Friday, October 9, 2015

Sensible Gun Control

It's happened again. Some whack-job has slipped through the cracks in the system and killed a bunch of people. The "no guns allowed" sign in front of the crime scene was either blatantly ignored, or taken as a favorable indicator by the killer when selecting his target (after all, with no one able to return fire, he was basically free to do what he wanted). Then, before the bodies were even cold, the call came out once again for "sensible gun control" from our nation's leaders, the media, etc..  Safe, responsible gun owners, the NRA, and other groups who represent them once again find themselves the subjects of misplaced blame, even though we grieve for the victims and celebrate the heroes as much, or even more, than anyone else. Time and time again, we're called to "compromise" and acquiesce to "sensible" gun control measures. Time and time again, the only things that are ever proposed make no sense, infringe on our rights, and usually only serve to make it easier for the whack-jobs to kill more people the next time around.

Frankly, I'm sick of the whole damned thing - every aspect of it.  I'm sick of these nut-jobs killing people, first and foremost. I'm sick of being blamed (as part of the responsible gun-owning collective) for their abominable actions. I'm sick of the calls to restrict my ability to defend myself and my family because of them. So, rather than just rant and rave about how sick and tired I am in a blog post, I'm going to propose an actual solution.  This is going to be fairly radical, and I expect no one will be happy with it, but isn't that what "compromise" is all about? Are you listening, politicians and candidates?  Yes?  No?  Who am I kidding?

The calls for "sensible" gun control usually come in a several different forms, some of which I'll capture here:

  • calls to ban certain types of firearms and accessories (like semi-auto rifles and magazines)
  • calls to further restrict where anyone, including licensed individuals may carry a weapon
  • calls for "universal" or "expanded" background checks prior to any gun sale
  • calls for mandatory licensing of gun owners / buyers
  • calls for mandatory training of gun owners / buyers
  • calls to register all guns and the people who own them
  • calls for some way to keep the whack-jobs in check

Side note: we almost never hear calls to try and fix the root cause of these issues, which, I believe is our completely failed mental health system. I think that if we were better at finding and treating the crazies BEFORE they picked up a gun, we'd see better results - regardless of what we try to control on the AFTER side. We also need to stop making these idiots famous. Their names and likenesses should be erased from public discourse and consigned to the dung-heap of forgotten history rather than broadcast 24/7 on the "news."  This is not really something that can be legislated, though, since there's that other amendment that guarantees free speech and a free press. Rather, it's something we should just do as a society. I also think most sensible people agree on that, so I'll simply gloss over it here. 

Meanwhile, most law abiding gun owners feel there are enough, or even too many restrictions in place already, and that our second amendment rights should instead be expanded (or restored, if you're into splitting hairs). We'd like to see:
  • an end to restrictions on what kinds of guns and accessories we can own (i/e: "assault weapons," suppressors, big magazines, etc.)
  • the right to legally carry, for self-defense purposes, wherever we have a right to go, including across state lines
  • minimal to no hassle when buying a new or used gun or accessory
  • not having to ask permission from government officials or pay exorbitant licensing fees before exercising our rights
  • some way to keep the whack-jobs in check that doesn't negatively impact us

From (emphasis added by me):

Compromise (n): 1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.

Note that "compromise" does not mean "I give up more of my rights and get nothing in return. Again." Nor does it mean "'shall not be infringed,' motherf***er, deal with it."

So, let's take an honest look at both lists and see what we can each live with and without, OK? I can select a few things from the first list that I would be willing to support in order to gain a few things from the second list, and there are a few things on the second list that I wouldn't be terribly upset to lose in order to keep some of the first-list things from happening.

My proposal, therefore, consists of a couple key components, each of which I will present with a brief(?) rationale. Through this, the gun control crowd will get the following:

  • Get: "expanded" background checks prior to any gun sale
  • Get: mandatory licensing of gun owners / buyers
  • Get: mandatory training of gun owners / buyers
  • Get: registration of gun owners / buyers
  • Give: restrictions on types of guns and accessories that can be owned
  • Give: restrictions on where licensed people can carry
  • Give: registration of guns themselves
The gun rights crowd will get the following:
  • Get: an end to restrictions on what kinds of guns and accessories we can own (i/e: "assault weapons," suppressors, big magazines, etc.)
  • Get: the right to legally carry, for self-defense purposes, wherever we have a right to go, including across state lines
  • Give: now have to be licensed and registered
  • Give: have to submit to mandatory training requirements
  • Give: more hassle when buying a gun in the form of background checks 
We would all get, hopefully, an improved way to keep the whack-jobs in check that doesn't place too heavy a burden on the rest of us. In some cases, both sides should be able to get close to what they want - i/e: instead of outright bans on guns, there are some reasonable hurdles to clear prior to ownership that are designed to ensure everyone's safety - including the owner.

