Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reason number 97 why you should never comply with a law requiring you to register anything

I've never understood the urge that some people have to "register" allegedly dangerous objects, substances or creatures with the government. Fans of registration act shocked that anybody could object -- after all, we get to keep our dogs, guns, cars and what have you -- without acknowledging that their preferred policies fail to minimize the supposed risks of whatever they've targeted while maximizing the dangers inherent in forcing public interaction with law-enforcement.

Take the case of Joe Fiorito. He's a columnist for the Toronto Star and a citizen of the land up north where ownership of anything that goes "BANG" is tightly regulated by the government. A generally reliable fan of the expansive state, Fiorito has acquired a new-found skepticism toward gun registration after a recent run-in with the law. He wrote in his column on January 29 of events after he responded to a loud pounding on his front door:

I asked Officer K. if he'd mind getting to the point. He thought I was being difficult. Not me. I am, however, uncomfortable playing 20 Questions in the morning with armed men on the porch.

The point?

Officer K. reminded me that my firearms licence had expired. He said I could turn the gun over to them for storage, or they could take the gun and destroy it.

My gun? It is a single-barrel .20 gauge shotgun. It is 40 years old. I used to take it into the woods up north to get partridge in the fall.

The last time I used it, I was walking along a hydro cut when I surprised a deer in the long dry grass. She leapt away in slow motion, flanks rippling, nostrils flaring; too beautiful.

I haven't hunted since.

I own no shells.

But it's my gun, dammit. I guess, when the Feds began the long-gun registry, I should have lied and not bothered to register the damn thing.

Officer K. pressed me about turning the gun over, there and then, for storage or destruction. For a brief moment I thought about handing it over, if only to get rid of him and his pal.

And then it just seemed wrong:

A couple of cops show up at my door, unannounced, and the talkative one says he has reason to believe, and I'm supposed to hand over my property just like that? 
Fiorito declined the officers' request and told them to take whatever step they thought appropriate.
An hour later Officers F. and K. showed up with their boss, Officer Nicolle. He was as angry as he was pushy and he said he wanted the gun or he'd come back with a search warrant.

I was offered no options.

No one ever said, look, you have to renew your licence; we'll give you two weeks, here's the paperwork you need; and in two weeks, if you don't have the licence we'll have to ask you for the gun.

In the absence of options, faced with a search warrant and outnumbered three to one, I said I'd get the damn shotgun. 
Of course, being a columnist -- even one who traditionally supports restrictive gun control -- Fiorito wrote about his unpleasant experience with Toronto's finest. The cops, apparently, weren't pleased. A few days later, he revisited the subject.
An aside: as I began to write this – on the afternoon of the day the column about the gun-snatching appeared – two cop cars spent five minutes idling in front of my house. Surely a coincidence. ...

A final aside: Officer N., the cop with the sneer, said as he was leaving that some sort of understanding might have been reached but not with a guy like me. All he knows about a guy like me is that I have a sharp tongue when I'm being bullied. If that's all he knows, he doesn't read the papers much.
That's right. The cops responded with a crude effort at intimidation -- and were open about their selective enforcement of the law. Decline to kiss their asses and they're not so nice.

Is there any wonder that Fiorito, a self-identified social democrat who opposes private ownership of handguns and supports Canada's gun registry, writes, "I guess, when the Feds began the long-gun registry, I should have lied and not bothered to register the damn thing."

Lots of people subject to arbitrary and intrusive regulations surely feel that way now -- especially those who can't easily publicize their ordeals. It's impossible to avoid drawing a conclusion from Fiorito's situation about the wisdom of submitting to any government registration scheme, whatever the subject of the registration may be -- or indeed, the wisdom of expanding government officials' authority over our lives, so that we require permission and forbearance just to get through our days.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is permit-free 'Vermont carry' coming to Arizona?

On February 1, Arizona's State Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for people who carry firearms concealed without a permit. The measure has provoked opposition from an association representing chiefs of police in the Grand Canyon State -- which some cynics might well take as an implicit endorsement of the proposal.

Arizona already allows open carry -- carrying a firearm in plain view -- without a permit, and is a "must-issue" state in which carry permits are readily available to people with a clean record who satisfy basic requirements. But it's not uncommon for un-permitted Arizonans to tuck guns in their pockets when stepping out for a hike, to run dogs or for other purposes, and so risk criminal penalties for a victimless act if caught. That has prompted legislators to consider following in the footsteps of Vermont and Alaska, states which don't require carry permits and have seen little in the way of a downside from removing one pitfall among many from the lawbooks.

The proposed bill, SB 1102, strikes language from the law that penalizes carrying any concealed weapon, except a pocket knife, without a permit, and that also bans having a weapon "concealed within immediate control of any person in or on a means of transportation." The measure passed the Senate Judicary Committee by a 4-3 vote.

If it becomes law, the bill would still leave permits available for those who want them -- especially people who want to carry their guns in other states that offer reciprocity to Arizona permit-holders.

In response, John Thomas, the lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, said, "SB 1102, if enacted into law, will take Arizona back to the Wild West carry, with no consideration of officer safety.''

Historians might note that Arizona should be so lucky -- several studies have found the "Wild West" to have lower crime rates than modern America. In Gunfighters, Highwaymen & Vigilantes, author Roger D. McGrath, a professor of history, referring to the "rough" mining towns he researched, wrote, "Bodie's rates of robery, burglary and theft were dramatically lower than those of most U.S. cities  in 1980." He added, "Aurora and Bodie women, other than prostitutes, suffered little from crime or violence." Not to minimize the crimes suffered by women in the sex trade, but women in that socially and legally stigmatized business continue to suffer more severely from crime than other women.

The towns McGrath studied did have high homicide rates but "those killed, with only a few exceptions, had been willing combatants, and many of them were roughs or badmen." Basically, the violence was largely confined to a subculture of voluntary participants -- which is almost the only part of the Old West we see in the movies.

Tellingly, McGrath found, "[t]he citizens themselves, armed with various types of firearms and willing to kill to protect their persons or property, were evidently the most important deterrent to larcenous crime."

It's not to much of a stretch to infer that Arizona's modern chiefs of police oppose SB 1102 and its looser firearms restrictions because they just don't want to be rendered unnecessary.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nature comes a-calling

Not long ago, I mentioned a bobcat that was shot in nearby Cottonwood after mauling a customer in a local bar. Well, nature's sharp and toothy reality came by for a visit again, this time in the form of a young bear. The bear wandered around the area, took down a goat for supper, and was finally shot by Game and Fish.

I'm sorry the bear was shot, I really am. I don't shoot rattlesnakes if I can just walk around them, and I don't like rattlers half as much as I like bears.

But the bear's fate was sealed about the time it tore a goat into snack-sized pieces and went looking for more.

Verde Sante Fe, the development where the bear was first sighted, is about three miles from my house. It's an odd bit of suburbia surrounded by desert and grazing cattle. I have to pass the development on my way to and from home.

The hills behind the development, into which the bear wandered, are where I used to run my dogs before I picked a spot closer to home. I ride my mountain bike on the jeep roads back there. Those hills are actually nearly unbroken Forest Service land leading straight to my house and the surrounding area. They're absolutely beautiful and full of wildlife.

Basically, we're up close and personal with nature. And, sometimes, nature is hungry.

It's easy for people who live at a distant remove from forest, desert and fur to get all misty-eyed about the denizens of the wilderness. People who actually live here can love the wild every bit as much, but rarely romanticize it to such an unrealistic extent. Ultimately, the animals with which we rub shoulders pose a potential danger to our pets, our livestock, our children and ourselves.

Usually, I put a .22 in my pocket when I run my dogs or take my kid on a hike. But bear ... This week, I traded my popgun for my .357. I hope I don't have to use it. But at least I'll have it handy.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

You can trust the TSA with your right to bear arms (can't you?)

