Gun Control Activists Turning To States To Advance Their Agenda

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The high hopes for quick action that gun control activists had when Joe Biden was inaugurated back in January have turned to frustration and anger over the slow movement by the White House and the fact that, at the moment, there aren’t even 50 votes in the Senate for the first gun control bills to clear the House of Representatives in Congress. That doesn’t mean that the anti-gun groups are giving up, however.

Instead, there’s a renewed focus on state-level gun control legislation, and at POLITICO, writer and gun control enthusiast Matt Valentine has a half dozen ideas that he says states can put in place without waiting for Congress; including ending statewide firearms preemption laws, requiring firearms training before someone can purchase a firearm, and requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance when they acquire a firearm.

Indeed, the prominent ethicist Hugh LaFollette argues in his recent book In Defense of Gun Control (Oxford University Press, 2018) that liability insurance can be both a practical and morally just tool to mitigate the harms of gun violence. LaFollette devotes the last 11 pages of the book to laying out the argument for liability insurance — more space than he spends making his closing case for gun-free zones, an assault weapons ban or any other single policy initiative.

While Valentine references the NRA’s ill-fated Carry Guard program as an example of liability insurance, that program (along with others offered by companies like Second Call Defense and the US Concealed Carry Association) was voluntary in nature, and wasn’t really liability insurance in the first place. Instead, those programs are designed to pay for legal expenses if a concealed carry holder or legal gun owner is forced to act in self-defense. What Valentine is calling for is a mandatory regime in which gun owners would face penalties and perhaps even criminal charges if they didn’t have an insurance policy, and he neglects to point out that LaFollette has explicitly stated that he views an insurance requirement as part of an overall strategy of incremental gun controls that are designed to reduce the number of legal gun owners in this country.

The same goes for almost every one of Valentine’s proposals, including his call to challenge the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in court in an attempt to undo the law that prevents firearm manufacturers from being sued over the criminal misuse of their products. In fact, only one of his suggestions doesn’t involve either new gun control laws or using the courts to challenge existing laws like the PLCAA.

Decades of research in the social sciences has linked access to guns with higher risk of completed suicide. People who attempt suicide with a gun die nine times out of 10, whereas other common means (such as cutting and overdose) are much more survivable. That’s why the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 (New York SAFE Act) directed mental health professionals to report suicidal patients to a state agency, which could subsequently seize any guns they might own, and add their name to a “no buy” database for five years. Even in New York, though, this provision is controversial and has faced repeated court challenges. We shouldn’t expect to see similar legislation proliferating across the country anytime soon.

Instead, suicide prevention activists have been trying to cultivate a culture of community responsibility among gun owners, asking them to reach out to friends in crisis with an offer to store their guns after a divorce, job loss, death in the family or other trauma. The idea of letting your neighbor or your hunting buddy lock your gun up in his safe for a while might be more palatable than handing it over to the sheriff. Suicide prevention groups have partnered with gun shops and shooting ranges, first in New Hampshire and now in 11 other states, to spread the idea through posters and pamphlets.

I’m actually supportive of these voluntary efforts, though I think the broader issue of mental health treatment needs to be addressed. In most states, there simply aren’t enough inpatient treatment beds for those in the grips of a mental health crisis. The fact that an adjudication of mental illness by a judge leads to a lifetime prohibition on legal gun ownership also needs to change, because it may prevent gun owners from seeking help if and when they need it.

While Valentine avoids the more obvious gun control proposals like a ban on modern sporting rifles or so-called high capacity magazines, the vast majority of what he’s calling for would still lead to fewer legal gun owners and diminished Second Amendment rights. For gun owners that’s a big problem, but for gun control supporters like Valentine, that’s the point of his agenda.

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