In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Florida, President Donald Trump met with victims of school shootings and their family members. To say the “listening session” was emotional and captivating is a gross understatement. Something clearly has to be done about school shootings and gun violence in general, but the question of what policy provisions will help to solve these problems remains a serious and important point of contention.
Pro-liberty conservatives have long argued heaping additional regulations on legal gun owners, who, statistically speaking, very rarely harm other people, is a violation of their liberty and Second Amendment rights. Liberals, never letting a good crisis go to waste, have called for many weapons to be banned, enhanced background checks, and other gun-limiting provisions, which they say are necessary to keep people from harm. Many moderates fall somewhere in the middle.
Perhaps the most interesting and disturbing — at least, from the perspective of someone who supports gun rights — development in the debate is President Trump’s sudden transformation from being a defender of the Second Amendment to calling for harsh restrictions reminiscent of past policy proposals by former President Barack Obama, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other left-wing politicians. On Feb. 22, Trump tweeted, “I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue — I hope!”
Coming from a Republican president who received significant backing from the National Rifle Association, this is truly remarkable and shocking — especially when one considers that Obama called for some of these same restrictions in the past. In other cases, not even Obama was willing to go as far as Trump is suggesting now.
Comprehensive background checks
Let’s begin with “Comprehensive Background Checks, with an emphasis on Mental Health.” Although Trump didn’t elaborate on exactly what constitutes a “Comprehensive Background Check,” gun advocacy groups have argued for decades such a program would present grave risks to gun owners.
For starters, who decides what factors will make someone ineligible to own a weapon? Obviously, we don’t want people who are truly mentally deranged to purchase weapons, but when Democrats inevitably come into power again, what would stop them from establishing far-reaching “risk factors” that make it exceptionally difficult to purchase a firearm? Or making the background-check system so burdensome and expensive that most Americans won’t have the time or money to fulfill every requirement?
And what “Mental Health” problems would prohibit a person from purchasing a gun? If someone sees a psychiatrist once in his or her life, would that be enough to prevent the purchase of a weapon? If an individual suffered from depression a decade ago, would that prevent him or her from passing a background check?
Many women who have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence buy guns to protect themselves, but many of them have also had to seek help from mental health care providers because of the trauma they have endured. Would they be able to purchase a gun? What about soldiers returning home from war, many of whom see mental health specialists to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder?
It's worth remembering that in 2016 President Obama called for expanding background checks, a move congressional Republicans vigorously opposed. Now that a Republican president is seeking to undermine gun owners’ rights, will Congress suddenly change its tune?
Background checks are important for helping to prevent future gun-related violence, but a federal background check system could easily be politicized and abused. It would be far too easy for future left-wing Congresses or bureaucratic agencies to implement regulations that would make background checks a tool for effectively eliminating Second Amendment rights. For that reason alone, Trump’s proposal should be rejected.
A much better model would be for states to voluntarily share background information with one another, creating a state-controlled network that could be used by gun shops when selling weapons.
Raising the age limit to 21
Now consider Trump’s call to raise the limit for purchasing a weapon to 21 years old. (Trump would later clarify that his ban would only apply to certain kinds of rifles.) This outrageous proposal seeks to tell American adults, who are guaranteed the “right to bear arms,” that they can’t buy many kinds of weapons until they are 21. How can this be construed in any other way than an infringement on their inalienable right to purchase a weapon? This is an overtly unconstitutional act — unless we are to understand that citizens under the age of 21 are not adults. And if that’s the case, then there is a rather large list of other activities we allow 20-year-olds to engage in because they are treated as adults.
For instance, under Trump’s proposal, American citizens would be able to vote, consume tobacco, amass huge amounts of debt, be tried as an adult in criminal courts, purchase a home, serve in war, or get married years before they could buy many kinds of weapons. This is totally absurd. Trump’s plan would mean some Americans could buy a home but not be able to protect it. Similarly, a person could vote for candidates in elections who have the power to send the country to war and destroy the world with nuclear weapons but not be deemed responsible enough to own a gun. A person could kill terrorists in Afghanistan with high-grade assault weapons, but not own a less powerful rifle at home.
As far as I can tell, Obama never called for increasing the legal age limit required to purchase semi-automatic weapons, or any other guns, for that matter. His administration did, however, defend in court existing federal law that prohibits gun shops from selling handguns to citizens under the age of 21.
President Trump also called for a ban on the sale of bump stocks, a gun add-on that helps shooters fire weapons more rapidly. While a reasonable argument could be made that bump stocks effectively turn some weapons into machine guns, which are illegal in most circumstances, and thus should be banned, there is virtually no evidence at all that bump stocks are causing significant problems in the United States. This is a solution in search of a problem. And, most importantly, the logic used to ban bump stocks is virtually the same logic one could use to ban any semi-automatic weapon, or weapons in general: They’re too dangerous.
Interestingly, the Obama administration actually approved the sale of bump stocks, which means if Trump’s bump stock ban is implemented, it would go even further than the Obama administration did on this issue.
Yes, guns can be dangerous, but so are many other activities. There are more than 88,000 alcohol-related deaths every year, and alcohol doesn’t save any lives at all, making it far more dangerous than guns. More than 2.6 million Americans are killed, injured, or disabled from road crashes annually, including 8,000 Americans aged 16 to 20. Should we change the driving limit to 21 as well?
The answer to our mass shooting problem isn’t to punish gun owners who are following the law and forcing Americans everywhere to hide in locked classrooms, completely unprotected, in the hopes that law enforcement will soon arrive and do its job properly. The solution is to empower citizens to have greater access to guns so that they can defend themselves when law enforcement is present or refuses to act as it should, which is precisely what happened recently in Florida.
Some argue arming citizens is dangerous and that it won’t save any lives, but the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. As I noted in an article in November, “Some researchers estimate there are more than 2 million defensive gun uses in the United States every year. On the lowest end of the spectrum, the National Crime Victimization Survey claims there are more than 67,000 instances in which guns are used to defend life or property annually.”
This means at the very least, tens of thousands of people (or their property) are defended every single year. Why not add public schools to the list?