THE BLOG

What's Wrong With Gun Registration?

04/22/2014 11:06 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2014

I live in Maryland, whose nickname is the "Free State," and I am no less free because of the laws in my state require registration of handguns and prohibit the more dangerous varieties of firearms, magazines and ammunition. In fact, I feel more free because I have less fear of being blown away, freedom and all, than I would have if guns were less regulated.

Very few people have serious objections to registration of activities in many other contexts; we register our cars, dogs, bicycles, burglar alarms, births, deaths, marriages and our kids into schools every day. Even with no military draft, we have draft registration. Many people have totally given up on privacy in giving any information to businesses. But guns are treated differently. Why? One reason is that we are inundated by demands that we do so from loud gun proponents stirred up and financed by a cynical commercial gun lobby. Another is we all have at least a little bit of rebellion in us and we can dream of throwing off the restraints of civilization and of running wild.

But we should not forget that this dream is a dream of going back to the state of nature and, as every one knows, the state of nature is where life is "nasty, brutish and short." It certainly was short for the twenty children and six teachers who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the thirty thousand or so who died from gun incidents last year.

The slogan or talking point "registration always leads to confiscation" has been taken up and repeated so many times that it seems impossible to trace its origin. Of course, law enforcement agencies, whether tyrannical or benign, have seized illegal items as part of their duties throughout history; but the picture being painted by gun zealots is of "jack-booted thugs" from the federal government taking the tools of liberty from true patriots. An example of this is currently happening in New York State where the SAFE Act requires registration of assault weapons. Many owners are being reported as unwilling to comply.

Seizure of weapons that are illegal, held by prohibited persons or not brought into compliance with licensing requirements is being presented as a sinister conspiracy rather than normal law enforcement. A U.S. congressman, Steve Stockman (R-TX), has just introduced a bill to cut off federal funds to states engaging in "registration" or "confiscation" of guns.

The NRA expresses fear of government tracking in amazing detail. For example, it filed a Friend of the Court brief against National Security Administration data collection on the grounds that such data could identify firearm ownership, siding with the ACLU. 

Lots of people have frustrations about the current state of society and it's easy to project these frustrations onto the government, but we don't live in a tyranny and President Obama isn't a totalitarian dictator. We have an amazing array of freedoms which would be severely put in jeopardy if we did have a revolution. The existence or even the perception of armed angry people hiding their identity among us and waiting to spring forth diminishes our ability to find happy, productive and unmolested lives. In our society, the vast majority of our citizens stand for enforcement of the law as it is adopted by our representatives in legislatures or Congress, and even the NRA calls for the enforcement of laws while they work to make that enforcement impossible.

So those of us who don't live our lives in paranoid fear and can sleep without having a gun under our beds can ask why we would want to insist that guns be registered with the government. The most important reason is to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Our existing system for that purpose is to background check some sales of guns, but there is an immense loophole for private sales in most states. Anyone with an interest in getting a gun knows where to buy one without a check being performed. The background check system also is dependent on identifying from the entire population, not just those wanting to acquire guns, those who are prohibited and keeping that list in databases. A registration and permit system would apply to all sales and require determining the suitability of only those wanting to buy a gun at the current moment.

Another limitation of background checking is that it assumes that a person passing the check will remain a legal gun possessor indefinitely. Many of the situations that are denounced as confiscation consist of a government moving to seize guns already in the hands of people who are later convicted of crimes that make their continued gun possession illegal. Getting these guns out of the hands of their now illegal owners is critical to protecting the public but is slowed and blocked by resistance from legislatures and pro-gun forces.

A gun registration system can also serve the goals of preventing legal owners from letting their guns get into illegal hands in secondary ways. It can include a requirement that gun transfers, losses and thefts be reported. This will help greatly in investigation of illegal guns seized on the street and of incidents of gun violence.

If firearm registration remains politically infeasible, there is another way to accomplish most of these goals. That is to have insurance, starting at manufacture and requiring continuance of insurer responsibility through all transfers unless replaced by new insurance. Readers who know my writing know I spend most of my time advocating such insurance in the face of massive resistance from both the gun and the insurance industry.