The federal government's "no-fly" list of people forbidden to board commercial airliners has been the target of much-deserved criticism. Court documents reveal that the grounds for placing people on the list are "not hard and fast rules" but "necessarily subjective" judgments exercised by squabbling agencies. Getting off the list requires navigating an opaque and reluctantly implemented appeals process or a lawsuit. Even the size of the no-fly list is uncertain, with the Transportation Security Administration insisting that high estimates result from people being denied boarding because they've been confused with names on the list (a distinction without a difference). And now enrollment on that bureaucratic nightmare is poised to become grounds for denying Americans the ability to purchase firearms.

What could possibly go wrong with that scheme?

Would-be gun-owners may be introduced to the arbitrary justice of the no-fly list courtesy of H.R. 2401, the "No Fly, No Buy Act of 2009." Introduced last week by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the announced intention of the legislation is "[t]o increase public safety and reduce the threat to domestic security by including persons who may be prevented from boarding an aircraft in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and for other purposes."

As Rep. McCarthy puts it in a press release:

The No Fly, No Buy Act uses existing TSA data to update the NICS system with the names of known or suspected terrorists to disqualify them from passing the Brady Background Check.

Rep. McCarthy was elected to Congress on a wave of sympathy over the murder of her husband and injury of her son during a mass murder on the Long Island Railroad. She has dedicated her career to a seemingly obsessive effort to restrict legal access to firearms by civilians (but not by government officials). Her sponsorship of H.R. 2401 adds fuel to charges that McCarthy's hostility to private firearms ownership overrides any concerns she might have about due process or simple justice.

To illustrate just how arbitrary and dangerous inclusion on the no-fly list can be, it's worth looking at revelations from just last fall that Maryland state troopers monitored antiwar protesters and other political activists and included their names on terrorist watch lists. That means people exercising fundamental First Amendment rights were listed as potential terrorists and put in the position of being denied the right to travel by air, among other serious consequences.

With regards to the creation of the list, former FBI agent Jack Cloonan told 60 Minutes:

"I know in our particular case they basically did a massive data dump and said 'Ok anybody that’s got a nexus to terrorism, let’s make sure they get on the list. And once that train left the station, or once that bullet went down range. There was no calling it back. And that is where we are."

The poor quality of the no-fly list, the arbitrary nature of the inclusion of names on the list and its impact on innocent people is no secret, having been covered by mainstream media and litigated in the courts for the past half decade plus. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy and co-sponsor Rep. Steve Israel, both of New York, can't claim that they don't know that the no-fly list is a civil liberties nightmare that serves only to seriously inconvenience people, violate rights and generate headline-grabbing news stories.

So it's fair to conclude that Rep. McCarthy has no problem with the arbitrary denial of individual rights, so long as such denial furthers her crusade against gun ownership.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Thin blue line shields us from an armed and dangerous felon

I've always been dubious about the idea that convicted felons should be stripped of important civil rights even after they've serve their time. That's especially true of non-violent offenders. And it's even more concerning when we're talking about somebody deprived of their rights decades after a crime. (We'll put aside, for the moment, concerns about the crimes that never should have been crimes.)

We have both in a story from Connecticut, ably covered by David Codrea of The Examiner:
And the purpose of the raid? The compelling reason 15 heavily-armed police state ninjas used a battering ram on an unlocked door, assaulted and threw citizens to the ground, put guns to their heads, terrorized a man with a heart condition, destroyed and seized property, and generally trashed the place?

Because a son who "was arrested 34 years ago at the age of 17 with a friend who had forged a check [and] hasn't been arrested since" was living with his gun owner father.
That's right. The ATF pulled a D-Day on a peaceful family because one person dwelling in the home, alongside a gun owner, was arrested 34 years ago.

The kicker? After all that fuss, the ATF confiscated all guns but one. They left behind a loaded Beretta pistol.

If any of this makes sense to you, you have a better insight into cop-think than I ever will.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Second Amendment -- coming to a state near you

Last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized what everybody else already knew -- that the Second Amendment protects individual rights -- the battle over the right to bear arms was far from settled. In particular, courts still had to determine if the amendment protected individuals against restrictive state laws, as well as against the federal government. Now, the influential 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has chimed in with a resounding "yes," saying the Second Amendment has the same status as the First and Fourth Amendments in protecting Americans' rights.

What's at issue here is a concept called "incorporation," which is bound to cure insomnia in most people, but means everything in the world of constitutional law. Basically, when the Bill of Rights was originally written, it applied only to the federal government. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the Bill of Rights' reach to the states, though legal scholars still get into angry tussles over just which clause in the amendment does the heavy lifting (I did mention insomnia, right?): the due process clause or privileges and immunities.

The Supreme Court has also been selective in incorporating the Bill of Rights for reasons that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Really.

That said, incorporation has been the big question hanging over last summer's decision in D.C. v. Heller, recognizing that the Second Amendment protects individual rights, not some sort of vague communal right.

In a decision released today, in the case of Nordyke v. King (PDF), the 9th Circcuit Court of Appeals takes a big step toward resolving remaining questions about the scope of Second Amendment protections. Writing for the court, Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain first notes that Heller abrogated the appeals court's earlier holding that the Second Amendment protected only a collective right. He then notes:

[I]f the suspension of trial by jury, taxation without representation, and other offenses constituted the most offensive instances of British tyranny, the ability to call up armsbearing citizens was considered the essential means of colonial resistance. Indeed, the attempt by British soldiers to destroy a cache of American ammunition at Concord, Massachusetts, sparked the battles at Lexington and Concord, which began the Revolutionary War. For the colonists, the importance of the right to bear arms “was not merely speculative theory. It was the lived experience of the[ ] age.” ...

whereas the Supreme Court has previously incorporated rights the colonists fought for, we have here both a right they fought for and the right that allowed them to fight.

Ultimately, and importantly, O'Scannlain writes:

We therefore conclude that the right to keep and bear arms is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Colonial revolutionaries, the Founders, and a host of commentators and lawmakers living during the first one hundred years of the Republic all insisted on the fundamental nature of the right. It has long been regarded as the “true palladium of liberty.” Colonists relied on it to assert and to win their independence, and the victorious Union sought to prevent a recalcitrant South from abridging it less than a century later. The crucial role this deeply rooted right has played in our birth and history compels us to recognize that it is indeed fundamental, that it is necessary to the Anglo-American conception of ordered liberty that we have inherited. We are therefore persuaded that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment and applies it against the states and local governments.

So, at least for the large region of the country covered by the 9th Circuit -- the entire West Coast, plus Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Arizona -- incorporation of the Second Amendment is a settled issue (unless the Supreme Court says otherwise).

But how extensive are those protections? That's a valid question to ask, given the outcome of Nordyke. While the court incorporated the Second Amendment, it ruled that the plaintiff wasn't protected by that amendment from a local law that essentially bars the presence of guns at gun shows held on public property. While that doesn't strike at the very core of the right to bear arms -- the ability to own weapons for self-defense -- it's not a fringe consideration either.

The court's rationale isn't especially convincing. Constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA, says, "I'm inclined to say that the panel's general analysis on this guns-on-public-property is considerably more cursory and less clear than it ought to be." In short, the court suggests that "open, public spaces" are "sensitive places" like schools or a government buildings, and so restrictions can be placed on the exercise of certain rights, such as the possession of firearms. That's a sweeping statement that could limit weapons possession to private homes and businesses.

It's good to have the Second Amendment incorporated so that it protects us against state and local governments. But we have yet to discover how much protection it will provide.


Monday, March 30, 2009

You know that bobcat story that's been making the rounds ...

... about the wild cat that wandered into a bar in Arizona and mauled a customer? Well, that happened down the road from me in Cottonwood, which is where my wife works, my kid goes to day care and we do most of our shopping. While the story is getting the gee-whiz treatment in the press, animal encounters aren't unusual around here. It's one of the reasons, don't you know, that people in this part of the world tend to carry little gadgets that go "bang" and make wild animals have second thoughts or stop thinking at all.

The bobcat that wandered into the Chapparal Bar turned out to be rabid, which explains why a normally shy animal that keeps to itself would go on a rampage in town, attacking people in three separate incidents.

Of course, one of the guys who got chewed had decided that it was a Kodak moment and put his face near the critter for a snapshot. Or, at least, that's the word around the local hospital.