The big problem I've had with the calls for tighter gun control laws and "compromise" is that they aren't really proposing a compromise - they're just proposing more restrictions and requirements, with no concessions in return.  Anyway .. here's how I think this could play out to everyone's benefit:

1. Federal preemption for firearms laws - meaning state and local governments do not get to make their own gun laws. Rationale: The right to bear arms is guaranteed by the federal constitution, therefore its regulation should be a federal matter. This will eliminate the confusing and loop-hole-ridden patchwork of laws on the books now, which is part of the reason there are so many cracks in the current system. I am ordinarily a fan of States' rights, but I don't for a second think that constitutional rights are the domain of the states.
"If the words 'congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion .. ' can be interpreted such that 99.9% of the population of some tiny little village in the middle of nowhere can't decide they want a manger scene on the town hall lawn, then ' .. the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed' should prevent the NYPD from being able to throw me in prison for simply bringing my handgun into the city."
2. Open up the NICS system so that private individuals could run a quick, anonymous background check prior to selling a firearm without having to seek out a dealer.  Someone could even write an app for it.  If item 4 is implemented, they could just enter the buyer's gun license number and get a quick go/no-go decision.  Do away with the NICS backdoor registration scheme, though.

3. It should be blatantly obvious that a background check system is only as good as the data behind it, right? How many times has a mass-shooter passed a background check before the event? It happens more often than it should. So, we need to figure out a way to fix that system and ensure timely, accurate data is available. The federal preemption idea will help with this by doing away with the current hodge-podge of state laws and state level systems, some of which feed their data into NICS, and some that don't. This will need to be balanced with a way to quickly correct erroneous data in the system, and to prevent abuses.  We also need to start prosecuting felons who try to buy guns and who are caught by a NICS background check - something the government has only done a dozen or so times.

4. Establish a federal licensing scheme for gun owners such that:
  • No one without this license would be allowed to purchase or possess any firearm.
  • No one with a violent criminal history, nor anyone judged (in a court of law) to be mentally defective in such a way as to pose a danger to themselves or others would be allowed to obtain a license.
  • Anyone with a license who is convicted of a violent crime, or who is likewise judged to be mentally defective would forfeit their license and their firearms immediately. There should also be a process whereby they could petition a court to have their rights re-instated (and their guns returned) after meeting rigorous requirements to prove the restriction is no longer warranted.
  • If a person is merely suspected of a crime, or suspected to be an immediate danger to self or others, then the license may be suspended and the person's firearms temporarily held in a sort of escrow status by an order of a court. This would be done in a similar manner to obtaining a search warrant. If the suspicion turns out to be false after due process, then the license is reinstated immediately, and all firearms returned.
  • No exemptions for law enforcement or government officials, etc., either. Not even secret service. Everyone and anyone who wants a gun has to follow the same process.
5. Establish better accountability and responsibility across the board. Parents who own firearms are legally responsible for what their kids do with them should they obtain access to them, legally or otherwise. Junior gets daddy's gun and shoots up his school?  Mom and dad are looking at some criminally negligent homicide charges, at least. Some court clerk forgot to do their job and didn't submit a felony conviction to NICS and the felon is able to obtain a gun later on and do some mayhem?  Guess who's getting fired and brought up on criminally negligent homicide charges. You sold a gun to a shady dude in the Wal-Mart parking lot who turned out to be a drug dealer getting supplies for his next drive-by? Well, you better be ready to explain why you didn't use the new open NICS to background check the guy or prove that you were duped in some way, or you're in some hot water, too.  Now, there would need to be some moderation in place here. If the gun owner has done his due diligence, but his gun is still stolen from him and used in a crime, then he should not be held any more liable than he would if his car was stolen and driven drunk through a farmer's market or something. A judge and jury should be able to figure this out in a reasonable way.

I'll now expand on the licensing scheme, since it's really the core of this proposal.

There could be different "levels" or "classes" of license. I propose a tiered approach, something like this:

1. Learner's Permit for Minors: the first stage. This allows the holder to handle firearms under the supervision of a licensed parent or guardian, or a licensed and qualified firearms instructor, provided the parent or guardian has given consent. The firearms allowed would be equal to the ones allowed by the accompanying Full License plus endorsements. No age restrictions, but the parent or guardian assumes full legal responsibility for the licensee's actions. Available for people under 18 years of age after a basic written exam and background check. Parent or guardian must have a valid Full License. Firearms instructors would need to be certified / qualified by the NRA or some other accredited organization, much like they are today.

