Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Monday, February 04, 2013

About Universal Background Checks

Proponents of government-mandated “universal” background checks on gun buyers make a bad counterargument to those who oppose the popular proposal. Opponents correctly point out that people with criminal intent can reasonably be expected to find gun-buying channels that require no background check. Gun-running is among the oldest professions, and the black market will always be with us. Just ask anyone who wants to buy illegal drugs. So it is valid to point out that the promise of universal background checks—even if that were a legitimate government activity—is chimerical because universality can’t possibly be achieved.

Supporters, however, challenge this argument by contending that it proves too much: If legislating background checks is futile as a crime-fighting measure, they ask, why have laws any against criminal activity, such as the prohibition of murder? Those laws will never stop everyone from a committing crime, so what’s the point?

I find this argument flawed. Let’s remember that the background-check requirement is intended, prophylactically, to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do harm. In contrast, the state’s prohibition against murder is intended, retrospectively, to authorize government agents to apprehend, prosecute, and imprison people who commit unjustifiable homicide. Yes, there may be some deterrent intent (and effect), but the main objective is to permit action against those suspected of murder, etc.

Supporters of background checks may respond that a “universal” law would permit the state to go after those who have used guns aggressively. But this argument is of no force simply because if someone uses a gun aggressively, the state already has grounds to apprehend and prosecute. What value is there in being able to also charge a suspected mass murderer with illegal possession of a gun?

In my view, this practical criticism of legislated universal background checks withstands scrutiny. The law would give a false sense of security by promising what it cannot deliver, but meanwhile could impede persons without criminal intent from obtaining firearms for self-defense. Someone determined to commit a mass shooting or other crime can reasonably be expected to buy his or her guns through channels that do not require background checks, and that won’t be too difficult. But people without criminal intent will be reluctant buy guns outside the law, even if they aren’t able to get one legally. (Someone with a felony drug conviction, for instance, may not legally possess a gun.)

Of course this criticism, although valid, is not specifically a libertarian criticism. A more specifically libertarian criticism is that mere possession of a firearm involves no aggression, regardless of a person’s background, and therefore should not be prohibited. (Property owners of course should be free to manage their property with respect to guns as they like.)

But isn’t the law worth it if it might save one innocent life? And what if the law might cost one innocent life? Why is one innocent life regarded as more valuable than another?


Tangent Style said...

"People with criminal intent can reasonably be expected to find gun-buying channels that require no background check"

I don't agree with the premise, but I will still offer this argument: Don't all guns pretty much start out in legitimate channels? Manufactured by some gun manufacturing company. I think the benefit of the background check is to hopefully prevent the movement of guns from normal markets with all their checks, to the black market. I guess it depends on the way in which a gun goes from being manufactured by a reputable gun maker to being illegally and secretly bought and sold on a black market. If you have any insight into that, I would be keen to hear it.

"Someone determined to commit a mass shooting or other crime can reasonably be expected to buy his or her guns through channels that do not require background checks, and that won’t be too difficult"

I don't know about either part of this. People who commit mass shootings so often expect to (and do) die in the act. Why would they choose an illegal vs legal market? Also, I have no idea about the difficulty of acquiring black market firearms, but it doesn't seem THAT easy.

Borepatch said...

Tangent Style, guns almost always move from legitimate channels to the black market via theft. This is why gun owners objected so strongly when that New York newspaper published the map of firearms licensees. It was seen as aiding and abetting thi channel.

But even if there were a magic wand that could be waved to prevent firearm theft (make it illegaler!) that wouldn't shut down the black market. Narcotics are smuggled into this country by the ton, despite a trillion dollar "War On Drugs". If you really think that laws can stop a black market, can you explain which weighs more: a ton of cocaine or a ton of Glocks?

And as to your disputing our host's premise, the large number of people arrested as felons in possession would suggest that it is not at all hard for a prohibited person to obtain a gun.

As to your last point about mass shooters, it seems that you are missing the point. Some mass shooters would not show up on a background check as prohibited persons, and so would be legally allowed to purchase the gun they intend to use to shoot people. Since they haven't committed a crime in the past, Universal Background Checks would be useless in preventing this.

If a prohibited person intended to commit a mass shooting they would of course simply buy their gun off the black market.

The proposed law is stupid and useless, other than to encumber lawful gun ownership.