While we don't usually worry about bobcats, mountain lions are another matter. They frequently wander into Jerome, just up the mountain (and surrounded by forest) or into Verde Villages on the outskirts of Cottonwood (and bordering desert and forest) or into Cottonwood itself (bordering desert and forest) or other parts of the surrounding area. Once among human habitations, they tend to upset folks by snacking on cats and dogs and stalking people.

Occasionally, lions eat a person, though not recently -- around here. There was a non-fatal attack in the southern part of the county last year.

All the settlements around here are really islands of people in a sea of wilderness. We also have black bear living in our wild areas. Lots and lots of coyote, too. There's a coyote pack that comes by my property almost every night, since we're located near the Verde River in prime hunting ground for them. They like to taunt dogs to try to lure them from lighted, protected areas. If the dogs take the bait, you'll likely never see them again.

Coyotes don't often attack people, but when they do, children are the most likely targets (they're tender and bite-size).

This is why, when I take my three-year-old son for a walk, or run my dogs in the desert, I carry a gun. Many people around here do the same. We do it for the same reason we keep water in the car or tote a first-aid kit on hikes: precaution.

Nature is beautiful and we love living in the middle of it. But it keeps trying to eat us.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Juries quietly flip the bird to oppressive laws

In Washington, D.C., a jury ignored a military veteran's obvious violation of the city's draconian gun laws, setting him free with only a slap on the wrist. In LaSalle County, Illinois, a medical marijuana user found with 25 pounds of the plant didn't even get the slap; jurors chatted with him after finding him not guilty. While we can't know for sure, in both cases jury nullification was likely at work as regular people serving an important role in courtrooms exercised their power to quash laws they found repugnant.

Corporal Melroy H. Cort, who lost his knees to an improvised bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, was en route to Walter Reed Hospital from his home in Columbus, Ohio, when his car got a flat. He and his wife, Samantha, pulled over for repairs, at which time Cort, who has a concealed carry permit at home, retrieved his 9mm pistol from his glove compartment and put it in his pocket.

Cort's gun was spotted by somebody who called police, and Cort rapidly gained a rapid education in D.C. notoriously strict firearms laws. He was charged with carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm and possession of ammunition. He spent the night behind bars for having the nerve to possess a weapon in a city that, while it has improved since its nadir in the 1990s, still has about triple the national average rate of violent crime.

Despite its crime rate, D.C. has done its best to deny residents the right to legally defend themselves. This is the city that was taken to court for its restrictions -- and lost, resulting in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, which reaffirmed that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms. Depite that loss, city laws remain extremely restrictive, and Cort had clearly run afoul of local law.

But an amazing thing happened in court. According to the Washington Post:

After being deadlocked twice, a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday acquitted a Marine amputee on felony charges of gun possession stemming from an arrest while he was on the way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ...

Although acquitting him of the gun charges, the jury found Cort guilty of possessing ammunition, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to time already spent in the D.C. jail.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the jury ultimately saw no benefit in applying the city's tight gun laws to a handicapped man who was just passing through. Maybe they even questioned the overall propriety of the laws. In the end, they rather clearly ignored the law to set Cort free with just a nominal slap on the wrist -- which he plans to appeal.

And that brings us to the case of Loren J. Swift. Swift was arrested during a peaceful encounter at his home with a sizeable quantity of marijuana and plants -- reportedly 25 pounds and 50 pounds, respectively. He had been convicted once before for marijuana possession. A Navy veteran, Swift says he smokes marijuana to relieve pain and alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, but Illinois does not yet have a medical marijuana law.

Twenty-five pounds of grass, plus plants, in a state where marijuana is strictly illegal. That doesn't sound good for Swift. Except ...

On Wednesday in La Salle County Circuit Court, several jurors shook hands with an emotional Loren J. Swift after finding him not guilty of a marijuana charge that would have sent him to prison. ...

In the courthouse lobby, after the verdict, two male jurors talked and laughed with Swift and his attorney, Randy Gordon; one of the jurors patted Swift on his back. However, one of these jurors refused to admit he was a juror when The Times approached him for comment about the verdict; the other juror didn't deny he was indeed a juror, but nevertheless refused to talk.

Not surprisingly, observers at Swift's trial openly speculated about jury nullification. Once again, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that jurors sympathized more with the defendant than with the law, so decided to ignore what the statute books say.

In doing so, in both cases, justice prevailed. So did liberty.

We don't know what was going through the jurors' heads in the Cort and Swift trials, or whether any jurors were even familiar with jury nullification. But it's not that difficult a concept to invent from scratch, if necessary.

Historically, as President John Adams put it, it has been the juror's "duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." Unfortunately, you won't come across that quote from Adams in many modern courtrooms. Government officials don't like being second-guessed by the hoi polloi, so the tradition of independent juries has been allowed to wither from neglect. Few jurors ever learn about the traditional power of juries.

But you don't need to know history to have an inkling that the rights of the individual sometimes violate the dictates of the law -- and then decide to come down in favor of individual rights. And individual rights are an endangered species in a nation increasingly hemmed in by laws and regulations that seem to render ever more of our daily activities either mandatory or forbidden. They need as much protection as they can get.

To preserve what's left of our liberty, jury nullification is a good and powerful tool for checking government power. But since it is frequently discouraged by judges and prosecutors jealous of their prerogatives, it's generally exercised on the sly -- often by jurors unaware that they're doing exactly what was originally intended. For that reason, we'll likely never know exactly when nullification is being exercised.

But we can celebrate it when we see it.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The DIY rebuttal to gun control

The Obama administration is off to a good start on civil liberties when it comes to Guantanamo, reviving some hopes of due process and the possibility that arrest by federal agents will less frequently result in people dangling by their thumbs. President Obama is also making the right noises on medical marijuana. But gun owners are more than a bit concerned that their rights will be ridden over roughshod during the next few years. While there's no sure way of heading off government action, it is possible to evade and sabotage the enforcement of restrictive laws. Specifically, gun owners should continue to acquire and distribute the know-how for making their own guns.

Gun owners' concerns may well be justified; President Barack Obama has a history of hostility to private ownership of firearms and Attorney General Eric Holder went so far as to sign on to former Attorney General Janet Reno's amicus brief (PDF) in the case of D.C. v. Heller, opposing the position that the Supreme Court finally adopted: that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. There are already a couple of long-shot gun control measures circulating in Congress, including H.R. 45, a licensing and registration measure.

But laws are only as good as their enforceability -- a lesson that politicians need to take to heart in a country where 42.4% of the population has smoked illicitly cultivated grass decades after marijuana was outlawed, and where Prohibition was a moonshine-soaked failure. If self-defense-rights activists want to preserve their liberty, they need to continue battling in legislatures and the courts, but they should also take steps to make sure that gun laws are unenforceable -- that bans on firearms are countered by the equivalent of homebrew, moonshine and speakeasies.

This isn't exactly reinventing the wheel. Underground weapons manufacturing is a major business in places as far apart as the Philippines and Pakistan. offers a fascinating video tour of firearms and ammunition manufacturing and sales under remarkably crude conditions in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In the market there, gunsmiths turn out everything from muzzleloaders to hand-crafted Lewis guns and AK-47s in facilities less well-equipped than the average American home workshop.

So, where do you start? Well, you need plans, of course. You could copy an existing firearm, like those Pakistani craftsmen do, or like the World War II-era Polish resistance and pre-independence Israelis did when they churned out vast quantities of Sten guns. Or you could acquire plans purposely created for home manufacturing. Yes, they exist. And one of the better known sources for such plans is Philip A. Luty.

Probably the best endorsement for Luty's designs is that at least one of them works. We know it works because he went to prison in Britain for building a working copy from the design he published in the book, Expedient Homemade Firearms: The 9mm Submachine Gun. The book was written as a rejoinder to the British government's restrictive laws regarding firearms, and the powers-that-be didn't appreciate the rebuttal.

The time behind bars seems to have just ticked him off, since Luty, now free, is the proprietor of The Home Gunsmith Website, which offers several free plans for simple, improvised firearms. The site also offers plans for more complicated weapons for sale. And should the authorities get clever and decide to restrict ammunition ... well, Luty now offers a book for sale on how to improvise that, too.