2. Learner's Permit for Adults:  the first stage for people over 18. Allows you to handle firearms under the instruction of a licensed and qualified firearms instructor and/or holder of a Full License after a basic written exam and background check. This is basically the same thing as item 1, but since the holder would be a legal adult, the requirement for parental consent and responsibility is not present.

3. Full License - this would be available to any holder of a Learner's Permit for Adults (kids have to wait until they're 18) after they have demonstrated proficiency and safety with, at minimum, single-shot rifles. Without endorsements, this would allow the licensee to purchase and possess any single-shot rifle anywhere in the country. Holders of full licenses may only handle firearms for which they do not have an endorsement while under the direct supervision of another full licensee who does hold an appropriate endorsement - this is so they can legally participate in practice and instruction activities in order to obtain their own endorsements.

4. Endorsements - the full license would have a number of endorsements that could be gained by training and/or passing an exam relevant to the endorsement. An exam should also include some reasonable amount of instructor observed "trigger time" with a firearm appropriate to the endorsement being sought. These would include endorsements for:
  • handguns
  • semi-automatics (rifles/shotguns)
  • fully automatics
  • public carry (concealed and open)
  • etc.
So, basically, if you want a handgun, you have to take the training (or test out of it) and show that you're competent and safe with a handgun. If you want a semi-auto, you have to do the same for that. If you want to carry in public, you have to be trained for that. Let's go ahead and say that any time you apply for an endorsement, you have to pass another background check, too. There could be dependencies between endorsements as well. For example, it wouldn't make much sense to give a Public Carry endorsement to someone without a Handgun endorsement, right? And you'd have to get a Semi-Auto endorsement before going for a Full-Auto because .. well, do I really have to explain that to anyone?

Any conviction for a violent crime, mental illness that warrants it, etc., would result in the suspension or revocation of the license and seizure of the guns.

What do you think, liberals?  Sounds good so far?

Well, here come the parts you might not like as much. Compromise, remember?

1. Licenses and endorsements (all of them, including PC) are on a shall-issue basis, meaning that no one who meets the qualifications will be denied a license or endorsement. If an applicant can prove they already know the material and possess the skills, they may "test out" and not have to sit through training they obviously don't need. I do think that requiring a license for a constitutional right is an infringement on that right, but having the license on a shall-issue basis will mitigate that somewhat.

2. License fees will be either non-existent, very minimal, or even tax-payer funded (especially for the more advanced endorsements). The PC endorsement, for example, should not be a "rich old men only" domain. Again, this mitigates the infringement aspect of it. License fees should be considered the equivalent of a poll tax.

3. Licenses and all endorsements are valid in all US jurisdictions without exception, including all states, DC, remote territories (like Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands), etc.. No one who has jumped through all these hoops should face prison time for nothing more than carrying their otherwise legal firearm across the wrong state line.  I'm looking at you, NY, NJ, CA, HI, DC, etc..

4. Public schools will be required to teach gun safety courses at all levels. This is KEY to removing both the fear and "forbidden fruit" issues surrounding kids and guns. We could put an opt-in here for students who want to get their Learner's Permit (with parental consent) and study for their Full License and endorsements, too. As part of this, marksmanship courses and competitions would once again be welcome in public schools. Some parents may squirm about this, so an individual opt-out option could be placed here. However, they should consider that we do have a "gun culture" here in America, and ask themselves, would they rather have their children learn about guns in a safe environment from a certified instructor, or take the chance it'll  happen somewhere else beyond their control?

5. Once you've got your full license and your endorsements, there are no more restrictions. You can buy (or make / 3D print for yourself) any firearm for which your endorsements qualify you. No magazine capacity restrictions, no bans on accessories (like suppressors), etc., no closed machine gun registry, etc.. Of course, you assume full legal responsibility for your firearms and their safe operation and storage at all times. This is fine, though, because you've already shown you've had the training and skills required for that, or you wouldn't have the license.

