In last week’s column I discussed the assault weapons ban being bandied about by local politicians and activist groups, concluding that the term “assault weapon” is vague, ill-defined, and does not refer to characteristics of firearms that have any significant impact on the danger they pose. Nothing has changed my mind about that.
However, the agenda we’re seeing with respect to guns goes further than just the assault weapons ban. A couple of weeks ago, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking for “renewed scrutiny” of gun control laws. Although the resolution’s unspecific language may sound like non-committal pabulum (and it certainly is that), the resolution was generally received as being a call for more gun control.
District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who introduced the resolution, subsequently removed all doubt by calling on government officials at all levels to “really take a stand against guns throughout our country” in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
In the New Orleans area, however, people seem to be embracing guns rather than taking a stand against them. At the New Orleans Gun Show held in Kenner last month, sales were up and attendance was estimated to be approximately 1,000 higher from a year ago. According to the Atlantic Monthly, the most popular weapon sold was the AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle first introduced in 1963 as the civilian model of the M-16.
Alas, the latest word from the White House isn’t going to calm those frantically purchasing guns.
The executive is certainly giving “renewed scrutiny” to gun laws. Aside from a new, stricter assault weapons ban, a “working group” led by Vice President Biden has been debating sundry measures such universal background checks (essentially banning private sales or transfers of firearms) and increased penalties for carrying guns near schools (already a felony under federal law).
The former measure relates to the so-called “gun show loophole,” but it should be called the “private sale” loophole. Everyone in the business of buying and selling firearms must have an FFL, and all transactions that go through an FFL (or are required to go through an FFL, like an interstate sale) require a background check. Thus, if you aren’t a gun dealer and you’re selling a gun to somebody who lives in your state, a background check is generally not required.
Private sales can occur at gun shows, but they aren’t the norm there. The dealers who actually rent booths at gun shows and sell modern firearms are obviously dealers; they are required to have an FFL and perform background checks on all buyers.
On the other hand, if I sell or transfer a gun to a friend or family member, as is usually the case with private sales, I don’t have to perform a background check or run the transaction through a third party that holds an FFL (which is not cheap). This is an exception to the general rule requiring background checks, but it’s also natural one. These are transactions where the federal interest is minimal and the government, as a practical matter, has little ability to regulate.
But the worst part is that Biden’s group is also proposing a national firearms registry, so that the government would have a database of information on every legal gun owner in the country. Many are unsettled by the idea that the government would keep track of every person in America exercising a specific constitutional right.
What’s even worse is the notion that we need to have stricter penalties for carrying a firearm in areas schools, a.k.a. “gun free school zones.” These zones extend 1,000 feet from a school, or roughly two or three city blocks (depending on the city) in every direction. To see just how onerous this is, I made crude a map of my part of Uptown. The large red dots represent the approximate boundaries of gun free zones (smaller, actually, because I measured from the center of each school rather than from the outer boundary of school grounds). My house is in one.
The federal exceptions are minimal. The gun free zone law defers to state regulations for handgun permit holders but completely ignores all other state-level protections. For example, carrying in a motor vehicle is generally prohibited, even though Louisiana considers this to be a “constitutionally-protected activity” in exactly the same context.
There’s also no good-faith exception. This is a problem because gun free zones take up huge swaths of urban areas and a violation, even an inadvertent one, is already a felony. Thus, Biden’s “working group” is debating whether to take a law that is grossly overbroad and ramp its already-severe penalties up to higher levels.
I always look at these types of laws and imagine them in the context of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. I imagine somebody who clearly violates the law in question, but commits no serious wrong and nevertheless faces draconian penalties and persecution.
Here, I imagine a guy who gets a call from a close female friend (or family member) with an abusive boyfriend who, due to specific threats, wants a gun to defend herself immediately. He offers to sell her one of his guns at less than cost, but forgets about that pesky new “universal background check” requirement that applies to non-dealers. To make matters worse, he drives to her house with the gun unlocked in the glove box, and although he never gets closer than a block to any school (none of which are in session) he unknowingly passes through several gun free zones.
Under these proposed reforms, that narrative would encompass two serious felonies. All it would take is an overzealous ATF (cough, Waco!, cough) and a federal prosecutor akin to Inspector Javert to put this nice fellow away for a very long time. Oh, and federal crimes cannot be expunged, so these crimes would follow him around forever – unless he pulled a Jean Valjean and assumed a new identity, which is increasingly difficult these days.
The larger the web of federal gun laws becomes, combined with fewer exceptions and stricter penalties, the greater the potential of having peoples’ lives ruined for completely innocent acts or worse, for exercising a constitutional right. If you want to know why gun owners are apprehensive, this is the reason.
There should be reasonable regulations on firearms, but the proposals I’m seeing are not “taking a stand against guns.” Rather, they are taking a stand against gun owners, feeding their worst fears. If these efforts bear fruit, our already poorly-written federal gun laws will become more arbitrary and overbroad.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.