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A Modest Gun-Safety Proposal

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The problem with the advocates of “gun-safety” laws is that they don’t think big enough. They favor expanded background checks, greater monitoring of those stigmatized as “mentally ill,” and a ban on the manufacture of scary-looking semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. But we know these measures would not have prevented the horrible shootings that have occurred in recent years.

The 1999 Columbine massacre took place while bans on “assault weapons” and high-cap magazines were in place. The killer at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Adam Lanza, wouldn’t haven’t been stopped by a background check because he used his mother’s lawfully purchased guns. The shooter at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater last year, James Eagan Holmes, had no criminal record and bought his weapons legally. He reportedly had contact with so-called “mental-health professionals,” and some acquaintances thought he was weird, but this hardly sounds like grounds to take his guns away or detain him as likely to commit a massacre. Had he been unable to buy guns legally, he would have obtained them in the black market, which people have been doing since guns were invented. Same with Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson shooter who killed six people and wounded, among others, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

So, what are we to do? It’s not enough to make gun buyers undergo background checks. A would-be killer’s background may be spotless, and those whose backgrounds aren’t will find other ways to get firearms, including theft. Banning the manufacture of certain firearms and magazines won’t work either, because millions of them already exist, and no one proposes confiscation — if for no other reason than that it would be a mission impossible.

Here’s where I think the “gun-safety” crowd — they seem not to like the term “gun control” anymore — need to think bigger. Enough with the roundabout measures. Let’s get to the heart of the problem: the intention to commit crimes with a gun.

Congress should pass a law forthwith requiring every gun buyer to declare whether or not he intends to commit a crime with the gun. If a would-be buyer says yes, he would be denied a gun and his declaration should be publicized far and wide so that no one else will sell him a gun. The government could even set up a website with the names of all would-be buyers who declared their intention to commit a crime with a gun. This would ensure that even black-market dealers would refuse to sell guns to these people. Knowledge is power. And if a gun dealer sells a gun to a self-declared criminal, he would be charged as an accessory. That would deter even black-market dealers.

But what if a would-be buyer lies about his intentions? Let’s have stiff penalties for lying on the declaration form. I’m sure that anyone planning to commit murder or armed robbery would be stopped by the threat of jail time for lying about that intention.

This, of course, doesn’t address the full problem. What about the Adam Lanzas who take their parents’ guns? Since they don’t present themselves to a gun seller, how would they be required to declare their intentions?

Here’s the solution: All gun owners should be required to keep their guns under lock and key at the local police station. Whenever they, or members of their families, want to use a gun — say, in self-defense against an armed home invader — they would have to sign a declaration of intent. Guns would be issued only to those who declared they have no criminal designs.

This seems a far more effective way to keep guns out of the wrong hands than mere background checks and weapons bans. Since that’s what the “gun-safety” lobby says it wants, let’s see if they go for this modest proposal. It would target only the criminally minded, not the law-abiding among us, so the lobby should have no problem with these measures. Gun-safety advocates certainly cannot claim these requirements would not work, because then they would have to admit that the proposals they favor also would not work.

If we can’t count on gun buyers to declare honestly if they have criminal intentions, how can we count on them not to buy guns in background-check-free zones?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.