It appears that the United States Senate, in a rare bit of bipartisan effort, has cobbled together a framework for new gun control laws. As one of those people who will be stuck complying with whatever goofy laws the state and federal government come up, I have some thoughts on the issue. I’ll try to get through them in some kind of logical order.
I think most people who know me will be a bit surprised as they get through (most of) the rundown:
- Clarify who must register as a licensed firearms dealer. This feels like a bit of a no-brainer. Clarifying current regulations defining who’s “engaged in the business of selling firearms” should make it easier to understand exactly what that phrase means and who needs to be in compliance in order to conduct that business appropriately.
- Enhanced penalties for straw purchases. If you knowingly and intentionally purchase a firearm with the intention of reselling or otherwise giving it to someone who is legally prohibited from owning one, you ought to have the book thrown at you. I have no idea what percentage of total sales are straw purchases, but each one of them is an insult to every one of us who jumps through all the hoops in order to stay in compliance.
- Closing the “boyfriend loophole.” Makes sense. If you’ve been convicted of abuse against your domestic partner – whether married, living together, or in a “serious dating relationship” – your propensity to violence or poor decision making is documented and the state therefore has a vested interest in limiting your ability to escalate that violence.
- Increased mental health funding. Sure. Is anyone out there really saying that we don’t need to improve access to mental health in this country? I’m not going to turn this post into a brief history of mental health failures over the last century, but getting past the idea that “they’re nuts and there’s nothing we can do about it” is probably a good idea.
- Enhanced school security. This one feels like something of a red herring. School shootings and “mass shootings” as a whole grab the headlines, but they make up a vanishingly small portion of overall violence in which a perpetrator uses a firearm. I mean sure, more security for soft targets is fine, but you’ll get more bang for your buck in getting people who commit crimes using a firearm off the streets and keeping them there.
- Enhanced background checks for buyers between 18 and 21. Personally, if we’re going to make gun owners a suspect class, I’d say go all the way back and make sure the review includes juvenile records as well. Walking in with a clean record on your 18th birthday shouldn’t count for more than being a little felon as a minor.
Of course, there’s one bit of this proposed framework, that I’ll be watching with intense interest: Expanding red flag laws.
In Maryland, our red flag law takes the form of the Extreme Risk Protection Order and allows a spouse, domestic partner, dating/romantic partner, relative, law enforcement officer, or medical professional to potation the court to require an individual to surrender firearms and ammunition to the state and to refrain from purchasing new ones. It further provides the court with the ability to refer the individual for emergency mental health evaluation. Some states are more or less restrictive on who can waive the red flag to trigger this process.
It sounds eminently reasonable on its face, but feels replete with opportunities to be abused – by those who might file for an ERPO illegitimately, by an overzealous judiciary, and by the government agency that can continue to hold an individual’s firearms days and weeks after the ERPO has expired or been rescinded.
Unlike some, I don’t think these red flag laws necessarily violate any kind of due process expectation on their face. I do expect, however, that they need to be very strictly constructed and closely overseen in order to prevent them from slipping towards a scenario where those subject to an ERPO find themselves like those Americans who were incorrectly placed on government “no fly” lists with no recourse besides a faceless, shrugging, government bureaucracy.
Personally, if I were king for the day and I wanted to get after gun violence, I’d spend my time chasing better legislation to put violent offenders in the deepest, darkest hole that local and state government and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons could find. Commit a crime with a firearm and the whole world ought to fall down on your head. Instead, we continue to usher these individuals into the revolving door of arrest, incarceration, release, wash, rinse, and repeat… but that’s not the story that’s going to ever lead the headlines and captivate public attention, so we are where we are.