Sunday, October 31, 2004

Death of a Bad “Law”

On September 13, A.D. 2004, the 10-year-old federal ban on “assault weapons” expired. The “law,” which banned semi-automatic firearms with certain cosmetic and ergonomic features, had done nothing to reduce violent crime. This was not surprising for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that semi-automatic rifles were rarely used in crimes even before the ban.

Nevertheless, in the days and weeks before the ban expired, many gun-control advocates and “impartial” news reports warned that “deadly assault weapons” would soon “flood the streets” and lead to a new “epidemic of gun violence.” Senior law-enforcement officials (such as Sheriff Lee Baca and Chief William Bratton) publicly worried about the safety of their subordinates. On a similar note, CSU Fullerton’s Daily Titan ran the following editorial.

Weapons of destruction

Daily Titan Editorial Board
September 13, 2004

Thanks to the National Rifle Association’s indefatigable lobbying, the federal assault weapon ban
expires today.

For the first time in 10 years, Americans can legally purchase 19 ludicrously lethal weapons, with high-capacity ammunition clips to match.

This is a pernicious development for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the policy was an overwhelming success.

Federal statistics reveal that crimes perpetrated with the aid of the banned weapons—which included Tec-9s and Uzis—were down by more than 60 percent since former President Clinton signed it into law.

What we find most contemptible is the mendacity by which the assault weapons ban was attacked. The bill’s now-victorious opponents speciously wrap themselves in the Second Amendment. Corporate interests, ranging from gun-manufacturers to dealers have, with the help of the NRA, painted their profit-hungry cause as one of freedom-loving patriots and hunters.

The Bill of Rights authors would be aghast to see the molestation of their hallowed document.

Over subsequent generations, American legislators have learned the bill’s ultimate virtue: the flexibility and breadth which allows contemporary wisdom the autonomy to work with, not just within, the Bill of Rights.

Literal interpretations are dangerous, as former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously articulated with his admonishment of First Amendment freedoms.

The First Amendment does not, Holmes said, grant citizens the right to “shout fire in a crowded
theater;” some speech may be restricted if it presents imminent danger.

The same theory applies to the Second Amendment, which grants citizens “the right to bear
arms,” and makes no further distinction.

Taken literally, the Second Amendment would permit citizens to stockpile bazookas and warheads. Of course, no one finds that sensible.

We don’t find the idea of anyone being able to purchase AK-47s to be sensible either.

Proliferation of profusely deadly weapons is only good for manufacturers’ pockets.

Given the amount of weapons being used in America’s foreign military engagements, haven’t
those who produce killing machines gotten rich enough?

Amused but somewhat bothered by the hysteria, misinformation, and outright bigotry presented in this editorial, I decided to send an e-mail to the Daily Titan’s opinion editor, Robert Rogers. Following the newspaper’s editorial guidelines, I kept my comments very brief.

Re.: Weapons of destruction …

Dear Mr. Rogers:

Though California still has its own permanent, more stringent ban on “assault weapons,” I’m compelled to respond to the Daily Titan’s histrionic editorial … on the expiration of the federal version.

As the editorial board demonstrates, the ban itself was widely misunderstood. The Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 prohibited the sale to private citizens of semi-automatic rifles with certain ergonomic features. These features (such as pistol grips and flash suppressors) had nothing to do with how powerful or dangerous the weapons were. In fact, the banned rifles were no more “ludicrously lethal” or “profusely deadly” than many other similar firearms.

According to the FBI, crime with semi-automatic rifles was minuscule before the ban, so even a 60-percent drop is statistically insignificant, but this debate isn’t about statistics or even criminology. As the Daily Titan suggests, the real question is one of rights. Why should a law-abiding citizen be prohibited from owning anything so long as he doesn’t misuse it?

The editorial board answers by misapplying Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous remark about shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. The corollary to Holmes statement, however, is that if the theater really is on fire, the responsible citizen has the right to warn fellow theatergoers. Likewise, if violently attacked, the responsible citizen has the right to defend herself with a firearm. In a free society, we would punish the abuse of rights but would not prohibit their exercise.