It should be noted that, given Luty's ex-con status and the relatively close scrutiny under which he certainly operates these days, his more-recent designs have probably not been test-fired as diligently as the original. So, caveat emptor.

The point here isn't that setting up underground firearms bazaars is an adequate substitute for living with a government that knows its limits and respects our rights. It's that the means exist for rendering restrictive laws impotent and pointless. Short of turning your basement into a reproduction of the Ayalon Institute, the best use for simple gun plans may be to mail them to members of Congress as evidence that Americans are prepared to short-circuit their most draconian efforts. Imagine how much grief and blood could have been spared if pre-Prohibition legislators had been buried under such a weight of homebrew recipes that they'd conceded the point that a ban on alcoholic beverages was destined to fail.

Well, OK. Such an effort is unlikely to elicit rational thought in the minds of government officials. But it's a low-cost approach that just might have some effect. And the effort would help in developing and distributing effective plans that would ensure the ultimate failure of legal restrictions on the means for self defense.

Besides, it's just pretty nifty to have plans for building your own submachine gun.

Below, a video demonstration of a homemade .22-caliber pistol.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Prohibitionists scheme to create a black market in ammunition

Hobbled by the Supreme Court decision in D.C. v. Heller, recognizing that individuals have a constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms, gun control advocates are roaming the land with virtual lightbulbs over their heads. "Ah ha," they say. "You can have your guns, but we'll control your ammunition." Well, they're not the first to think of the idea, and they won't be the first to discover that "banning"' isn't synonymous with "eliminating."

California already has a law requiring firearms to include "microstamping" technology -- basically, firing pins that imprint traceable information on fired cases. The Brady Campaign wants to turn that into a national mandate (PDF). A group called Ammunition Accountability plans to go a step beyond, laser-engraving all bullets with serial numbers at the factory that could then be traced to purchasers in registered transactions. Laws to that effect have been introduced in 18 states, though none have yet passed. And, of course, some folks just want to ban ammunition altogether and convert firearms into decorative wallhangings.

There are, as you might guess, a few problems with these schemes.

Leave aside the cost of redesigning guns with mocrostamping technology and the challenge of replacing the roughly 270 million non-compliant guns already in circulation and in the hands of people not necessarily inclined to cooperate. Let's say you get it done. There is the added problem that few criminals are prone to purchasing their guns and ammunition in legal transactions requiring them to show their identification. Purchasing either a microstamping gun or laser-etched ammunition in a black-market transaction renders the encoded data useless.

Microstamping has the added flaw of being easy to defeat by swapping out the firing pin or by scraping off the stamping elements with a file. An old knife sharpening stone was used to remove the engraving in about one minute in an experiment (PDF) conducted by George G. Krivosta, of New York's Suffolk County Crime Laboratory. Krivosta said the technique could be performed with "no special equipment or knowledge needed."

So if your hypothetical criminal who shops for the tools of his trade at Wal-Mart does knock over liquor stores with a gun registered to his name, he can defeat microstamping with a rough stone.

The information contained in laser-engraved bullets would be harder to evade -- if they were purchased in registered transactions. But criminals can use ammunition that pre-dates the requirement. They can use stolen ammunition or ammunition purchased on the black market. Or they can use handloaded ammunition made in a commonly available press produced by one of several companies.

Which means that any effective ammunition control scheme would have to ban handloading and (as a failed Pennsylvania bill did) the possession of pre-law ammunition. So any ammunition control scheme, to be effective, inevitably edges toward a ban on ammunition.

Which raises the ultimate question: How effective could an ammunition ban be?

That brings us back to my earlier comment: They're not the first to think of the idea, and they won't be the first to discover that "banning"' isn't synonymous with "eliminating."

It's not that an ammunition ban or severe restriction would have no effect -- it would change things. Recreational shooting would be severely curtailed or destroyed entirely. If you effectively ban shooting, people won't shoot where you can hear or see them. They'll keep their guns and ammo cached out of sight. So a harmless pastime would suffer.

But the people who supposedly concern the government -- criminals, terrorists and political opponents of the powers-that-be -- really wouldn't feel a hit at all. Criminals only need a limited supply of ammunition to pursue their chosen vocations, as do terrorists. Those with political motivations are likely to posess stockpiles of ammunition with lifespans measurable in, at least, decades. And all three categories are willing to go outside the law for what they need.

And manufacturing ammunition isn't that hard. Just ask the Israelis about the Ayalon Institute. That's the name of the illicit factory in which Israeli guerrillas manufactured 40,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition per day to feed the submachine guns they made in another facility for their fight against British authorities. Under threat of the death penalty, the facility was built underground, with a functioning laundry overhead to conceal the operation.

Emulating the Ayalon Institute, the clever folks who currently build meth labs and submarines to smuggle cocaine could certainly knock off enough rounds to feed the black market appetite for ammunition. Especially in a country where making ammunition at home is considered a hobby and reloading equipment is already widely available. Illegal manufacture would be simple. That is, assuming enough couldn't be stolen from military and law-enforcement channels to satisfy demand.

And that's assuming a total ban. Tight restrictions would mean that recreational shooters use registered rounds while criminals stick with black-market ammo.

Look, I mentioned meth labs and cocaine smugglers above. Decades after outlawing drugs, we've accomplished little other than driving the drug trade underground and making it violent and corrosive. Prohibitions result not in compliance, but defiance. There's no reason whatsoever to think that controlling ammunition will be more effective than restrictions on other things that rub some set or other of control freaks the wrong way. People will find ways around any ban, especially for those criminal purposes about which the authorities are supposedly most concerned.

If illicit drug deals have turned dangerous and socially disruptive, just wait until the underground trade is in weapons and ammunition.


Monday, January 19, 2009

It's a blast from the past with New York's gun control laws

I've written before about how, when I was a New York City resident, I tired of the endless, intrusive and insulting process of applying for a pistol permit. Disgusted, I purchased a banned "assault weapon" on the black market. What I haven't written is that I also bought two pistols without a permit or registration -- perfectly legally. It was a purchase that would probably have never taken place without the perverse incentives inevitably created by restrictive laws.

For years, I stayed away from this topic because there was a nice, under-the-radar loophole in the law and I felt no need to rock the boat. It's still there, but it's not under the radar any more. The law allows for the red-tape-free purchase and possession of "antique firearms" and replicas thereof. That means guns in obsolete calibers for which ammunition is no longer manufactured. It also means muzzleloading hunting rifles. Most importantly, it includes cap-and-ball revolvers of the sort used around the middle of the 19th century. As the New York State Police Website puts it:

The Penal Law definition of antique firearm is generally applied to muzzle loading black powder firearms, but also applies to pistols or revolvers "that use fixed cartridges which are no longer available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade".

Muzzle loading pistols or revolvers do not have to be registered on a pistol permit if the owner never intends to fire them.

If they are possessed in a loaded condition or are simply possessed simultaneously with the components necessary to make them fire, they must first be registered on a valid pistol permit.

Note: Should a manufacturer begin to produce ammunition for a pistol or revolver for which ammunition had not been available previously, that weapon no longer meets the criteria of an antique weapon and is required to be registered. A pistol or revolver, regardless of age, when possessed with the ammunition necessary to make it discharge, is required to be registered.

This rare (in New York) oasis of relative freedom in a sea of overregulation survives in the Empire State largely because nobody ever had much reason to take notice. Criminals don't need to mess with loose gunpowder, percussion caps, lead bullets and grease. They just go to the black market and buy whatever modern weapons suit their fancy. So, frankly, does most everybody else. The usual estimate of illegal firearms in New York City is two million, as jaded urbanites apply the same attitude to gun control that has seen them through Prohibition, vice laws, the war on drugs and the rest of the regulatory state. But for people squeamish about illicit transactions and just looking for some insurance to keep in the nightstand, a cap-and-ball revolver might well do the job.

And there are some very nice working reproductions of Civil War-era guns available at very reasonable prices.

