Gun Control

November 5th, 2008

Do Americans have the right “to keep and bear arms?” Or was that right intended to be restricted to “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State?” The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says both. But what does it really mean? The Supreme Court recently decided that question in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller, stating: 

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

I suspect that most constitutional experts and even most literate citizens kind of knew that. What’s more important is that both law and judicial precedent establish that restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms are constitutional. That means gun control is a matter of public policy and law. The Court affirmed this in Heller:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

Now that the old, often circuitous argument over the Second Amendment is over, we can address the most pressing issue of gun control–handguns.

Handguns are primarily used to kill people, and the most common justification for private handgun ownership is home and personal protection. However, privately-owned handguns are far more likely to cause deaths by accident or felonious intent. They’re used in legitimate home and personal defense infrequently and often ineffectively.

The biggest problem with private ownership of handguns is that our society is now awash in them. For every handgun owned by a trained, safety-conscious, responsible citizen, there are hundreds in the hands of people who don’t know much about gun safety and couldn’t hit the side of a barn at 10 paces. And there are even more handguns in the possession of bad guys who use them to threaten and intentionally kill people.

Long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, are different. They’re used for hunting, serious target shooting, and home protection. And, of course, they’re sometimes used to kill people.

Currently we have a hodge-podge of federal, state, and local laws regarding guns. While there may be very restrictive gun control laws in one state or city, all a person has to do is drive to a more permissive jurisdiction, buy his weapons of choice, and drive home. Clearly, federal law is the only effective means of gun control.

It’s troubling to think of Harvey the plumber walking around the supermarket with a Beretta strapped to his side, but that’s happening in some U.S. states these days. Soldiers and police officers who are well-trained sometimes have accidents with weapons; how can anyone think plumbers and account executives won’t have many more? And what if I accidentally drop a can of peas on Harvey’s foot and piss him off? With the Beretta, he could kill me in an instant of rage (assuming he can hit anything with it). Without the Beretta, he’d have to attack me with his hands or a stick or whatever, assuming he could catch me. After running about 15 yards, he would most likely be so exhausted he would have to stop, and that would at least give him a chance to think about what he was doing.

And the bad guy? Well, take away the handgun, and he’s not such a big man. (Come to think of it, maybe that applies to Harvey as well.) I guess he could try robbing a store or swaggering around the neighborhood with a shotgun or a baseball bat, but that would cramp his style and make him a lot more obvious.

I think all handguns should be outlawed, except for law enforcement officers and a very small number of trained, vetted, and licensed people who have a legitimate need. Anyone else caught possessing or illegally buying, selling, or distributing handguns would be guilty of a felony and subject to mandatory jail time. If this prevents some men from strapping their manhood on their belts or inconveniences a few legitimate target shooters, so be it.

Would outlawing handguns run afoul of the Court’s recent ruling on the Second Amendment?  Perhaps, but it’s worth litigating again.  If private possession of fully-automatic weapons, assault rifles, sawed-off shotguns, mortars, and howitzers can be outlawed, why not handguns? They would be just one more in a long list of especially dangerous weapons that have been prohibited. 

I think reasonable long guns should be permitted for private citizens, with licensing and restrictions. “Reasonable” at the very least means no automatic weapons (more than one round per trigger pull), minimum barrel lengths, etc.

Maybe this would mean that for a while only the bad guys would have guns. That wouldn’t be much different from today, and with serious enforcement of the laws, bad guys could eventually be disarmed. Then maybe we could emerge from the wild west and join the rest of the world.

Note: For the record, I have nothing against guys named Harvey, plumbers, or account executives.

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6 Responses to “Gun Control”

  1. Brian |

    The phrase “well regulated” from the 2nd amendment simply means “trained” or “well trained.”

    Like it or not, the 9th amendment covers private gun ownership as well. There is no constitutional authority to regulate gun ownership for private citizens. If anyone thinks that there is, I’d like them to tell me where in the constitution that authority might be found.

    The constitution was written to limit the scope and power of the federal government, not to limit the scope and power of “we the people.”

    Let’s apply some logic to this. Since the War on (some) Drugs seems to have worked so well by banning certain drugs, why don’t we try to do the same thing with pistols and “assault” rifles. What you’ll eventually be left with is only criminals owning guns.