My letter was published in the Daily Titan’s Sept. 20th issue. However, this process instigated and interesting and amusing e-mail exchange between Mr. Rogers and myself. I have reproduced verbatim his first response below.

Mr. Van Norman,

Thank you for reading and responding to the Titan. I hope that you continue to read not only the editorials, of which I am the author, but the paper as a whole. Needless to say, I disagree steadfastly with your position, but appreciate it nonetheless.

Please check upcoming issues of the Titan for the printing of this letter. I entreat you to respond in the future.

Thank you,
Robert Rogers

P.S. Was a “responsible citizen’s” right to defend him/herself with a firearm truncated by the expired law? If so, at what point are “firearms” too deadly to be legal?

Two more points: The editorial board has no misunderstanding of the ban, as you haughtily suggest. The fact that some legal weapons may have been arguably as deadly in no way precludes the banned weapons from being accurately labeled “profusely deadly.”

As for this phrase: “Why should a law-abiding citizen be prohibited from owning ANYTHING so long as he doesn’t misuse it?” I will let the silliness of this speak for itself

Now free of the newspaper’s page limits, I responded to Mr. Rogers at greater length.

Dear Mr. Rogers:

Thank you for your reply. Even as a university staff member, I enjoy reading the Daily Titan when I have the chance. I have enough experience with journalism to know that one must take the good with the bad. Like any newspaper, the Titan serves a bit of both. To be fair, I probably shouldn’t have called your editorial histrionic. It spoke for itself in that respect.

From the tone of your e-mail, I now see that you would prefer to prohibit most, if not all firearms and other dangerous weapons. I didn’t address that idea in my first e-mail, because I didn’t have the space, and it was only indirectly germane to your editorial. I’ll do so here, as it’s more relevant to the broader debate.

First, though, I’ll explain my perspective. I believe in a free society, wherein people can do as they please so long as they don’t harm others. (The right to keep and bear arms is a small but important portion of this freedom.) Naturally, I take note and am distressed when anyone advocates limiting freedom or curtailing rights. In discussing the point, I prefer to argue from principle rather than utility, even when the utilitarian argument supports my point of view (as it often does in the gun-control debate).

Now, the basic argument for banning guns is that if there were fewer guns available, fewer people would be murdered with them, and this is true on its face. However, the “with them” portion is often omitted, incorrectly implying that there would be fewer murders overall. As an educated person, Mr. Rogers, you know that many people were murdered before firearms were invented and many more will probably be murdered after firearms are replaced by some superior form of weaponry. Even if we could somehow eliminate all guns, violence would still be a sad reality in our world.

So I’ll ask this question again. Why should you or I or any other responsible person be prohibited from owning or doing anything so long as we don’t harm anyone else? You called this a silly question, but you didn’t explain why. As you are the one calling for suppression of others’ liberties, I believe you are the one who must justify himself.

On average, in the United States, about 15,000 people are killed in firearms-related homicides each year. By contrast, about 40,000 people are killed in automobile crashes. If guns are so dangerous that they should be banned, then cars are even more so. That is the inescapable utilitarian argument, but prohibiting either would be wrong in a free society.

As you imply, the responsible citizen’s right to defend himself was not significantly restricted by the expired “law.” That’s why I didn’t argue that point per se. What the federal “assault-weapons” ban represented (and our California ban still does) was one more small step toward total prohibition of private firearms, one intended to make the next step that much easier. We saw proof of this last week, when Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will ban single-shot .50-caliber rifles beginning next year. These rifles have never been used in a crime in California.

Yes, all firearms are dangerous. That’s why they were invented and why we still need them. A simple handgun can make a 90-pound woman the physical equal of a 250-pound man. To forbid firearms is to leave the weak perpetually at the mercy of the strong. I invite you to study history for examples of how unpleasant that arrangement has so often been.

We could trade statistics, if you like. I could cite studies and data showing the benefits of private gun ownership, and with a little effort you could cite opposing numbers, which I could probably refute, but that would get us nowhere. The simple truth is that we can’t eliminate violence through legislation. After all, criminals don’t obey laws.

