generally used in private).
Illinois has long had a registry of “allowed gun buyers,” which is somewhat less pernicious than a list of guns: It would still provide a list of places to search, if things trended even further toward a police state, but it would do so without providing what amounts to a master of list of guns to be seized. In fact, I would fully support such a scheme, if it were automatic: Every adult who has not been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, nor adjudicated as dangerous or incompetent in some other fashion, should be on the list of those allowed to buy guns. The government could automatically strike people from the list upon conviction or commitment to a mental institution (with an appropriate appeals process to correct errors). Or people could file a simple form to ask to be taken off the list, if they had some personal objection. It’s basically the instant background check from the opposite direction.
I will say this, though—gun control advocates are finally on the right track, in attempting to mobilize public opinion. For the past thirty years, members of a small, mostly liberal elite have been trying to use their influence over government officials to pass gun control. But with public opinion so divided, legislative sausage-making has produced laws that are pointless and ineffective, full of easily ridiculed loopholes, but still with traps for the unwary gun-owner to commit a technical violation that leads to harsh sentences, without reducing the number of guns or making them less dangerous. (I am thinking in particular of the so-called assault rifle ban that ended up merely banning a handful of cosmetic details.)
And yet, I am nearly brought around. I am ready to support gun control legislation, if something can be found that would actually reduce violence (or at least its severity), doesn’t require police-state tactics to enforce, and doesn’t send people to prison simply because their papers are not in order.
That last is non-negotiable for me, an attitude puts closer than I’d like to be to unsavory company on other issues, such as immigration, where I agree with many Republicans that I think we should control our borders better. It’s because the other tactics of keeping our population density low are ineffective, unless we empower the police to check people’s papers. If we want the higher standard of living that comes from living well below carrying capacity—and I do—we can’t let just everybody live here. But having a category of “illegal” people forces immigrants to live outside the rules that promote the health, safety and prosperity of everybody, for fear of deportation. That risks the health, safety, and prosperity of all of us.
I’m no happier with letting police demand my firearm paperwork, and send me to prison if it’s not in order, than I am with letting police demand my citizenship papers against similar consequences.
I also think playing with guns is fun, and would be sad if they were banned. But I would give up playing with guns, if I thought it would prevent a large fraction of 11,000 murders a year. I don’t see a clear path from here to there, but I have joined the mass of people trying to find one.