A recent conversation I had with my nephew-in-law stimulated me to order my thinking about gun-control laws and engendered some new thoughts. My nephew-in-law (NIL) is quite liberal in all respects except on issues regarding gun control. He grew up with guns in his household and now owns his own guns, with which he responsibly enjoys such recreational activities as hunting and target practice. Here is the gist of the conversation:
JW: I accept that gun ownership provides leisure-time enjoyment for millions and will always be a part of the American culture. The salient questions are what type of weapons should be legal and what degree of regulation for the safe use of guns is necessary.
Regarding the rules, closing the gun-show loophole is obvious. Criminal background checks make sense. Cooling-down periods are necessary to prevent some of the shootings that are born of passion. All guns must be registered, and transfers of weapons (including theft) must be documented. Safe storage of guns should be mandatory, and gun owners whose weapons are used illegally should be held accountable, perhaps with fines or even legal consequences (for instance, misdemeanors).
Regarding the type of guns that should be allowed …
NIL: First, let me say I agree with everything you have said up to now, but would add licensing for all gun owners that would involve the teaching of safe use and storage of guns. I also think every gun owner should undergo some type of psychological vetting before getting a gun license.
JW: This "psychological vetting" is a tall order. I just don't think we have good enough screening tools (whether written or personal interviews) to effectively determine who can and who cannot own a gun responsibly. In addition to the staggering cost such a policy would necessitate, such screening would inevitably carry many "false positives" and "false negatives." That is, people who will never carry any risk for committing violence with a gun could be labeled as ineligible for gun ownership (false positive), and "closet" psychotics may breeze through psychological screening (false negatives). Moreover, there are thorny policy questions. Should a person who took some doctor-prescribed anti-depressants in his/her 20s for a temporary bout of depression be labeled as having a mental illness and forever be ineligible for gun ownership? What about people on drugs for anxiety? It's easy to say paranoid schizophrenics should be denied guns, but there are many more gray areas in mental disorders than the obvious slam dunks. And how would the information regarding mental illness that never makes it to the legal system be accessed? Doctors are bound by patient confidentiality, and medical records would therefore not
NIL: OK, I see your point on psychological testing. The next thing I am going to say will surprise you, though: I believe people have the constitutional right to buy and own any type of weapon without limits.
JW: How about bazookas?
JW: Rocket-propelled grenades?
Here I finally made him stumble. I jumped on the opportunity to say that we had now established the principle that government can limit the use of some weapons — now we just needed to debate where the line should be drawn. I said that semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines exceeded my limits. I acknowledged that these types of weapons constituted a small percentage of the problem of gun homicides, but, in the words of President Obama, saving even one life with a semi-automatic weapons bans would be worthwhile. And common sense laws described above would address the Newtown level of mayhem that occurs daily with handguns in our big cities.
NIL: One reason I feel that responsible citizens should be allowed to own sophisticated weaponry is that guns are necessary to protect ourselves from the government.
Our conversation ended and I was troubled by NIL's last point. It sounded like the ravings of a paranoid, knuckle-dragging member of the American Nazi Party. Because I respect NIL so much, though, I thought about this for a couple of days. Then I mentally took myself out of our mostly orderly society and wondered whether I might agree with NIL if I were a Syrian. Maybe citizen-owned guns are an important last resort when the Brown shirts are pounding on your door.
At any rate, Americans have a strong weapon against the government — the ballot box. It is scandalously underutilized, but that is the subject for another conversation.