So what is it that bugs me about gun laws?
As I considered my own discomfort I might have landed on an idea. I’ve now confused several discussions in my mind, but in one such discussion, (and of course now I can’t find it) Terry (or someone) asked, “If gun laws are irrelevant because people will break the law anyway, then why bother making laws regarding murder or rape or anything else?” Why indeed? What is the difference between laws against murder and laws banning guns? This is not an easy question, at least it hasn’t been for me, but as I thought about it (and I still don’t have everything figured out) a few things began to come together.
Most of our laws are prohibitions against actions or behavior that we commonly agree is not compatible with the maintenance of an orderly society or which our society generally agrees is immoral. Murder and rape fall into these categories. John Adams said that in the United States we are a “government of laws and not of men.” So what are laws? Saint Thomas Aquinas said this… “Law: An ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community.” As I see it, our laws are outlines which we use to describe for ourselves what constitutes acceptable behavior. Laws are external, they do not (and indeed cannot) cause a change in that behavior. Behavior is internal and is shaped by our character and morality. I’m not the first person to feel this way.
“You can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people.” – Will Rogers
“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” – Plato
The difficulty is that gun laws would ban, not unacceptable behaviors or actions or even morality, but things… objects.
Somehow when we move from using behavior, actions and morality as defining characteristics of who we are as a society to determining what we may or may not own we are making an important shift. I suppose in many respects we already do this. We already restrict the ownership of high powered lasers and many explosives, but even then, if you really want them, there are local, state and federal permits for which you can apply that will allow you to own them (if you meet all of the necessary requirements). Many drugs and poisons are also restricted. Few, if any, of us would argue that individuals should be able to own nuclear materials or intercontinental ballistic missiles (although private individuals may launch really large rockets if they can afford it and if they meet stringent permitting requirements) but where do we draw the line?
In the discussion of gun ownership, I have heard others scoff at the idea of gun collecting, but why? Frankly, the idea of gun collecting holds no interest for me, but then again, all sorts of people collect all sorts of things that I find to me far more ridiculous than guns. People collect glassware, playing cards, stamps, beer cans, pop tabs, lunch boxes, Avon perfume bottles, decorative whiskey bottles and a million other things that others find to be useless or worse. We all have dramatically differing tastes in what we find interesting and one of the strengths of our nation has been the freedom to pursue whatever interests us, regardless of what others think. Just because gun collecting doesn’t interest me, in no way reflects on whether or not I think it ought to be legal.
In a nation where the ownership of private property has always been an important value, how willing are we to criminalize the ownership of firearms or anything else? How far are we willing to go? More to the point, if our laws help us to define who we are as a people and as a nation, at what point would these changes fundamentally rewrite our understanding of our identity and how we understand our freedom itself?