One of the arguments used by the NRA to fight gun laws is the idea that any new gun law will lead to gun registration which will then lead to gun confiscation. And since everyone knows that disarming citizens is a tried-and-true method for consolidating tyranny, pro-gun organizations like the NRA keep us ‘free’ by vigilantly opposing anything that might result in the registration of guns.
I don’t think that organizations promoting common-sense policies to keep guns out of the wrong hands (e.g., universal background checks) should underestimate the degree to which this argument about gun registration is not only very potent among gun owners, but may also play well amongst a much wider segment of the American population as a whole, gun owners or not. This is because we have a long and deep tradition of privacy in this country and as such, we enjoy protections from government intrusions that do not exist anywhere else.
The cornerstone of this legal tradition is the 4th Amendment, which basically prohibits search and seizure by government agents without probable cause. And while the judiciary has argued back and forth over how to define probable cause, the bottom line is that law enforcement officers cannot enter your premises without a duly-executed warrant, nor can they present evidence seized in this way in court, and this exclusion applies to not only the residence, but usually to one’s vehicle as well.
As long as there is no universal registration requirement, gun ownership, in and of itself, doesn’t constitute a crime. For that matter, even if I decide to sell my gun privately to someone who then uses the gun to commit a crime, I still haven’t done anything wrong. So the idea that government should be able to know who owns guns and who doesn’t only makes sense if such data could be used to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Which is the whole point of universal background checks. Except why should the government know what kind of guns I own even if I decide to sell one of them to someone else?
There is nothing in the background check legislation that recently passed at the state level or has been contemplated at the federal level that supports the idea that somehow the government will use this data to build a massive gun registration list covering all gun owners and their guns. But it doesn’t hurt the argument that registration equals confiscation when the media blabs endlessly about invasions of personal privacy via the internet, GPS, telephones and God knows just about everything else. Last year the pro-gun blogs carried endless stories warning their readers about alleged traffic stops in which law enforcement agents allegedly driver’s license information to determine whether or not the individual in question owned guns and therefore might be carrying a weapon without a non-resident CCW from the state where the traffic stop took place.
The only thing that can be learned from running a check on a driver’s license is whether the license is active and, in some cases, whether the individual to whom the license belongs is the subject of an outstanding warrant or other criminal complaint. But see how far you get trying to convince some of our more zealous 2nd Amendment guardians that some kind of universal gun-owning database isn’t being built and/or doesn’t already exist. After all, more than 40% of Americans believe that God created the human species some 10,000 years ago, so it’s not as if much of what we believe about anything is necessarily bolstered by science or fact.
The challenge for advocates promoting common-sense policies to reduce gun violence is to acknowledge that privacy, guns or no guns, is a legitimate concern and, as I said earlier, owning a gun is no crime. If registration, either directly or indirectly will help reduce the mortality and morbidity of guns, a way has to be found to make legitimate gun owners feel that gun ownership will not be threatened even if government needs to know about their guns.