The opportunity for self defense provided by the muzzleloading exception to New York's byzantine gun laws has long been a matter of quiet understanding. The gun shop in which I purchased my (modern) pistol and started the legal paperwork for a permit so I could take the thing home had a small display case facing the main case of modern weapons. The smaller case contained modern reproductions of Colt, Remington and similar revolvers of the sort that won the West before anybody thought of wrapping the stuff that goes "bang" in a copper or brass tube to make it easier to handle. These revolvers take longer to load than their descendants, but once loaded, they function pretty much like today's guns.

While would-be gun buyers (inevitably) fumed over the hassle and expense of getting a modern weapon within the rules set by New York City (where the powerful are given special consideration for permits -- or bodyguards), these blast-from-the-past alternatives sat there, offering another option. Nobody said anything, but ... There can't be that many Civil War buffs in Manhattan.

I didn't buy my cap-and-ball guns at the store, because the frustration set in while I was at home. Besides, I wasn't going to pay New York prices if I could help it. So I mail-ordered what I wanted with no fuss.

Of course, New York's legal exception applied only so long as the guns were kept as paperweights. Bring ammo into the picture and the "loophole" goes away. But once you have the iron at home, what do the authorities know? And with my strictly under-the-table "assault weapon" purchase, I wasn't pretending to be law-abiding. In fact, I was on a sock-it-to-the-state tear.

So I bought percussion caps and bullets too. Gunpowder was another matter. It wasn't hard to find, but it was a tad more regulated than lead balls and I didn't want to raise any red flags. I actually improvised my own at first (it worked fine) before buying the real stuff outside the city.

And there I was, well-heeled with little fuss.

Oddly enough, I chuckled over the matter with a few Europeans about a year after the fact, and a Hungarian told me that the law was almost identical back in his home country. He said he knew plenty of people who didn't want to bother with the authorities or the black market, but who were packing like it was 1859. (A quick check reveals that Hungarian law still parallels New York antique-gun regulations.)

Unfortunately, last year, one of the twisted control freaks who infest elected offices in and around New York City got his knickers in a bunch over the antique-gun exception. In one of those statistical rolls of the dice, a New York State trooper was wounded with a black-powder rifle around the same time some guy was found with a muzzleloader on a college campus. That's two incidents in a state of 20 million people. In terms of things worth worrying about, that should have ranked up there with sewer gators coming up through your toilet and biting you on the ass. But this is New York. Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris decided that antique guns are a threat to the public safety.

Ironically, Gianaris touts his Greek heritage in the first line of his official biography. The Greek government admits that the country's not-so-submissive population of fewer than 11 million people own 1.5 million illegal guns. You gotta wonder how Gianaris would fare in the old country.

So far, Gianaris's attempt to disarm the 19th century (and its admirers) hasn't gone anywhere. That's probably because of the loud screams raised by New York's many museums and historical reenactors, who fear felony charges for any mistakes they may make while licensing and registering their extensive collections of wall-hangers.

Welcome to our world.

But Gianaris and some breathless press coverage about "deadly" black-powder guns have let the cat out of the bag. New Yorkers may or may not continue to be able to arm themselves with the finest defense technology available to Ulysses S. Grant, but they're no longer operating under the radar.

Besides, New Yorkers have better options. Until the law changes for the (less restrictive) better, one way or another, that sizeable minority of New York City residents who want to exercise the right to self defense can take advantage of one of the better black markets in the country. Really, anything is offered for sale -- much of it at pretty good prices. Most people looking for a gun in that city -- and unwilling to subject themselves to the intrusion, expense and arbitrary permit withdrawals of the legal process -- do exactly that.

In all things, liberty finds a way around the law.

But it's still interesting to reflect on the weird holes in the law left by yet another effort to impose draconian restrictions on disfavored activities and objects by government officials who know what they don't like -- even if they don't understand it in the least. Overregulation always produces defiance and illicit markets. But sometimes it also produces oddities, like new life for antique technology.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Beware of well-armed Europeans

The Times of London recently carried an interesting report about the public response to a violent terrorist attack.

[T]wo such anarchists, lately come from an attempt to blow up the president of France, tried to commit a robbery in north London, armed with automatic pistols. ... Londoners, however, shot back – and the anarchists were pursued through the streets by a spontaneous hue-and-cry. The police, who could not find the key to their own gun cupboard, borrowed at least four pistols from passers-by, while other citizens armed with revolvers and shotguns preferred to use their weapons themselves to bring the assailants down.

If you're scratching your head, that's because the newspaper description is of an incident in 1909. At the time, the UK had no restrictions on private firearms ownership to speak of. People owned guns and carried them in public.

If you wonder what the crime rate was like with all of those well-armed Brits wandering around ... Well, there were about 9.6 murders per million people (PDF) in 1900. That dipped over the years, to a low of 6.2 per million in 1960 -- and then rose to over 14 per million by the end of the 20th century.

The strict gun control laws that we associate with Britain today really began with the red scares of World War I and were implemented thereafter, with handguns finally banned in 1997. So the murder rate seemed to first dip and then soar even as gun laws grew ever-tougher.

Which isn't supposed to be how it works in disarmed Europe, is it?

Well, European countries certainly have lower -- often, much lower -- murder rates than the U.S., but we tend to exaggerate their disarmed status. That's because most mainstream media comparisons of gun ownership dwell on official figures. How many guns Americans legally own vs. how many Germans legally own. That makes sense to American eyes, because most guns here are perfectly legal. That's exactly what gets gun control advocates so hot and bothered when they start crunching numbers. They want guns further restricted and made less common.

But less common isn't always what you get. Those official gun ownership numbers actually compare apples and oranges. That's because Europeans own an awful lot of guns outside the law. As of 2003, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (PDF), "Contrary to widely-accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace in most European states." The survey adds, "public officials readily admit that unlicensed owners and unregistered guns greatly outnumber legal ones."

Even the 2003 figures may understate how unofficially well-armed European scofflaws are. The Small Arms Survey reported 350,000 unregistered guns in Greece in 2003. Two years later, the Greek government upped that figure -- to 1.5 million.

In countries with relatively loose gun laws -- like Finland -- most guns are legally held, as in the U.S. In countries with restrictive laws, like Germany, most guns are held illegally. Either way, people who want to own guns seem to go ahead and do so, no matter what the authorities want.

The result, in countries with tough laws, like the UK, is that you might have more than twice as many firearms owned in the shadows as out in the open. In France, more than five times as many guns are held illegally as legally.

So, Europeans are not so disarmed.

Why does this matter?

Well, if your population turns to supporting black markets, the logic of those illicit markets prevails. Once the mechanisms for satisfying demand move beyond the reach of the law, they acknowledge few limits. Again, from the Small Arms Survey 2003:

European criminals appear to be switching to heavier armaments. Instead of less capable revolvers, they increasingly have fully automatic pistols. Instead of hunting weapons, police are more commonly recovering sub-machine guns. Even larger weapons appear irregularly, illustrated when British police seized heavy machine guns and a mortar in March 2001.

With that booming underground market in place, you didn't think criminals were going to confine themselves to a few pocket pistols, did you?

And as illegally well-armed as many Europeans are, they're just not in a position to use those weapons against the armed bad guys the way the Londoners of 1909 were. Carrying a pistol in Edwardian times was a right, and chasing down a criminal was a civic duty. Doing the same these days carries a long prison sentence. The modern German gun owner may well use an illegal pistol to defend himself against a murderer -- after all, arrest is better than death. But he has good reason to resist the good samaritan urge to race around the corner to assist a stranger.

So Europeans still own their guns and they may even carry them, but they reserve their use for rare circumstances.

That Times description of a 1909 "hue and cry" was written by Richard Munday, a British firearms scholar who contrasted the century-old incident with the helplessness of Mumbai residents during the recent terrorist attack. India has suffered under strict gun control laws since the 19th century, leading Gandhi to lament, "Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”

In India, as elsewhere, people probably own a relatively large number of guns beyond the approval of the law. But under threat of prosecution and imprisonment, armed Mumbai residents certainly stayed at home to defend their families, leaving strangers to fend for themselves against the terrorists who openly used their illegal guns.

