The Right Opinion

Do We Want Better Enforcement of Misguided Gun Restrictions?

By Jacob Sullum · Jan. 23, 2013

“The single most important thing we can do to prevent gun violence and mass shootings,” President Obama said last week, “is to make sure those who would commit acts of violence cannot get access to guns.” Toward that end, he wants to require background checks not just for sales by federally licensed firearms dealers (as under current law), but for all gun transfers except those between relatives.

This idea seems to be the most popular of Obama's gun control proposals, supported by nine out of 10 respondents in a recent CBS News poll. Yet it is unlikely to stop mass shootings, and enforcing it would require the sort of surveillance that has long been anathema to defenders of the Second Amendment, exposing millions of peaceful people to the threat of gun confiscation and criminal prosecution.

Although an expanded background check requirement is ostensibly a response to last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it would not have stopped the gunman in that attack, who used firearms legally purchased by his mother. Even if he had tried to buy guns, it seems he would have passed a background check because he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record.

That is typically the case in mass shootings, observes Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. And if they could not pass a background check, Fox says, “mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends.”

Meanwhile, to make sure that every gun buyer undergoes a background check, the government would need to know where all the guns are at any given time. Although Obama did not mention that little detail last week, The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the administration was “seriously considering” creating a system that would “track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database.”

Second Amendment supporters historically have opposed gun registration, fearing that it could ultimately lead to confiscation, something that has actually happened in places such as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, California and New York City. While wholesale disarmament would be clearly unconstitutional in this country, confiscation of guns that legislators arbitrarily deem unnecessary or excessively dangerous is easier to imagine, especially given Obama's support for a new, stricter ban on “assault weapons.”

Perhaps fear of confiscation seems paranoid to you. But consider what would happen if the federal government merely enforced existing law through expanded background checks and improved records – another step nearly everyone seems to think is self-evidently sensible. Such a crackdown would reveal the folly of current restrictions, which prohibit gun ownership by several absurdly broad categories of people under the threat of a five-year prison term.

One disqualifier is a felony record, whether or not the offense involved violence or even a victim. It is doubtful that check-kiters, marijuana growers or unauthorized farm workers (another banned category) are substantially more likely to go on a shooting rampage than the average person.

Federal law also bars “an unlawful user of … any controlled substance” from owning a gun. Think about that for a minute. If you smoke pot or use a relative's Vicodin or Xanax, you have no right to keep and bear arms. Survey data indicate that nearly 40 million Americans have used “illicit drugs” in the last year, and the true number is probably higher, since people may be reluctant to admit illegal behavior even when their answers are confidential.

One of Obama's “common-sense steps” to reduce gun violence is better sharing of data by federal agencies, including lists of employees or job applicants who have failed drug tests. Seeking such information from state agencies and private employers seems equally logical.

This is one of those situations where “better” could be worse. Although better enforcement of existing restrictions on gun ownership sounds unobjectionable, it would unjustly deny millions of people the right to armed self-defense.

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5 Comments

Capt. Call in New Mexico said:

Sadly, the left never met a Constitution it liked! If the Constitution can be altered by mere leftist idealism through Judicial Decree, it is not "a living document" as the leftists proclaim, but is truly dead.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 1:26 AM

rab in jo,mo said:

"closing the gun show loophole" (e.g., banning private firearm transfers) gets so much support in polls because the majority of people out there have no clue about the topic. They'll learn soon enough, if passed, when Joe Bob gets arrested for having an illegal weapon because that shotgun that Grandpa gave him wasn't transferred through a dealer.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 8:21 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

Nothing that comes from Chairman Obamao has any relation to common sense, just dictatorial marxist treason. I will not comply with illegal orders or regulations.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 9:53 AM

BJ in St. Cloud, MN said:

Throughout history governments have used passionate situations like mass shootings to disarm law abiding citizens. The Colorado theater shooter and the nut job that shot up the children’s school in Conn. were breaking about forty laws, why then would a criminal who by definition breaks the law obey a couple more gun laws?

Chicago and New York have had total gun bans for years yet they have the highest murder rates so explain to me how taking a law abiding citizens gun away will stop the carnage. Mexico has had a total gun ban for many years yet 55,000 people have been killed in the last 5 years by drug dealers and despotic govt. Should we forget that we didn’t win our independence from King George’s despotic govt in 1776 by using our first amendment right to free speech-we shot them. And, now just over 200 years later you want me to trust the govt that we are armed in defense of to regulate my gun?

The U.S. Constitution is a limitation on the govt, not on private individuals. It does not dictate the conduct of private individuals, only the conduct of govt. It is not a charter for govt. power, but a charter of the citizens protection against the govt.

The U.S. Constitution is a limitation on the govt, not on private individuals. It does not dictate the conduct of private individuals, only the conduct of govt. It is not a charter for govt. power, but a charter of the citizens protection against the govt.
The above being the case I need to state the obvious; this country was founded on the INDIVIDUALS rights and even if it upsets or affects the "collective" these rights are not changeable. Shall not be infringed!!

TERM LIMITS-IMPEACH-PROSECUTE-SOON
We've tried to keep America by the jury box, the soapbox, the ballot box. Only one left, the bullet box. Invest in precious metal-copper, brass, lead.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 3:13 PM

Cowboy in San Antonio said:

I suppose that anyone over the age of about 25 has met the occasional odd person who appeared to be hearing a different drummer. While I have met quite a large number of such folk, I was never apprehensive that any of them would go postal. In fact, over the past 40 years or so, none of my slightly weird acquaintances have committed mass murder. I want to know Obama's criteria for not allowing an individual to possess a firearm. Perhaps the following: One eye higher than the other. Moles on the face. Regular church attender. Gainfully employed. Family man. Modest dresser. Little league coach. Competent bowler. Former soldier. Perhaps there is a better way, such as schoolteachers getting involved and picking out those kids who seem to be "Most likely to kill a bunch of people", and referring these kids for psychological evaluation by someone other than an ACLU mental health worker. Perhaps we can begin recognizing the rabid dogs among the population, and get them either therapy, or institutionalized, before they go bananas with a firearm. Putting armed guards at schools is a good backup measure, and I would be happy to spend a day each week as an armed guard at any school in my hometown. A "well regulated militia" comes to mind.

Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 9:52 PM