Friday, December 21, 2012

A way forward on firearms in the US

The inescapable conclusion that the horrific events in Newtown, CT leads me to is this:  Firearms, when inadequately regulated and inappropriately used pose a clear and present danger to our society. Therefore, though ownership of a gun is a Constitutionally protected right, it is necessary and proper to regulate that right, just as we regulate speech, the media, searches of private property and the other "inalienable rights" enshrined in the Constitution.

I'd propose that there are two examples from our society that give us a very clear path forward in having this conversation about firearms: How we regulate alcohol and automobiles.

In dealing with alcohol we see the following types of regulations in place: age restrictions; open container laws; regulation of who can sell and where; licenses apportioned locally; restrictions on consumption in vehicles; public intoxication laws; limits on days it can be sold; and parents responsible for minors' consumption.

In dealing with automobile operation, we see the following types of regulations in place for licensure: age restrictions; pass a written test; pass a usage test; pass a vision test; clearly defined renewal procedures; different requirements for licensure of different types of vehicles and specific licenses for specific vehicles. Finally, you can't renew the license if there are outstanding violations, which requires a database background check.

If we look at automobile registration as well we find the following types of regulations in place: auto insurance is required to register your car; states annually inspect vehicles for safety and emissions; there is a clearly defined renewal procedure; and it is possible to transfer plates when a new car is bought.

All these are generally common sense regulations that help enable us to safely consume alcohol and have confidence in our fellow drivers and their automobiles.  They can and should be applied to firearms. To wit:

As with alcohol, there should be age limits, and restrictions on the ability to carry and make use of firearms in public spaces. Sellers of firearms should be regulated for where, when and to whom they sell weapons. Parents should be held legally responsible for minors use of firearms as well.

As with cars, people who want to own a gun should have to follow similar procedures to getting a drivers license. They should have to take a gun safety course and pass a written and usage and vision test before getting a license. Licenses should be granted in conjunction with an affidavit of competence that comes from completing coursework and mental health evaluation. There should be varied levels of license for different types of guns.  There should be no granting of a license or of a renewal if a background check turns up anomalies in their criminal record, or if the person is undergoing mental health treatment. As with auto registration, insurance should be required at a set amount of coverage for accidental death or if the guns are used to commit crimes, and the license should not be granted unless the person can prove that he or she has this coverage. Licenses should be subject to annual renewal procedures that include inspection of the firearm.

This should not be a federal matter, but should be left to the various states to establish their own procedures just as they do with drivers licences, auto registration and alcohol. The only requirement is that the data bases used by the states should be linked up so the ATF and FBI can track relevant statistics and criminal activity relating to the use, transportation and sale of firearms.

Personally, I have no need for guns, and I am not comfortable with their availability in our society. Though I don't hunt, I can understand that others do, as, indeed, I grew up around peers who regularly hunted with rifles. I can not understand how anyone can live in the United States of America and feel so unsafe that they must possess a weapon that can physically cut a person in half with a stream of bullets. However, I do believe in the Constitution, and I believe that, as John Stuart Mill said, liberty means you are free to do whatever you wish until it impacts others.  It seems to me that the balance to be struck here is just that. The rights of individuals should be protected until they interfere with the stable operation of society.  That is the heart of the social contract, and it should be our goal to preserve that balance. Sensible regulation is needed to make that possible, and to take reasonable action to prevent tragedies like Newtown, CT from happening ever again.