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October 14, 2002

Grabbing the Third Rail William

Grabbing the Third Rail

William Safire on the Maryland sniper attacks.

Congress should make it easier to identify ammunition and the weapons of individual destruction that fire it. Gun registration's time has come.

If you think of Safire only as the token conservative on the op-ed pages of the NYT, this might come as a bit of a shock. This is because gun-control, like abortion, is portrayed by the the sides arguing over it as a black and white issue, where you are either on the side of the angels or on that of evil incarnate. It's not just the media's fault, even though the desire to tell a simple story helps to perpetuate that perception. The Brady Center and the NRA depend on that moral division for fundraising. The idea that those two will find some common ground on the issue is about as likely as Jane Fonda giving Rush Limbaugh slow, deep tongue kisses in front of the Vietnam War Memorial.

The large, sweaty man with the garish tie glared at her. His dark eyes were hungry, feral. Jane found him repellent, yet a frisson of delight trilled its way up her spine as he rubbed his thick, sausage-like fingers across his bald pate.

"Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream," he growled.

Her breath quickened, and she swayed slightly, leaving a slight sheen of perspiration where her hips brushed up against the black marble. My god, she thought, that man needs some aerobic exercise. NO! He's...he's.... She grabbed his tie.

"C'mere fat man!" Jane pulled him in, her ribs creaking as his great bulk smashed her into the wall. Chubby hands lifted her up like a kitten as the crown around them stared, aghast...

Okay, you get the point.

In truth, Safire's has had a more subtle take on gun issues than one might expect for years.

Comes now the emergence of a constitutional middle ground. The Murky Second is thus interpreted as a state right sometimes and as an individual right at other times. One day it's James Madison, the next day it's Madison James.

That can't be right. Put another way, a right that is sometimes not a right is no right at all. After doing a great job on the First Amendment, the amending Founders botched the Second.

The intellectually lazy will say, "Let the Supremes sort it out." I say, let the people decide a political issue. Either we're serious about our right to gun ownership or we're serious about our need for gun control.

Here's how to fix a flawed amendment that is the source of so much confusion: Repeal its ambiguous preamble. Let some member of Congress introduce an amendment to strike the words before the comma in the Second Amendment.

Then vote the amendment up or down. If it fails to pass, stop arguing and compromise on nibbling. If Congress passes repeal, let ratification be fought out in the states, where representatives closest to the people can decide on strict licensing.

That's the decisive, constitutional way to come to grips with the abomination of too many handguns in trigger-happy hands.

Gun control is the third rail of warblogging. People who agree on many of the same issues on Iraq will pull out the long knives and start swinging once the topic switches from foreign policy to gun registration. But Safire's suggestion makes sense to me, and has the added value of attempting to force the gun debaters out of the well worn rhetorical ruts they're in now. Let gun control or no gun control programs bloom in 50 states, and we'll find sensible solutions to the problem one way or another.

If I were a the head of gun right's advocate group, or one of the nattering nabobs who regularly pop up on pundit TV, I'd be embracing that position. I think Safire is rushing to judgement too early on who is behind the shootings, but if the killer or killers do turn out to be home-grown, there's going to be a new clamor for gun control, and Republican administrations are just as likely to pass gun control bills as Democratic ones. Bush has already demonstrated a history of abandoning Republican ideals for political gain with his positions on steel tariffs and the farm bill. I don't see any reason why he wouldn't also turn equally feckless on gun control if Karl Rove told him it was politically expedient.

Failing Safire's solution, I have to say I would come down in favor of gun registration, two of the main arguments against which are "It won't work" and "Slippery slope." The first argument is at least partially correct in that it will do little to deter shootings, and will not aid in tracing down the culprit in every shooting. Of course, it will aid in tracing down the culprits in some shootings, and can also rule out suspects in others, something that would allow law enforcement authorities to focus resources on more likely leads. The slippery slope argument to me is a more potent one, summarized here.

Registration lists have led to gun confiscation in Australia, Bermuda, Cuba, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Jamaica, Soviet Georgia and other countries. It has also happened here, and the history of firearms registration in New York City is particularly instructive.

In 1967, New York City passed an ordinance requiring a citizen to obtain a permit to own a rifle or shotgun, which would then be registered. Concerns over the potential use of those registration lists to confiscate guns in the future were dismissed as paranoia. In 1991, gun owners' legitimate fears were realized, when the city passed a ban on the private possession of some semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, despite the police commissioner's testimony that no registered firearms of the types banned had been used in violent crimes in the city. New Yorkers who had been licensed earlier to possess semi-automatic rifles and shotguns were told that any licensed firearms that were covered by the ban had to be surrendered, rendered inoperable or taken out of the city. They were warned that they might be subject to "spot checks."

The slippery slope argument is persuasive because it states that once a government knows where the guns are it will eventually come to take the guns away. Essentially, a gun-rights advocate must fight any gun law that could theoretically lay the basis for a future law that results in a diminution of gun rights. It is an argument that relies at its base on a distrust in government, a sentiment which is hard to argue with. Were we living under an E.U. government, I would find the argument more appealing, but I think the divisions that have sprung up between the U.S. and Europe on the War on Terror have demonstrated exactly how far we are from a government with a European sensibility. Reasonable people may disagree with that statement, of course.

There are already reliable ways of telling who and who is not a gun owner if the government really wanted to start taking guns away. Hunting permits, for one, shooting club memberships for another. The government can already tell who many of the gun owners are, if the government decides it needs to. That particular privacy exists as a fiction only, so I don't see what other rights are taken away by a registration database for individual guns. Again, I'd prefer this to be on the state level, like automobile registration, for the the somewhat better efficiency in the process if nothing else.* There is also at least one case where a democracy registers guns but has not confiscated them en masse, Israel.

*I was ready to make a reference to the Niven short story "The Deadlier Weapon", but I couldn't find a good link.

Posted by Bigwig at October 14, 2002 12:45 PM | TrackBack
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