There’s an interesting essay over at Armed With Reason that examines gun control laws as an example of “Pragmatism, Not Punishment.” Read the whole thing for a thoughtful look at the gun control issue, and read below for a few choice excerpts with which I have a few issues. The author, Evan DeFilippis, responds to the claim that gun control laws punish only law-abiding citizens while doing nothing to deter criminals who, it’s worth stressing, are prone to breaking the law already:
This argument ignorantly presumes that regulation of any kind is necessarily a form of punishment, when, in fact, such restrictions are simply the transaction cost of living in a society.
I have sympathy for a small number of firearm laws, such as background checks, but the whole “price of society” argument is just completely worn-out and tiresome. While it’s true that the existence of “regulation” is not in and of itself sufficient to determine whether or not one is being “punished,” it’s simply facetious to claim that any one type of legislation or regulation is prima facie the “transaction cost” of being part of society. Plenty of states used to limit access to or outlaw contraception, for instance, and it would be laughable to state that such a restriction was simply a “transaction cost” of United States citizenship (it was so laughable, in fact, that the Supreme Court struck down such bans as unconstitutional, just as they struck down both D.C.’s and Chicago’s draconian gun laws). The ultimate metric by which a law or a regulation must be judged is by its infringement upon one’s individual liberty, not by whether or not it qualifies as a silly, ephemeral “transaction cost.” If you’re going to propose a restriction on someone’s liberty, it has to rest on firmer ground than this.
As we will see, gun control regulation in the form of waiting periods, stricter licensing requirements, lock-box stipulations, and so forth, are restrictions designed to minimize the probability of a mistakes from occurring. If these regulations are decried as punishment, then they are not a punishment in any sense worth worrying about. After all, their goal is to improve the safety of everyone living under such regulations.
This again misses the point regarding the legitimacy of a regulation or a law, as well as a law’s efficacy. First, it is wholly relevant to ask whether or not “waiting periods, stricter licensing requirements [and] lock-box stipulations” are effective at “improv[ing] the safety” of the populace upon which these rules are placed. The “goal” of these rules is entirely commendable, but “goals” are secondary in an empirical evaluation of a statute when it comes to those things we call “outcomes.” Do these gun control proposals, for instance, reduce gun violence and murder enough to justify the burden they place upon law-abiding citizens? You can find arguments supporting both a yes and a no answer; DeFilippis believes the answer is “yes,” though the evidence is generally compelling enough to go with (an albeit qualified) “no.” If many gun control laws don’t seem to work—if their effectiveness is either unclear or entirely doubtful—what’s the point of passing them? (I’ve long argued that many ineffective gun control efforts are really intended to lay the framework for stricter, more draconian gun control down the road, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that many gun controllers know how to lay the groundwork for a long-term strategy in order to get what they want. Many gun control advocates like to claim that their proposed measures are no big deal, which of course makes one wonder why they want to pass them.)
DeFilippis points out that laws like waiting periods and lock box restrictions can also be used to prevent “suicides and accidents,” and that we might consider firearm laws that apply to “large segments of the population who, during transient periods of impulsivity, use a firearm to end their life.” (Somewhat nonsensically, DeFilippis then states: “These are the same people, mind you, who undoubtedly provide services in valuable occupations such as teachers, firefighters, policemen, and soldiers, making life safer and easier for gun advocates.” I don’t know about him, but generally speaking I don’t put a higher value on a human life simply because it belongs to a teacher or a firefighter or any other specific type of occupation.) While it’s true that the large number of firearm suicides in the United States is a tragedy, and we should be working to prevent all suicides and give people the mental health assistance they need, it simply doesn’t follow that we should impose additional gun laws on everyone simply because some gun owners may be suicidal now or in the future—any more than, say, we should mandate Interlock breathalyzers on everyone’s cars in order to prevent as much drunk driving as possible.
Near the bottom of his essay, DeFilippis makes a point by way of analogy:
Could you argue that seatbelt laws “punish” law-abiding citizens who drive their car safely? You could, but my question for you is how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go? Do laws which prevent the carrying of a firearm on an airplane, punish law-abiding citizens who want to defend their family against terrorism? Do discharge ordinances that prevent people from recreationally shooting their gun in the air punish people who are just trying to emulate their hero, Yosemite Sam? At what point does it become okay to acknowledge that not everyone in society is so fantastic at making the right decisions as you are? That it might be better for the sake of the society to regulate potentially dangerous activity to save everyone from people with poor discretion?
As a proud gun nut, I must confess I am willing to go fairly far “down the rabbit hole,” but I concede the need for at least some gun regulation. Still, I yield to no man in my distaste for misplaced analogies. Comparing seat belt laws to the kind of gun control measures that DeFilippis cites is fairly disingenuous. For automobile regulation to really be equitable to the proposed gun control measures, we would have to mandate that people keep their cars locked in the garage, keep the starter motor separate from the engine—and, if one is favorable to trigger lock laws, we would also have to mandate that people keep the Club locked on their steering wheel until they’re ready to take the car out! Needless to say, this would be incredibly inconvenient, and possibly disastrous, if you needed to use your car very quickly—which, of course, is the argument against lock box and trigger lock laws. A seat belt law, in contrast, inconveniences nobody (though I do oppose seat belt laws, except in the case of children).
I’m not willing to go quite as far as many Second Amendment enthusiasts as far as supporting a completely deregulated firearm market. That being said, I recognize that, generally speaking, the case for more gun control often rests upon a flawed set of assumptions regarding civil society, the effectiveness of the law, and the scope and authority of the government as regards keeping us safe from ourselves.