6. With a Public Carry endorsement, you can carry your firearm wherever you want, period. That includes schools, bars (but there should still be strict laws against carrying while intoxicated), hospitals, on airplanes, etc.. No more "no guns" places for licensed people. No more helpless victim zones. No more registrations, back-door or otherwise. I would be willing to allow state and local governments to specify what kind of carry (concealed / open) would be allowed in certain areas, but "no carry" would be off the table. For example, in a school, concealed carry only is probably a better idea, as well as in certain urban areas (like NYC). Privately owned businesses that open their doors to the public would be able to adopt something like a "don't ask / don't tell" policy where they could ask someone to leave if they see them carrying, but concealing and carrying into such a place would not be a crime in and of itself. Businesses and employers could still enact policies that forbid the carry of weapons while "on the clock," but they would also be held fully responsible for the safety and security of their employees and visitors. Employees, if your workplace is "gun free" and some whack-job decides to shoot up the place anyway, the company and/or the guy in charge of the building who enacted that policy is civilly and maybe even criminally liable for whatever mayhem happens. Employers, you can still disarm your employees at the door, but if you do, you will probably want to hire armed security to stop the nut-job who got the memo but didn't care. You can't fire a person for keeping their legal firearm safely in their car in your parking lot, though.

Of course, all of these rights must come with great responsibility. This does not give anyone the right to "shoot first, ask questions later." Applicable laws regarding the threat and/or use of deadly force would still apply, and the gun owner / carrier would be responsible for following them at all times. Screw up, and your license gets suspended for a time or revoked, as appropriate, as determined by the judge.

This, to me, sounds like a compromise. Each side gets something they want. The gun control crowd gets licensing, vetting, and training for anyone who wants to own and/or carry a gun, and the training will benefit the gun owners as well. More background checks would be conducted on gun buyers and on licensees, and the checks themselves would be less error-prone both ways. The gun-nuts like myself, once they get the license, get their full second amendment rights nation-wide. The only ones who would be denied the license are the ones who everyone agrees shouldn't have a gun in the first place.  To prevent abuses, there would be a system in place where someone denied a license could appeal to an impartial court, present evidence, and petition for relief.

The bad news is, this scheme will not completely stop bad people from acquiring or using guns illegally. It would, however, ensure that everyone who legally acquired one was properly trained and screened first, and I do think that's important. It would also allow licensed carriers to act as a first line of defense in more places. There's a reason you don't see massacres at NRA conventions, folks. It would also strengthen the idea of individual responsibility, which is something that I think is lacking across the board currently. I like the idea because it emphasizes education and training over prohibition, but still has some strong checks and balances in place to weed out as many idiots as possible. Under this scheme, everyone who wanted to legally own a gun would have to prove they're competent enough to do so first. Plus, when all else fails, the whack-jobs have a better chance of earning themselves a Darwin Award without hurting so many people first.

One other caveat is what to do about current gun owners who are "off the books?"  Perhaps an appropriate window of amnesty would be appropriate, providing it would be of sufficient length to allow anyone ample time to complete or test out of all of the training. Then, once the window expires, how do we go about enforcing the law on those who refuse to comply, but sit quietly with their now-unlicensed guns and don't bother anyone?  Well .. my answer to that is basically leave them alone unless they commit a crime - but then, throw the book at them. What we really don't want to see is SWAT teams going door-to-door looking for unlicensed guns. That's how you get innocent civilians and good officers killed, not to mention the very real possibility of igniting a second civil war in which the rebels wouldn't have the same moral baggage as last time that demanded they lose.
Compromise (n): 2. a solution no one is happy with.
Now that you've read through this, I'd like to make it clear that I understand that the likelihood is that something like this will never happen. It would require starting over from scratch, for one thing - wiping out all of the existing laws at federal, state, and local levels, and replacing them with one uniform, national set. I understand it'll never happen. I intend it as more of a thought experiment - an attempt to find some sort of common ground that both ensures that anyone who chooses to exercise their second amendment rights also receives the training necessary to do so responsibly and safely.

Perhaps the toughest obstacle, though, is that both sides of this debate will need to change their attitudes about guns and their use in crimes. The gun control crowd would need to acknowledge that guns themselves aren't evil, and focus on the "people problem." The gun nuts should recognize that gun violence, as much or more-so than unconstitutional laws, is an affront to the second amendment of the worst kind and work more earnestly to end it.

I think the two sides of the debate are very polarized now, but at the end of the day we both want the same thing - to end, or at least dramatically reduce the problem of "gun violence" in America. If we're ever going to reach a consensus, though, both sides are going to have to be willing to give a little, or maybe even a lot. Most importantly, we have got to find common ground and work together. I think this concept does that in a manner that is at least somewhat fair to both sides, and stands a good chance of improving things. A guy can dream, can't he?