I realize my words probably won’t sway your opinion. Nevertheless, I’ve spent the better part of my Sunday evening writing this e-mail, because I once felt much the same way you appear to. I thought that sometimes people had to be forced to do the right thing, but then I realized the logical conclusion to this utilitarian line of thought. Utilitarianism can be and has been used to justify the extremes of human greed and cruelty. Freedom is the only acceptable alternative.

Freedom is often frightening and dangerous, which is why so few people really desire it. Freedom comes with responsibility, and abuse of freedom can and should be met with appropriate punishment. Freedom also means accepting others and their beliefs and behaviors, even if you dislike them. Ironically, the same people who advocate gun control usually advocate this kind of tolerance as well.

Finally, as fear and ignorance are the foundations of bigotry, I would like to offer you the opportunity to learn a bit more about firearms and possibly dispel any unnecessary apprehension you may feel about them. They are just inanimate objects, after all. If you’ve never fired a gun before, please consider this an open invitation for a safety lesson and an afternoon of target practice at a local shooting range.

Mr. Rogers’ reply was filled with somewhat juvenile but perhaps good-natured posturing. Unfortunately, he continued to demonstrate a lack of understanding of gun-control legislation and of individual rights and freedom. Notice, how he proudly walked into my guns-vs.-cars trap. Here is his reply verbatim.

Mr. Van Norman,

Thank you for contributing your valuable time and expertise to our discourse. As for our previous correspondence, I hope you have the opportunity to peruse today’s Titan -- your letter is enclosed as promised. Reader response is steadily growing.

As for the loquacious response to which I reply, I brush it aside as little more than interesting reading. Your writing is steady and smooth, though far from mellifluous. Some of your points, such as your discovery that people were murdered before the invention of firearms, were at best belabored; at worst, they smacked of pontification. As you are an educated university employee, and I a student, I’ll forgive your proclivity for superciliously pandering to students from whom you expect servile deference.

I am not one of those students. Please read on, as I will methodically dissect each of your points. I trust that, as a sportsmen, you will enjoy the contest. I expect that, as a competitor, you'll be pained by crushing defeat.

First, allow me to clarify so as to avoid allowing you to tangle yourself in additional erroneous conclusions: I do not espouse the prohibition of all firearms and other “dangerous weapons;” I have in fact never alluded to such a position. I merely condemned lifting a federal law that outlawed the sale of a particular batch of weapons and ammunition cases. Your use of slippery-slope rhetoric is, though tiresome and easily confuted, employed with laughable regularity by gun enthusiasts and anti-government freedom fanatics alike. My editorial clearly made germane the point that the right to possess firearms, like many other rights, is not absolute. Your supposition was incorrect.

I too believe in a free society (who doesn’t? That was a loaded, banal statement). I believe that citizens should be endowed with the right to bear arms. However, the 20th century has brought with it technological innovations that have forced us to examine what men and nations may and may not do. To believe that certain rights should be immutable over time is to not accept reality. Imagine, if you will, that a stream runs through a village, and it is decided that all may share indiscriminately in the water. Over time, the village grows big and the stream grows small. If people did not ration their intake -- by re-examining their ethos and PRODUCTIVELY LIMITING their rights -- all would die. Or, as is likely in a world in which unfettered weapon stockpiling was possible, all but a few would perish. I find it admirable that you engage me so energetically.

Contrary to what you assert, both principle and utility are firmly in my ammunition holsters.

Granted, people were murdered before firearms -- I will not dignify that piece of historical research with any further mention.

You ask the question: Why should you or I or any other responsible person be prohibited from owning or doing anything so long as we don’t harm anyone else?

Allow me to retort … Please descend for a moment from your skyward, philosophical ideals, Mr. Van Norman. You must accept that the epoch in which we live is fraught with the dangers of our own ingenuity. On a global scale, life on this planet could be annihilated by man-made weapons, should one disgruntled leader choose to “harm anyone else.” As a response, nations have negotiated non-proliferation treaties to curtail the potentiality of freedom to own weapons leading capable of bringing about total devastation.