    I was a patrolman in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the entire country (called the Gulfton Ghetto – on Houston’s southwest side). My best response time to a code 1 call (Houston does things backwards – most places, the highest priority call is a code 3, but I digress) was about 55 seconds. And that was with me about 5 blocks away from where the call originated.

    What’s worse is that the USSC has decided on several different occasions that the police are not legally obliged to protect any individual, only the public in general. What this means is that if they do their job poorly, or do it well and still fail, in trying to apprehend the guy that has tied you up and is raping your daughter in front of you, that you have no legal recourse to recover damages from the police for that failure. Your safety is ultimately your responsibility, and yours alone.

  2. Tom |

    Brian, I understand your constitutional argument. All I can say is that constitutional law has evolved to the point where many actions of the federal government probably wouldn’t meet with the approval of most of the framers. This is particularly true in terms of use of the “general welfare” and “interstate commerce” clauses to expand the scope of federal power. The Ninth Amendment, as vague as it is, has been no defense against that expansion of power. This is just a statement of historical fact and current reality; it never satisfies originalists.

    Specifically, it’s well established in law that the federal government and state and local governments can regulate, restrict, or prohibit the sale, possession, etc of specific kinds of firearms. This was true even before Heller. While a broad federal prohibition of possession, purchase, sale, and distribution of handguns would undoubtedly be challenged, I think it would have a good chance of being upheld. Another, and more certain, approach would be a constitutional amendment. In any case, I firmly believe that these deadly weapons, the principle purpose of which is to kill people, must be taken out of the hands of the general public.

    Your arguments about self-defense and only criminals having guns are the standard counter-arguments, but they don’t hold up.

    The scenario you described of a man armed with a handgun defending his family against malefactors is as rare as hens’ teeth. You know as well as I do, or maybe better, that the average citizen is much more likely to be relieved of his handgun by the criminal. Beyond that, it’s far more likely that the handgun will be involved in an accidental shooting or used for some illegal purpose than that it will be successfully used for self-defense.

    Criminals being far better armed that the rest of the population is already a reality. The process of disarming the public of handguns can also successfully disarm criminals if it’s carried out seriously.

    I’ve lived in many countries where there wasn’t this “wild west” attachment to guns that we suffer from. The concept of the average citizen walking around “packin’ heat” is preposterous to most of the rest of the world. It should also be preposterous to us.

  3. Brian |

    The constitution cannot be changed by fiat. I understand that the government has usurped a great deal of power, but because the rest of the world does or does not do a thing leaves me less than impressed.

    If the constitution could be changed simply by changes in vernacular or custom, then what would be the purpose of of Article V?

    Since government is a legal fiction, at least ours is, it stands to reason that it is no more or less than the legal document that created it.

    At the end of the day, there are only two forms of government: those that are restrained, and those that are unrestrained. To argue for a living document, one must also argue for an unrestrained government. To do otherwise would be to litter your argument with contradictions. If the government can ignore inconvenient portions of the constitution, what is there keeping it from ignoring all of it eventually?

    As I have said previously, we are born sovereign. It is not within sovereigns to beg “If it please the crown…”, for we wear our own crowns.

    World history has demonstrated time and time again that militaries and police are not to be trusted with a monopoly on the use of force.

  4. Tom |

    The Constitution obviously can’t be changed by fiat; however, even without amending it, it has evolved. That’s a fact, whether we like it or not. And wasn’t that inevitable? How could a document written almost two and a half centuries ago survive into modern times without evolving? To me, the miracle is that it’s still around and that we still take it pretty seriously.

    Government is a legal fiction? I don’t understand what that means. It’s based on law, yes, but how is it a fiction? And just for giggles—which government in existence today would you prefer to have?

  5. Brian Bagent |

    You and I may take it quite seriously, but I am inclined to believe that few of our politicians do.

    As to the phrase “legal fiction,” it here means that government exists only in our minds and on paper. While there are a host of elected officials and civil servants, they have power only because people believe them to have power.

    A warrior stands in front of a king, a priest, and a wealthy merchant.

    The king says “I will give you a lordship if you will slay the other two.”

    The priest says “You will curry the favor of the gods if you slay the other two.”

    The wealthy merchant says “I will reward you with gold if you will slay the other two.”

    Who does the warrior kill?

  6. doris |

    You may think the power is all fiction,until you disobey the laws of the Government, then you go straight to real jail. Who does he kill, is this a trick question? Easy choice for a greedy man,but an easier choice for a moral man, he kills none of them.

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