WASHINGTON, April 25, 2013 — The recent defeat of a popular set of symbolic measures thanks to gun-industry lobbying will probably have more long-term impact on public opinion than the Newtown massacre.
For gun rights advocates, last week’s ill-advised “victory” will likely be remembered as the start of a disaster and they may be surprised by the shape of the landscape after the next election
For those who cherish the right to own firearms it would be wise to start thinking hard about a set of proposals that could address our glaring public safety problem without ending the era of American gun ownership. That will not be easy.
In an ownership culture, government does less to dictate individual choices and more to ensure accountability, transparency and responsibility. Those values are sorely lacking in current gun laws and almost completely absent from proposals under consideration.
Our current gun laws create a thicket of largely artificial, ineffectual, and often unenforceable rules riddled with loopholes. They are practically engineered to create the impression that only criminals can obtain a weapon. Strict compliance with the laws is challenging due to their complexity and contradictions.
At the same time, laws severely limit the ability to track weapons and identify and prosecute illegal dealers, making law enforcement efforts to stop criminal abuses unreasonably difficult. As a consequence, we have not only flooded the country with firepower, we have become a primary arms market for criminals in neighboring countries.
New proposals add more symbolic regulation on top of existing symbolic regulation. For example, an assault weapons ban sounds useful until you look at how vague the restrictions are. It is easy to circumvent them, and also easy to accidentally violate them. Background checks are a modest help at the moment of purchase, but they don’t follow that gun through its lifespan. Our thinking around weapons regulation fails to address the need for choice bounded by accountability, transparency and responsibility.
We need a new approach, but the effort to craft better laws is complicated by relative indifference to gun rights on one side and tin-hat paranoia on the other. Here’s an idea that might work.
First, regarding choice, loosen most of the explicit Federal curbs related to functionality, shape, and other characteristics of guns. They sound good, but they do not accomplish their goals and they needlessly entangle responsible gun owners.
In the interests of accountability and transparency, establish a formal, national gun registry with owner’s names and weapons’ serial numbers. That registry should have roughly the same privacy protections we give to medical records and would be accessible by law enforcement and insurers.
Building and maintaining the registry would be expensive. It would be funded by a sales tax on ammunition. Owning an unregistered weapon would be a Federal crime, punishable by imprisonment. Owners would also be accountable for those weapons, possessing a duty to notify authorities within a fixed time, perhaps seven days, of any theft or loss.
Gun owners would be responsible financially for their choices. No weapon could be registered or remain registered without proof of liability insurance provided annually. Lapsed insurance would be a crime which could be remedied by surrendering the uninsured weapons, paying a bond (self-insurance) or facing penalties for unlicensed possession.
Owners would bear civil liability for crimes or injuries resulting from the use of weapons registered to them. Gun ownership would cease to be a casual choice like buying a fishing pole, but it would still be available to those willing to handle the right responsibly.
A significant percentage of the annual royalties from Cat Scratch Fever would be diverted toward insuring Ted Nugent’s arsenal, but as long as he could afford the duties of responsible ownership, “The Nuge” could keep whatever guns he wants.
The registration and insurance requirements would make it very difficult for irresponsible or unstable owners to maintain a large hoard of weapons. A gun owner who was falling apart mentally or failing to take reasonable safety precautions would probably start getting attention from the authorities long before he, or someone with access to his weapons, shot up a movie theater.
State and local governments might enact additional requirements, within the bounds of a general right to gun ownership, or they might not. It would probably be much harder to carry a weapon in Manhattan than in Wyoming. That is entirely appropriate. That’s Federalism.
The choice to own almost any type of gun would remain, but it would be bounded by responsibilities. That is what liberty looks like to a traditional conservative.
The untrammeled right to own any weapon you want with no accountability or regulation does not exist and has never existed. As for the right to hold weapons in order to “defend” ourselves from our elected government, that does not exist and has never existed. It is not in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights and never has been found under any Constitutional interpretation we have ever used. Pack the Supreme Court with nine Scalias and we still won’t have those rights.
Such claims run counter to the any conservative notion of liberty. Where we are free, we are accountable. Freedom, as we like to say, is not free.
In more practical terms, if you actually believe that you’re going to defend yourself from Obama with your cache of AR-15s and a cellar full of canned goods, there’s little to discuss here. No weapon ever developed can shoot down the black helicopters that hover silently over your dreams. Private arsenals do not guarantee our freedom. The wise use of our political power and the protection of our basic institutions preserves liberty for ourselves and our children.
No proposal this sweeping could make it through our current Congress, but almost nothing worthwhile can. We can’t even pass a budget. When our partisan political logjam clears, and it will, this framework might be the best hope for preserving relatively broad personal gun ownership for the long term.
Under this set of rules, America would remain the most heavily armed nation in the developed world by a vast margin, but we could do it with far less mayhem. Choice, accountability, transparency, and responsibility: These values of the ownership society could drastically reduce the cost and carnage of unregulated weaponry while preserving America’s unique relationship to personal firearms.
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