On a parochial level, one disgruntled person, be it a 90-pound woman or 250-pound man, is empowered as never before. With the right weaponry, the person can lay waste to a multitude of people, a whole community if you will, in an absurdly short period of time.

The past is gone; the new reality is one of heightened stakes. Just as warfare between nation-states and its corollary probability, global devastation, has required new rules with the advent of new weapons, the profusely deadly weapons available to individual actors requires new ways of thinking about individual rights.

Also, the notion of a militia protecting itself against the tyranny of U.S. government has grown moot with time and technology. In short, the catastrophic capabilities of modern weaponry, which includes the awesome power of U.S. military power, makes the right to own ANY and/or ALL types of firearms unjustifiably dangerous and of no utility.

Take a long look at your next paragraph: On average, in the United States, about 15,000 people are killed in firearms-related homicides each year. By contrast, about 40,000 people are killed in automobile crashes. If guns are so dangerous that they should be banned, then cars are even more so. That is the inescapable utilitarian argument, but prohibiting either would be wrong in a free society.

Is this argument really inescapable? If so, call me Houdini. You are right that more people die in car crashes than by firearm. Cars, like many wondrous technological innovations of the 20th century, are capable of destroying human life. Therefore, everything concerning automobiles are subject to state regulation. What you can own (no tanks, many not “street legal”), how you can operate, taxes, roadways, speed limits, etc., are all stipulated by the state, in large part for safety purposes. Guns too should be heavily regulated, beginning with what you can own (no bazookas, M-60s), and including with what they may be operated. With cars, you can’t burn alcohol; with guns, you shouldn’t be able to have high-capacity ammunition magazines.

After such a thorough denunciation of your unequivocal statement, I bet you wish you had that one back!

You call this one small step toward total prohibition of private firearms. Well, the ban has been lifted. After 10 years on the books, the ban envisaged no such next step. This is more slippery slope stuff, and it is all the more ineffective given that the slide appears to be progressing in the other direction, that is, less gun control.

I have, and do, study history. I need no invitation. At some point, however, one has to realize that many of the foundations upon which history was forged have eroded, at least in cases that feature rapid technological advancement. In 1800, a man had a difficult time killing more than one person with a gun. There is no history that can easily establish a paradigm with which we can study the consequences of not regulating modern weapons. Weapons today are not equalizers, as you suggest. Modern weapons endow men with powers they were never meant to have; ultimately corruptible power. With the right weapon, a 90-pound woman can kill thousands.

As for trading statistics, I am doing well enough without them. As I am demonstrating before your probably awestruck eyes, your arguments are sufficiently pulverized by my logic alone. Your argument went nowhere; my argument seeks to mold our individual rights into practical constructs applicable to the world in which we live. No reasonable person would find full freedom of arms possession to be applicable. I am not naive enough to believe that violence can be ended through legislation. The naivete rests on your side of the argument (again, that people should be able to own any weapon). Do you fatalistically suggest that since problems can’t be “solved” through legislation, legislation is itself futile? With assault weapons illegal, there will nevertheless still be people who possess them and kill with them. With cocaine illegal, people will still use it, sell it and even kill for it. Should society capitulate in the face of these challenges? Should things be made legal just because their illegality fails to curtail them to a certain level.

You oversimplify when you posit that I think “people must be forced” to do the right thing. The utilitarian argument is firmly on my side, not yours. The logical conclusion is that with the advancement of weapons, the laws of nature and freedom must be refreshed. We cannot axiomatically remain rooted in certain lines of thought when the material conditions (ie weapons) have progressed in their deadliness to levels we could not have foreseen. This is the struggle of our time: How to prevent the proliferation of ever-advancing weapons that carry with them the potential of widespread destruction.

Freedom has always been frightening and dangerous, as you said. However, freedom of arms has never carried with it the capacity for freedom-crushing death that it does today. Seriously, to imply that accepting beliefs and behaviors somehow encompasses the freedom to own ANY weapon in 2004 is myopic. The abuse of freedom (like mowing down hundreds with a machine gun) carries with it much graver consequences than it did in a different era.