That's the end result of unenforceable laws for you. You get all the downside of whatever it is you're trying to restrict, but none of the benefits.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Plaxico Burress not alone in ignoring gun laws

New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself with his own gun while nightclubbing in Manhattan. For his troubles, he received not just the medical treatment he needed and the public shaming he deserved (for lousy gun handling), but a fine and suspension from his team and the possibility of spending 15 years behind bars because the gun isn't licensed in New York City. Quietly, I suspect lots of New Yorkers sympathize with the unfortunate football player.

In carrying an unlicensed handgun, Burress is in good company. New York City politicians, protected by phalanxes of taxpayer-funded guards and politically awarded permits to carry weapons, impose some of the toughest gun laws in the country on the people over whom they rule. Even long guns require permits and registration, and the handgun permitting process is an ordeal that takes months and money and requires applicants to submit to a fair share of abuse from officials on the off chance they'll be approved. Even then, the city has been known to arbitrarily yank already issued handgun permits just to reduce the numbers on the streets.

Not surprisingly, many New Yorkers have chosen to acquire the means for self defense outside of official channels. While crime rates in the city are low now compared to years past, some neighborhoods are better than others, and some people are more at risk than their neighbors. Even the wealthy can be targets, if they don't hide, like Mayor Bloomberg, behind bodyguards. The International Herald Tribune reports, "Burress has not spoken publicly about what possessed him to pack a gun, but some have speculated that he was carrying it for safety reasons after teammate and fellow wide receiver Steve Smith was robbed at gunpoint three days earlier after being driven to his town house in a chauffeur-driven car." So owning and carrying a weapon has potential benefits, whether or not officials approve.

Nobody knows how many unlicensed guns are in New York City, but the running estimate for years has been two million. I come from a family that owned guns in the city for generations before I finally applied for a handgun permit in the mid-1990s so that I could shoot at the range. After I was "out" as a gun owner, I was approached repeatedly be people who assumed (correctly) that I'd be sympathetic to their armed-and-underground status and were, often, curious as to how they could "get legal." Some were longtime city dwellers who'd packed illegally since the Sullivan Act was young, others were new to the city, carrying iron from back home. All were curious as to the process for reducing their legal exposure while retaining their ability to defend themselves.

I told them not to bother. It's not worth the hassle and expense to "get legal," just to wonder if the cops will decide to cull you from the roles of permit-holders one day, or kick in your door because you forgot to renew on time.

I'm obviously not the only person to come to that conclusion. New York has responded not by making its laws less intrusive and easier to follow, but by toughening penalties. The potential hit for being caught in possession of loaded, unlicensed gun is now 15 years, up from seven not too long ago. It's also a felony conviction.

But the potential hit from not being able to defend yourself and your family against bad guys is being dead. It's hard to trump that with prison time.

And authorities require medical staff to report any patients that come through their doors with gunshot wounds, the better to enforce the law (similar reporting requirements are in place elsewhere and may also apply to other situations, such as child abuse). Mayor Bloomberg is quite cross that doctors and nurses at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell didn't immediately snitch on Burress to the cops.

Here's a newsflash: Doctors' and nurses' first priority is saving lives, not dropping a dime. I know many medical personnel, and they're often quite adept at selective blindness, deafness and short-term memory loss. They want the sick and injured to seek their help, not fear them. They're also not always impressed by the wisdom of the law.

In the end, toughening penalties for violating laws that offend people's sense of liberty, justice and common sense doesn't actually improve the viability of those laws. Instead, it widens the gap between how politicians want people to behave, and how those people actually live their lives. It also encourages popular contempt toward government and the law.

That contempt is probably a good thing. But less fortunate are the victims produced along the way, including athletes threatened with a decade or more behind bars for the "crime" of injuring themselves.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Eric Holder, not so great on guns and ganja

You can probably toss out those fondly held hopes for drug-law reform under the incoming Obama administration. Eric H. Holder, Jr., President-Elect Barack Obama's choice for Attorney General, is undoubtedly a competent nominee with significant Justice Department experience under his belt, but he's an enthusiastic supporter of drug prohibition even when it comes to simple marijuana possession. And if you were bitterly clinging to Obama's professed support for the Second Amendment, let the scales fall from your eyes. The likely AG-to-be is a long-time opponent of the right to bear arms.

Before he became Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno in 1997, Holder was United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. In that office, he complained to the Washington Post that laws against marijuana in the nation's capital were too lenient.

U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the D.C. Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana.

"We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling.

The Washington Times reported on his charges that D.C.'s repeal of mandatory minimum sentences was "misguided" and his plans to make marijuana distribution a felony. He proposed "setting minimum sentences of 18 months for first-time convicted drug dealers, 36 months for the second time and 72 months for every conviction thereafter."

Holder is just as hostile to firearms possession as he is to the use of marijuana. As Deputy Attorney General, he put forward Clinton administration proposals for imposing draconian restrictions on private individuals who want to sell a gun or two from their personal collections at gun shows and flea markets. "Under our proposal, Brady background checks would be required for all guns that are sold at gun shows, even if the gun is sold by a vendor who is not licensed."

Even after he left government, Holder signed on to former Attorney General Janet Reno's amicus brief (PDF) in the case of D.C. v. Heller, opposing the position that the Supreme Court finally adopted: that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. The brief Holder signed explicitly asserted, "The Second Amendment does not protect firearms possession or use that Is unrelated to participation In a well-regulated militia."

After the Supreme Court rendered its pro-individual-rights decision earlier this year, Holder objected that the ruling "opens the door to more people having more access to guns and putting guns on the streets."

But what about enforcement? Can we at least expect a reprieve from the midnight raids by paramilitary squads that have resulted in injury and death for too many minor offenders, police officers and even innocent bystanders?

Don't count on it. After the violent raid by armored U.S. marshals to seize six-year-old Elian Gonzalez from his relatives and return him to Cuba, Eric Holder was one of the Justice Department officials called on the carpet to explain their actions to the U.S. Senate. Holder defended the raid to Tim Russert, despite his earlier denial that the Justice Department would try to forcefully seize the boy in the dark of night, saying, "We waited 'til five in the morning, just before dawn."

Drug warrior, gun grabber and fan of tear-gas-fueled paramilitary raids to resolve child custody disputes. That's Eric Holder, our new Attorney General.

Is there any upside to Holder's nomination?

Yes, there is, though Holder's positives are in areas that are less likely to directly affect most Americans than his negatives. Holder has, thankfully, criticized the Bush administration's affinity for warrantless wiretapping and for the use of torture against terrorism suspects -- or at least the outsourcing of such abuse to countries that have fewer scruples and legal restrictions than the United States. He told the American Constitution Society (video here):

Our needlessly abusive and unlawful practices in the ‘War on Terror' have diminished our standing in the world community and made us less, rather than more, safe.

He also said:

I never thought I would see the day when our Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture, and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman or degrading are consistent with United States law and policy.

That will be a welcome change from the attitude prevailing in the current administration, though it doesn't completely offset the new almost-AG's distinct downside.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Maybe they should ban private homes, too

As gun rights columnist David Codrea writes in his own take on this issue, "Across the nation, gun sales are up. The cause is attributed to fear over what new citizen disarmament edicts a Barack Obama presidency will bring."

He's right. The New York Times reports, "[s]ales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the last week, according to gun store owners around the nation."

How much?

Says the Times:

Nationally, rifle and handgun sales surged 17 percent, for example, in May, compared with May 2007, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation figures. That was before Mr. Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination. Sales then fell and were essentially flat by September compared with the year before, even as the campaign heated up, before rising 14 percent in October. November figures were not yet available.

The ultimate boost to retail sales may turn out to be higher. Britain's Sky News reports that one large retailer saw a remarkable jump in purchases of firearms. "Cheaper Than Dirt sold a million dollars in guns in October, more than double the normal amount."

