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John Stossel / Apr. 6, 2011

Gun Owners Have a Right to Privacy

If you own a gun in Illinois, take precautions. The state attorney general, Lisa Madigan, wants to release the names of guns owners in response to an Associated Press request. Publication of that list would tell the criminal class where the guns are, which could be useful to two different sorts of lawbreakers: gun thieves who want to know where the guns are and burglars who want to know where they are not.

New York City released its list recently at The New York Times’ request. It included “dozens of boldface names and public figures: prominent business leaders, elected officials, celebrities, journalists, judges and lawyers,” the Times reported. It then named names.

If you own a gun in Illinois, take precautions. The state attorney general, Lisa Madigan, wants to release the names of guns owners in response to an Associated Press request. Publication of that list would tell the criminal class where the guns are, which could be useful to two different sorts of lawbreakers: gun thieves who want to know where the guns are and burglars who want to know where they are not.

New York City released its list recently at The New York Times’ request. It included “dozens of boldface names and public figures: prominent business leaders, elected officials, celebrities, journalists, judges and lawyers,” the Times reported. It then named names.

People who want the lists made public say the disclosure is necessary to assure that government doesn’t issue permits to felons. They point to an AP report that gun permits were given to hundreds of felons in Florida, Tennessee and Indiana. So because government is not competent enough to obey its own rules, the rest of us must have our privacy compromised? I don’t buy it.

As Richard Pearson of the Illinois State Rifle Association says: “There is no legitimate reason for anyone to have access to the information. The safety of real people is at stake here. Once this information is released, it will be distributed to street gangs and gun-control groups, who will use the data to target gun owners for crime and harassment.”

Good point. One nice thing about concealed weapons is that even people who don’t carry guns are safer because the muggers can’t tell who is armed and who isn’t. Releasing the list of permit-holders undermines that benefit. It’s not unusual for a woman who has been threatened by an ex-husband or boyfriend to obtain a gun and a carry permit for self-protection. Why should the threatening male get to find out if the woman is armed?

The anti-gun lobby downplays this danger as though it were inconceivable that someone would get names off a list in order to commit violence. However, we know of cases where people named on sex-offender registries were murdered.

We also know that lawful gun owners in New Orleans had their guns confiscated by government authorities after Hurricane Katrina.

No one should be soothed by assurances that publication of those lists poses no threat to law-abiding gun owners.

Let’s take this a step further. This issue is presented as one of those balancing acts: The privacy of lawful gun owners, we’re told, must be balanced by the people’s “right to know” and the need to hold government accountable. But the only reason that governments have lists of gun owners is that they require licenses or concealed-carry permits. The right to self-defense, and therefore the right to buy and carry a handgun (the most effective means of self-defense), should require no one’s permission. It is a natural right. The Second Amendment didn’t invent the right to own guns. It merely recognizes it: “(T)he right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It doesn’t say, “The people shall have the right to keep and bear arms.”

Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont recognize this right and require no permits to carry guns. (Montana also has this policy in all but a few urban areas.)

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, while striking down outright bans on handguns, left room for permits. But it’s hard to see how that is consistent with the natural right of self-defense.

I leave aside whether a felon who has served his sentence should be deprived of the means of self-defense because there’s a more practical point: Gun laws have no effect on people who plan to break other, more serious laws. Guns are the tools of the criminal trade. If people in that business can’t get them legally, they’ll get them in the black market. And where there is prohibition, there will always be a black market.

The law of supply and demand is as reliable as the law of gravity.

I say we reject the premise that the state can legitimately exercise this power at all. What would Thomas Jefferson have said about gun permits?

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