Finally, I must thank you for the hearty chuckle I got out of your suggestion that I go shoot some guns. While firing off some rounds may be fun, to think that it will aid my understanding of this issue is, well, predictable advice from an obvious gun aficionado like yourself. Fear and ignorance do not drive my beliefs, dispassionate analysis does. Like a reasonable person, I think American’s should be able to legally own hunting rifles and pistols. As for the exact line between legal and illegal, that is debatable. However, I maintain my opinion that those weapons devoid of practical use (hunting, defending one’s body and property) should be vigorously sought and seized by the Federal government. Fully automatic should not be an option. Magazines carrying any more than 10 rounds should be cracked down upon. These propositions, however vague, are still diametrically opposed to your “any weapon” mantra.

People kill people, but technology greatly enhances a killer’s prolificness.

Thank you,
Robert Rogers

p.s. Some of my posturing and aggressive tactics above might appear crude or pejorative. I apologize. In the end, I am just having fun and learning. The next time I go to the library, hopefully we can meet, shake hands and talk, time permitting.

Ignoring Mr. Rogers’ posturing, I returned with facts and reason, though this e-mail was actually the most emotional for me. I also provided a brief primer on the history of gun control in the United States. Of course, I couldn’t resist destroying his let’s-treat-guns-like-cars argument.

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Thank you for your long but well-reasoned reply. You at least took the time to think about the issue, which is more than a lot of people would do. If nothing else, this exchange of rhetorical barbs has been an amusing exercise for both of us. However, I hope you don’t really believe that I expect “servile deference” from students. On the contrary, I want students to investigate this issue for themselves and draw their own conclusions, rather than merely accepting the propaganda put out by lobbyists on both sides.

With that out of the way, let me address each of your points. First, what is a weapon that is too dangerous? In your first reply, you acknowledged that there was little difference between the banned “assault weapons” and other semi-automatic rifles, suggesting that these other firearms should also be prohibited. Now, you say that only certain weapons should be banned.

I’m sorry to belabor the point, but a semi-automatic firearm will discharge only one round of ammunition each time its trigger is pulled. Standard magazine capacity for these weapons usually ranges from 10 to 30 rounds. (If it matters, machine guns and other automatic firearms have been tightly regulated since 1934 and were not subject to the 1994 ban.) So how is a banned semi-automatic “combat” rifle firing an intermediate cartridge more dangerous than a non-banned semi-automatic “hunting” rifle firing a high-powered cartridge, if the only other difference between them is a pistol grip?

How is any firearm more dangerous than a box of matches, which can be used to kill hundreds at a time with much less effort? Anything can and will be used as a deadly weapon by someone intent on murder or mayhem. A “disgruntled person” can kill more people more quickly behind the wheel of a perfectly legal four-ton SUV than he can with a banned semi-automatic rifle. In this respect, the will to do harm is the most dangerous weapon we know.

In June 2001, a man armed only with a kitchen knife killed eight children and wounded 21 other students and teachers at an elementary school in gun-free Japan. You know what happened that September on four gun-free American airliners. Nearly 3,000 people were murdered by men armed only with flimsy box cutters. These murderers succeeded because they had the determination to kill and because their victims had been disarmed and trained not to resist. I will return to this last point a little later.

You say you also believe in a free society, but obviously yours would not be as free as mine. I think some rights are immutable, or inalienable, as the Founders would have said. Your example of limiting rights doesn’t hold water, if I may be permitted a little banal humor. Riparian rights have often been a point of conflict, with some people enjoying them at the expense of others. For example, when L.A. ran short of water, rather than rationing its use, the city simply appropriated more from other communities.

Let’s compare this idea to weapons. You believe that unfettered access to firearms would lead to many deaths, but the opposite proves true. When guns are prohibited or even just tightly restricted, then only the criminals will have easy access to them, and these are the people most likely to misuse them.

In the U.S., 37 states now permit their citizens to carry concealed handguns after doing little more than passing a standard criminal-background check. Most of these states adopted such shall-issue permit laws within the last 15 years. Invariably, in each state, the opposition claimed that legal concealed handguns would lead to “blood in the streets.” Minor traffic accidents, casual disagreements, and petty disputes would all escalate into shootouts, they warned. These dire predictions never came to pass. In fact, permit holders have proven to be more law-abiding than the population at large and are even less likely to commit crimes than police officers.