News reports uniformly acknowledge that fears of the incoming Obama administration's attitude towards firearms regulation are behind the workout cash registers are getting in gun shops across the country. While President-Elect Barack Obama has said he agrees with the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, his announced policy proposals suggest a very narrow interpretation of that right. Obama's transition Website,, contained the following language before the page was yanked offline [Note: It is still in the Google cache here]:

Address Gun Violence in Cities: As president, Barack Obama would repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, which restricts the ability of local law enforcement to access important gun trace information, and give police officers across the nation the tools they need to solve gun crimes and fight the illegal arms trade. Obama and Biden also favor commonsense measures that respect the Second Amendment rights of gun owners, while keeping guns away from children and from criminals who shouldn't have them. They support closing the gun show loophole and making guns in this country childproof. They also support making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent, as such weapons belong on foreign battlefields and not on our streets.

Not surprisingly, given the new president's enthusiasm for restoring the so-called "assault weapons ban," military-style semi-automatic rifles appear to be the hottest sellers around the country.

This shouldn't be a surprise. In 1995, after the original assault weapons ban was passed under the Clinton administration, 60 Minutes co-host Leslie Stahl said of the impact of the ban, "it made 1994 the best year for gun sales in a generation and the best year for the sales of assault weapons ever."

This isn't a phenomenon confined to firearms, nor is it specific to Americans. Gay and lesbian couples rushed to marry before voters went to the polls and approved Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriages in California. When the Chinese government hinted that it might cap car registrations in Beijing, sales of new automobiles jumped by 30%.

That suggests a healthy disdain for restrictive laws on the part of people who want to go about their lives in ways that politicians disapprove. What government officials should have learned by now is that the best way to put more of anything into circulation is to suggest that you're going to attempt to use the law to restrict its availability. People will then rush to acquire that which is about to be forbidden.

And we can credibly assume, looking at history, that people rushing to beat a ban to the punch don't plan to give up what they've just acquired once a new law comes into effect.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wormtown on the cutting edge with proposed knife ban

Politicians in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts -- Wormtown, to those of us who attended college there and ruined our hearing listening to punk bands at Ralph's -- propose to ban the possession in public of knives with blades longer than 1.5 inches. The ban follows a rise in after-hours stabbings among the city's bar- and club-goers from 85 in 2006 to a projected 148 this year. (Strange but true: a popular New England regional band of the 1980s was called Rash of Stabbings.) The idea seems to be that if you forbid the carrying of sharp pieces of metal, the people committing the mayhem will slap themselves on the forehead and say, "Oh hell, I guess I can't commit attempted murder tonight cuz I might get fined for carrying a pocket knife."

If that doesn't strike you as a convincing line of reasoning, that's probably because you're working your brain a bit harder than the members of the Worcester city council. And if you saw that 1.5-inch limit, went to measure your own knives and discovered that the shortest knife in your collection doesn't make the ... err ... cut, you realize that the law isn't just doomed to fail, it's also so overreaching as to cover just about anything useful with an edge.

But the fact that the law is unlikely to deter actual criminals and goes too far is overshadowed by the rationale for posing such a strict ban that's likely to scoop up people going about perfectly innocent business. According to District 3 Councilor Paul P. Clancy Jr:

“We have a zero tolerance for these weapons in our schools and now we need to extend it out into the community,” Mr. Clancy said. “This is an ordinance the council needs to pass. It will make it a safer community for all.”

That's right, the knife ban is based on the same mindless zero-tolerance policies that have sent middle-school kids to jail for writing scary stories and gotten them strip-searched for possessing ibuprofen. Schools have had such excellent results with draconian restrictions on everything from behavior to expression to drugs to weapons that a city is now going to emulate policies that have become standard radio and blog fodder for condemnation and ridicule. Knives are bad, mmmkay?

But some people -- actually, a lot of people -- need knives to go about their jobs, pursue hobbies, or for recreational activities like fishing, camping and hunting. Are they supposed to chew through twine and rope?

Well, I guess that depends on whether the police officer who stops you with an illicit blade feels his spidey senses tingling, or whether his hemorrhoids are acting up, or whether he likes your kind of people.

While some councilors were concerned about the impact of the ordinance might have on those who carry such knives for personal use or recreation, District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. assured the councilors it would be targeted primarily at the after-hours bar and nightclub crowds where there has been an outbreak of knife-related violence.

He emphasized that the police would have a lot of discretion in enforcing the law to assure that people aren’t wrongly caught up in its net.

Translation: To find out if it's OK to carry a knife to your job, give it a try. If you end up on the wrong end of an arrest, you guessed wrong!

You know, I have the feeling that DA Early and his buddies are probably pretty safe carrying their cigar cutters to the office, but that the law might be enforced just a bit more stringently against regular folks on the street.

And that's a big problem.

Look, aside from the wisdom of any given rule, to be able to stay on the right side of the law you have to know where that right side begins and ends. A draconian law that is tempered only by the whims of its enforcers means that everybody is subject to arrest if they displease the authorities. That's not the way free societies work.

Ultimately, as we've discovered in our schools, zero-tolerance regimes end up as a free hand given to officials. Laws that insanely restrictive are no laws at all -- they're just absolute grants of power to the people with badges and government paychecks. Stay on their good side, and they'll exercise discretion in your favor; cross them and you're done. Ultimately, under the sort of law contemplated in Worcester, there is no way to stay legal; staying out of trouble requires currying favor -- or entirely avoiding that jurisdiction.

I guess I won't be visiting Ralph's anytime soon.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Who's afraid of Obama the gun banner?

The inevitable rise of President-for-Life Barack Obama will soon unleash his Stalinist hordes to ransack the gun cabinets of the nation and ravish Red America's newly disarmed womenfolk (and menfolk too, I guess, since Obama gets the bulk of the gay vote). That seems to be the nightmare keeping gun-rights advocates awake at nights. On, the NRA-ILA warns that "Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history."

There's some truth to those warnings. That is, Obama is rather anti-gun. Sure, sure, he says he supports the Second Amendment. But he also endorsed the D.C. ban on handguns. That makes Obama's support for gun rights about as thoroughgoing and enthusiastic as Anthony Comstock's regard for free speech.

But that doesn't mean that America will be disarmed under an Obama presidency, even if that's how the hypothetical new chief executive wants to expend his political capital. For starters, law just doesn't matter as much as people think when it comes to how people live their lives.

Honestly, I come from at least three generations of illegal gun owners in New York City (I now live within the law in Arizona, so don't think you're going to drop a dime, you tattletale). I say "at least" because I don't know for sure about my great-grandfather, but he owned a popular speakeasy. If he didn't keep unregistered weapons, the Sullivan Act would have been one of the few laws he obeyed. In fact, the gun laws are so byzantine and arbitrary that many New Yorkers have stopped trying to comply.

The result? Nobody knows how many illegal guns are in the city, but the most common estimate is two million shared among a population of about eight million. That's far more illegal guns than legal guns.

The city's meddling class likes to blame the black-market trade on looser rules and scofflaw dealers in other states. But even a professional busybody like Mayor Michael Bloomberg should have learned some basic economics from the financial news network he owns. Demand will always find a supply.

That's the case in Germany, where the German police union estimates that the country's 82 million people own twenty million illegal firearms -- above and beyond the legal weapons in private hands.

How can this be? Doesn't Germany have strict gun laws? Well ... yes. But laws are only as good as compliance, and people tend to comply only with laws that don't make them gag. In Gun Control and the Reduction in the Number of Arms (PDF), Dr. Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, wrote in 2000, "Non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event." Referring specifically to Germany, Csaszar found, "In Germany the general registration of long guns was enforced in 1972. The existing stock was estimated at between 17 and 20 millions, while only 3,2 million guns have been registered within the legally set period."

Germany's black market keeps the supply of guns flowing, mostly from Eastern Europe, according to the Small Arms Survey, to satisfy continuing demand -- despite the law.

Flipping the bird to gun-banners is a popular game around the world. Csaszar estimated that compliance with Australia's ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns may have gone as high as 20%, Canada's ban on "military-style" rifles pulled in from 3% to 20% of targeted guns, depending on the model. When Austria banned pump-action shotguns, only 10,557 were surrendered or registered out of 60,000 in private hands.

What about something closer to home?

