In his L.A. Times OP-ED piece opposing Gavin Newsom’s “Safety for All” initiative, UCLA Professor Adam Winkler starts his analysis by looking at the desirability of the measure’s actions. His thoughts on background checks for ammo buyers and magazine restrictions deserve their own post, so I’ll get to those later. Prof. Winkler specifically addresses the initiative’s “large capacity” magazine ban and its potential ill effect upon the rule of law; however, these concerns apply to all gun control laws…
What if we passed a law knowing that even usually law-abiding people wouldn’t comply with it? This fall, California voters may do just that if they approve Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Safety for All gun reform initiative. The result could be a small enhancement in public safety, and a potentially significant increase in disrespect for the law.
Some people have an ideological opposition to any gun control law. Yet when 95% of gun owners don’t comply with a law, it’s not just the die-hards objecting. Legal theorists argue that people are more likely to comply with laws they view as morally or socially just. To a person whose gun came standard with one of these magazines and who has owned it for years without incident, the idea that these devices are inherently dangerous does not resonate.
In the absence of cooperation from gun owners, the large-magazine ban is unenforceable. It would be practically and politically impossible for the government to go door to door to find and collect the magazines. The ban will be enforced only when someone gets caught with one, say in a search related to an arrest.
Americans have tried over and over to outlaw things that some insist are objectionable and others enjoy. Prohibition was repealed when its supporters realized that the disobeyed laws against alcohol brought the whole legal system into disrepute.
We have addressed these concerns before. Even if we accept the premise of a particular gun law, its actual benefit to society must also take into account its effect on the rule of law. Take, for example, as Prof. Winkler did, California’s 1990 “assault weapon” ban. The State estimated that there were 300,000 qualifying firearms in California at the time that should have been registered as “assault weapons”. Only 7,000 were actually registered. That’s a compliance rate of 2.3%.
So what happened to the other 293,000 naughty, naughty guns? Nothing. Has anything bad happened? No, not if we only look in terms of crimes committed. Those guns were (and probably still are) in the hands of otherwise law abiding citizens. These aren’t people inclined to commit violent crimes. However, they’re still criminals under the law. It is more accurate, though, to think of them as manufactured criminals. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They State just decided to declare them to be criminals.
But this is where we see the true harm that was done by that law. The State issued multiple threats to those noncompliant gun owners to get them to obey the new law. They were threatened repeatedly with arrest. Next, the State extended the registration deadline trying a softer touch. Neither approach worked. Those guns are still unregistered.
So a law was passed and promptly ignored by tens of thousands of our citizens. While there weren’t physical injuries that resulted from this, there was tremendous violence done to the rule of law. We are, allegedly, a nation of laws, not of men. When government inspires the People themselves to ignore the law, we stop being such a nation.