Returning to the guns-vs.-cars comparison, you point out the amount of regulation placed on automobiles and suggest that firearms should be similarly regulated. Many other gun-control advocates also make this argument, and many right-to-arms advocates would happily accept this paradigm! Let’s examine your idea in more detail.

In California, all I need to buy a car is enough money. I may purchase the car from either a licensed dealer or a private individual. I may even buy one in another state. If I want to drive my new vehicle on public roads, however, I must get a driver license, register the car with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and purchase insurance. Once I’ve done these things, I’m free to drive throughout the United States and, for the most part, throughout Canada and Mexico as well.

Getting the driver license is easy. I must pass simple written and practical tests and must be at least 16 years old. Without exception, the DMV will issue a license to any eligible driver who meets these requirements. A California Driver License is valid for four years and may be renewed routinely through the mail.

To buy a handgun in California, I may purchase only through a dealer licensed both by the California Department of Justice and by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits me from buying a handgun outside of my home state. However, before I can buy the gun, I must be 21 years old and have a Handgun Safety Certificate.

Getting the HSC is also relatively easy. I must take a gun-safety course and then pass a simple written test. The HSC is valid for four years but requires retesting for renewal. As an historical aside, the HSC replaced another safety-certification program that was originally sold as “valid for life,” so we can probably expect even stricter “safety” legislation in the future.

Once I have my HSC, I can finally purchase a handgun from a licensed dealer. However, I may only buy models that have passed a safety inspection by the California DOJ and are not designated as “assault weapons,” and I’m restricted to one handgun per month. In addition to my HSC, I must also provide some additional documentation before I can buy the gun.

To prove my citizenship and residence in California, I must provide the licensed firearms dealer with my CDL (or California ID) and a copy of a utility bill or other legal document showing my California address. Once the dealer has my HSC, CDL, and proof of residence, we can begin the process of legally transferring the handgun to me. First, I must pass a criminal-background check by the California DOJ and the FBI. (Illegal aliens, former felons, drug addicts, alcoholics, subjects of restraining orders, the mentally ill, and those convicted of certain misdemeanors are prohibited from owning firearms.) Though this background check can often be completed within minutes thanks to computerized databases, I must also wait through a 10-day “cooling-off” period required by California law.

At this time, my prospective handgun purchase is also registered with the California DOJ and the BATFE. This legally transfers the gun from the dealer’s inventory to my ownership. Registration allows police to conduct ownership traces for guns recovered from crime scenes and in other situations, but unlike what you see on CSI or Law & Order every week, it is rarely useful in solving crimes.

Once my 10 days are up, I can return to the gun shop, but I had better not wait longer than 30 days, or I must start the whole process over again. Before I can actually take delivery of my new handgun, I must still perform a safe-handling demonstration, provide a thumbprint, and either buy a certified gun lock or prove ownership of an approved gun safe. With that accomplished, I can finally take my gun home, but it must be locked in the trunk of my car separate from any ammunition during the trip.

By law, I may only have my gun at my own residence, on other private property where authorized by the owner, or certain other designated places (shooting ranges, hunting areas, etc.). When transporting it to one of these places, I must keep the gun secured as above. At home, I must also keep my gun stored in such a way that a child or unauthorized adult may not get access to it. If I fail to do so, and an injury or death results, I will also go to prison.

In general, if I want to carry my handgun on my person for defense of myself and my family, I must apply to my local police chief or sheriff for a California concealed-weapons permit. In addition to the application form and fee, I must submit a full set of fingerprints, certification of advanced training, and a statement of cause for issuance of the permit. The sheriff or police chief may then issue or deny the permit at his discretion, even if I meet all the requirements. As you can imagine, very few permits are issued, but when they are, they usually go to the wealthy, famous, or politically connected. Even those with unquestionable need (death threats, protective orders, etc.) are routinely denied permits, and women and minorities are also grossly underrepresented among permit holders.