In Can Gun Control Work? (Studies in Crime and Public Policy), James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, wrote:

In Boston and Cleveland, the rate of compliance with bans on assault rifles is estimated at 1%. Out of the 100,000 to 300,000 assault rifles estimated to be in private hands in New Jersey, 947 were registered, an additional 888 rendered inoperable, and 4 turned over to the authorities. In California, nearly 90% of the approximately 300,000 assault weapons owners did not register their weapons.

None of this should be all that surprising. Jacobs points out that many gun control advocates are among the first people to admit that drug laws are unenforceable. As he says, "Does the drug war not cast doubt on schemes for gun prohibition or stringent regulation?" Why should gun laws be different?

What this all means is that if Barack Obama is elected the next president of the United States, and if he's fibbing and plans to seize private guns or seriously restrict the ownership of firearms, he's likely to be about as successful at targeting guns as the government has been at eliminating the use of marijuana in this country. He won't succeed because, if you're a gun owner, you almost certainly won't obey. If you're a gun control advocate, Obama-the-banner will ultimately be left standing with his pants around his ankles because his efforts will have about as much effect on your stubbornly armed brother-in-law as Nancy Reagan's just-say-no scolding had on your college dope habit.

That's not to say that the law can't do damage. It can impose fines, send people to prison and make Americans increasingly hostile toward the government. I won't minimize the damage to lives that implies.

But that's government as usual -- pointless, repressive intrusions into people's lives without actually changing the way people live.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gotcha! Gun laws snare controversial writer

Prolific writer Peter Manso, author of, among other books, biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, has been indicted on a dozen firearms charges by a Massachusetts grand jury and faces years in prison.

Did he brandish a gun in public? Threaten a neighbor with a drive-by shooting?

No, the guns were all stored, quite securely, in his locked and alarmed home. In fact, police discovered the weapons only when they responded to a burglar alarm while the writer was away. Either the guns were in plain view -- evidence that Manso expected no legal trouble for their possession -- or else, as Manso's attorney alleges, "Truro police searched Manso's house illegally while responding to the alarm." (The Times of London reports they were "in a cupboard.")

The mindboggling criminal charges for mere possession of inanimate objects are reported by the Boston Globe as follows:

Manso was indicted on charges of illegally possessing a large capacity weapon (a Colt AR-15 assault rifle), four counts of illegally possessing loading devices for that weapon, three counts of illegally possessing firearms, one count of illegally possessing ammunition, and three counts of improperly storing a firearm, according to a spokeswoman for Plymouth prosecutors.

The most serious charge, illegally possessing the assault rifle, carries a minimum sentence of 2 1/2 years in prison and a maximum of 10 years in prison. No date has been set for Manso's next court hearing.

The main problem seems to be that Manso's Firearms Identification Card expired after the passage of new legislation in 1998 -- previously, FIDs lasted a lifetime; now they expire every six years. The new law has caused endless problems in the Bay State, since authorities have not been very effective about informing gun owners of the change. As the Globe reports, "In July 2002, a State House committee found that thousands of Massachusetts residents were probably unaware that they needed to renew fire identification cards."

The "assault rifle" is a separate issue, since that's just outright illegal in Massachusetts. Still, Manso is in good company in its possession. In Can Gun Control Work?, James B. Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, reported that Boston's assault weapons ban has enjoyed a rousing compliance rate of about 1%. Challenged by a law that seems purely arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive (banned assault weapons are mechanically indistinguishable from many perfectly legal firearms), large numbers of Americans simply shrug their shoulders and symbolically tell legislators to go fish.

Of course, heavy-handed law enforcement is nothing new to Massachusetts. When I went to college there in the 1980s (Clark University in Worcester, if you must know), the string of ominous billboards along the highway as you crossed the border was a running joke: Speed Limit Strictly Enforced, Possession and Use of Radar Detectors Illegal, Gun Laws Strictly Enforced ... "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" would have been a fitting final warning, followed by a roadblock and a vigorous strip-search.

But a potential decade in prison for merely possessing a mechanical device is more than a joke: it's a deprivation of a man's freedom for doing nothing that caused any harm to people or property.

Manso claims that he's been maliciously targeted by the police because of his controversial work on a new book that casts a skeptical look at the work of local authorities in investigating the murder of a writer named Christa Worthington. I don't know whether there's any truth to his claim, but the sort of technical charges he faces lend themselves to such abuse. The more intricate and technical the law becomes, the harder it is to understand, respect and abide by. It's irresistably tempting for many people to ignore the law's sillier restrictions, and all too easy to unwittingly fall behind in paperwork -- at the cost of years behind bars if a local official wants to be by-the-book about such things.

And, of course, offending local officials then comes to carry a hefty penalty in terms of selective enforcement of arcane law.

Strictly speaking, the recent Heller decision should have made these charges impossible. By finally recognizing that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, the Supreme Court ostensibly put the right to bear arms on the same footing as the right to free speech -- and you can't require people to get a license to speak their minds, nor can you ban high-capacity printing presses. But we're still exploring the full implications of that decision, and Heller was worded loosely enough that it may permit restrictions of the sort that we would never permit to be applied to any other individual right.

So Peter Manso faces a potential life sentence (he's 67) for doing no harm to anybody by violating laws that few respect and even fewer understand and thereby making himself vulnerable to officials who may be out to get him.

In a free country, that's not how the law is supposed to work.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Candidate ratings don't reveal much about the next president

With the Democratic National Convention in full swing and the Republicans eagerly awaiting their turn, political silly season has officially commenced. That means it's time for everybody with an axe to grind to rate the candidates' positions on issues near and dear to their hearts. Based on those positions, and by peering into crystal balls and divining the future from the entrails of sacrificial animals, we then forecast the candidates' likely performance in the White House.

There's just one problem with this approach: It's crap.

I've played this game before, myself, assessing presidential candidates' sensitivity to concerns about free speech, privacy, due process, the right to bear arms, etc. for the online publisher that employed me in 1996 and 2000. I skipped 2004, though that year might have proved a bit easier than most.

My 2000 comparison is no longer available online, but I remember digging through the stances taken by Bush and Gore (as well as Harry Browne, Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan) and concluding that, when it came to the two big contenders, the difference was more a matter of emphasis than overall impact. That is, Bush might be terrible on reproductive freedom, but he was decent on guns, while Gore sucked eggs on the right to bear arms but supported a woman's right to choose.

But that was before 9/11.

Y'see, all those positions the candidates take mean very little until they've actually been tested and had to make some hard choices. When President Bush was put to the test, it turned out that legal niceties like due process, privacy and the humane treatment of prisoners didn't matter to him much at all. But we had no way of knowing that until he was put in a position to respond to a crisis.

Does that mean a theoretical President Gore would have been better? It's hard to believe that any serious contender for the U.S. presidency would have been worse than George W. Bush, but we'll never really know. After all, in his pre-prophet-of-environmental-doom incarnation, Gore was part of the administration that produced many of the legal proposals that were later taken off the shelf and plugged into the PATRIOT Act.

But Gore was later critical of the PATRIOT Act, so maybe he had second thoughts.

Or maybe not being in power gives you a different perspective than when you're the head honcho.

Candidates can certainly telegraph their future performance, but the message is often mixed -- and we tend to see what we want to see. Woodrow Wilson, whose administration was perhaps the most abusive of individual rights in American history, wrote for decades in favor of greatly expanding the power of the presidency. But Wilson is also known for saying, "Liberty has never come from Government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it."

Which was the real Wilson? We only found out when he started throwing critics of his administration into prison.

Francis Biddle, FDR's Attorney General, remarked as the government was sticking Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, "The Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime president."

And "war" tends to get interpreted rather broadly by politicians; wars on poverty, drugs and terror can become justifications for nasty actions -- all just for the duration of the "emergency," of course.

With Barack Obama and John McCain, we have two presidential contenders who have served their political careers as legislators -- one person among many. We really don't have the slightest idea how they'll act when placed in positions of executive power. Will the ultimate winner of the White House wield his vast power as an angel or a monster? I suspect that even he doesn't know.

In the days to come, you'll see plenty of ratings of the candidates' stances on a variety of issues, including those involving the preservation of at least a modicum of liberty in this fading republic. But don't expect those comparisons to be much of a guide to how the next president will ultimately behave when put to the test.

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