If I somehow do manage to get a California concealed weapons permit, it is valid only in California. It is also valid for only two years, and renewal involves repeating the entire application process. Unlike my driver license, the permit doesn’t allow me to carry in any other states, let alone Canada and Mexico. There’s something in the U.S. Constitution about “full faith and credit” between states, but nobody cares about that dusty old thing anymore.

So, yes, let’s regulate guns just like we do cars. My handgun license would allow me to buy whatever gun I wanted, even ones that had features I couldn’t legally use on the street. It would also allow me to carry my pistol wherever I go, with very few exceptions. The license would be issued as a matter of course to qualified applicants and could only be revoked in cases of gross negligence or criminal misconduct. Sounds like a great idea!

I’ll leave your anti-government comments aside. Suffice it to say that tyrannical governments murdered something like 170 million mostly unarmed people in the 20th century, far more than all other criminals combined. However, I do want to comment on the slippery slope.

Though the slippery-slope argument if often cited as a logical fallacy, it is an all too accurate description of the history of gun control. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were very few federal restrictions on arms in the U.S. Private citizens could and did own everything from pistols and rifles to machine guns and artillery. That changed with the National Firearms Act of 1934, which strictly regulated machine guns and a few other odds and ends by taxing their transfer. At that time, the Congress still recognized that it didn’t have the Constitutional authority to actually prohibit weapons, but it was able to impose taxes that had much the same effect.

The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 imposed the licensing system for firearms dealers that continues to this day. This system also serves as a de facto gun-registration program. Dealers must retain sales records for at least 20 years. If a gun dealership goes out of business or changes ownership within this period, all records must be turned over to the BATFE.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 was the next big infringement on the right to keep and bear arms. It prohibited interstate and mail-order sales, required the registration of ammunition purchases, and prohibited the importation of “non-sporting” firearms. Except for the import ban, most of these things were merely inconvenient, but they set the stage for the more egregious gun-control legislation that was to follow.

The so-called Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 eliminated ammunition registration, which had proven completely useless in solving crimes, but prohibited the sale of new machine guns to private citizens. Market forces quickly moved these weapons out of reach for all but the wealthiest people (in states where ownership was still legal). Incidentally, there have only been two crimes committed with legally owned machine guns in the last 70 years, and both of those were perpetrated by police officers.

In 1994, both the Violent Crime Control Act, which attempted to ban a variety of semi-automatic rifles, and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which imposed background checks and waiting periods, were passed by the Congress. After 10 years, both of these “laws” have proven largely ineffective at reducing crime. To be fair, thousands of transactions have been denied by the National Instant Check System, but few of the presumably prohibited persons have been prosecuted, in part because NICS generates too many erroneous rejections.

After 70 years of federal gun-control legislation, the slippery slope is clearly in effect. Where Congress once had to use backdoor means to regulate firearms, it can now brazenly pass obviously unconstitutional laws. Every single year, new gun-control bills are proposed, while laws that have proven ineffective at reducing crime linger on the books for decades. In unguarded moments, gun-control advocates such as Diane Feinstein and Josh Sugarmann have readily admitted that total prohibition is the long-term goal behind their legislative agendas.

The expiration of the federal “assault-weapons” ban is the first significant change in this pattern. Of course, like California, many individual states have enacted their own bans. As far as that goes, our state has already slid much further down the slippery slope, and almost every year some new bit of gun control becomes “law” here. We’re after semi-automatic handguns and bolt-action rifles right now.

Most state gun-control laws began to appear after the Civil War and were intended to prevent former slaves from arming themselves. These “laws” routinely went unenforced against whites. However, this had changed by the 1960s and ‘70s as overt racist law-enforcement practices had been largely weeded out. Thus began the wave of concealed-carry reform in the 1980s and ‘90s, which has been about the only trend away from more gun control in the last 140 years. Of course, concealed-carry laws are still a form of gun control.

But maybe my history lesson is a wasted effort, as you declare that “the foundations upon which history was forged have eroded,” implying as gun-control advocates often do that firearms have little relevance in our modern, civilized state. Setting the historical chauvinism aside completely, I would still argue that the right to keep and bear arms is more relevant than ever. This brings me back to that horrible morning in September.

A few men armed with only the most meager of weapons were able to murder thousands. Why? Because we have decided that criminals are the lowest common denominator of society, so now we treat everyone as a possible criminal. We disarmed the people on those airplanes, told them not to resist, and condemned them and thousands more to death.

Now, we are spending billions of dollars on a dangerously misguided Department of Homeland Security and a comically misnamed Transportation Security Administration more intent on treating airline passengers like prison inmates than on implementing meaningful security measures. Meanwhile, the politicians run around pointing fingers of blame at everyone but themselves. It’s all nonsense, because we’ve had a homeland-security measure written into our Constitution for over 200 years. It says “being necessary for the security of a free State,” but we have neither freedom nor security.

For 30 years, if not longer, the “authorities” have taught us that the best way to survive a violent crime is to comply with the attacker’s wishes. I bought into this until September 11th, when we all saw the appalling consequences of that advice. Then I looked at FBI crime data for myself and found out that it had been a lie all along. According to our own government, the best way to survive a violent crime is to resist with a gun.

And so we return to my question. Why should something be prohibited if it harms no one? Why should we treat people like criminals only because of what they might do? If we ban guns, why stop there? Why not ban cars, matches, cigarettes, baseball bats, swimming pools, kitchen knives, stairs, and household poisons, all of which are involved in many, many injuries and deaths, both intentional and unintentional?

You ask if things should “be made legal just because their illegality fails to curtail them to a certain level?” My answer is yes, in some cases. With gun control, for example, additional laws can only affect the law-abiding. Criminals have long been prohibited from owning and using firearms, so additional laws can do nothing to further curtail their misuse of guns.

The so-called war on drugs is another example of a colossal failure in crime reduction. We prohibited certain drugs “for the public good,” but at the same time, we created a hugely profitable black market that generated ancillary crime that has proven even worse than the original problem. Decriminalizing drugs would drastically reduce the violence and theft associated with the drug trade without substantially increasing drug abuse. This is exactly the lesson we were taught but failed to learn during the years of alcohol prohibition.

Ironically, the advance of gun control is inextricably connected to both alcohol prohibition and the “war on drugs.” The crime wave that resulted from alcohol bootlegging led to the National Firearms Act of 1934. The escalation of the drug war in the 1980s helped bring on the machine-gun and “assault-weapons” bans. Throw in the civil-rights movement and the political assassinations of the 1960s, and you get the Gun Control Act of 1968. In all cases, the law-abiding citizens have paid the price for the behavior of career criminals and a few social misfits.

Finally, I offered to teach you how to shoot because a little education can never hurt. I don’t know if you’ve ever shot or even handled a firearm before, but most people who haven’t done so have learned all their firearms “knowledge” from movies and television. I can assure you, though, that guns are not nearly as easy to operate and not nearly as powerful as they usually appear in these entertainment media. Anyway, the invitation still stands.

In the end, I hope you can see that guns (even semi-automatic rifles) have a legitimate place alongside fire extinguishers, seat belts, first-aid kits, and other emergency equipment. Guns aren’t for everyone, but they shouldn’t be forbidden to anyone who hasn’t proven irresponsible. That’s all I’m asking here.

To date, Mr. Rogers has yet to reply again. I know my position is right and think my arguments were superior, so I’ll take that as a “victory” in this debate. It’s unfortunate, though, that he wouldn’t take the opportunity to learn even a little about a subject he was ready to pass judgment on. It’s even more unfortunate that most people are like Mr. Rogers, regardless of what natural right or civil liberty is under discussion.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Political Evolution

My website has been gradually evolving over the last several years, as history has carried us into a new century filled with old tricks. In these troubling times, my thoughts have turned more and more toward politics, and the site will follow.

Despite my unofficial motto, I continue to struggle against the current of despair. I cannot shirk my duty, though instinct tells me to keep my head down and simply survive. The United States seems balanced on the edge of a knife, with an electorate almost evenly divided between the petty fascism of one major political party and the casual socialism of the other—but this is a false dilemma, presented more by inertia and electoral ignorance than anything else.