by Dave Kopel
This article is a somewhat longer version of an op-ed that ran in the Rocky Mountain News on May 2, 1999. More by Kopel on Columbine.
A few days after Attorney General Janet Reno urged that the Littleton tragedy not be exploited politically, President Clinton executed a political plan exploiting Littleton. White House aides explained that the Clinton strategy had three objectives: to distract public attention from Kosovo and the transfer of nuclear weapons technology to China; to use Littleton (as Oklahoma City had been used before) to raise the President's popularity ratings; and to drive a wedge between Texas Governor George Bush and the Republican base.
The week before, the White House had instantly responded to the Harris/Klebold mass murders by deploying pollsters and assembling focus groups. But while the new Clinton anti-gun proposals have been carefully tested for superficial approval among key demographic groups, they are badly suited for what should be the objective of firearms policy: saving innocent lives.
Particularly dangerous is Clinton's proposal that persons be forced to wait three business days before buying a handgun--even after a criminal records check proves their legal right to buy the gun. In June 1993, after being assaulted by an ex-boyfriend, a 21-year-old Virginia woman named Rayna Ross bought a handgun one day before an ex-boyfriend broke into her apartment and attacked her. She lawfully shot him dead. Were the Clinton proposal in effect, Ms. Ross, like other stalking victims, could be killed before being allowed to obtain the means to defend themselves.
President Clinton, though, does not support defensive gun ownership. His claims at his press conference that his proposals would not interfere with "reasonable hunting and sports shooting" made no mention of the much more important right to possess guns to save lives.
Both Colorado and federal law already prohibit handgun possession by persons under 18. (One of the murderers was 18 at the time of the crime, and the other was 17.) Clinton proposes raising the age to 21. By Clinton's logic, then, the next time an infamous crime is committed by a 22-year-old, we can raise the age limit to 24, and so on. Twenty-year-old stalking victims who want to protect themselves will be out of luck.
In any case, the handgun law, like everything else in the Clinton proposal, is a matter exclusively for state governments, not the federal one. The Constitution grants Congress the power to enact legislation only on certain subjects (e.g., taxes, patents, interstate commerce) none of which include the possession or the sale of a firearm within the boundaries of a single state.
The current federal juvenile gun ban is an example of why laws are usually better made by the Colorado legislature (which requires that every bill get a full hearing before at least two committees in order to be enacted) as opposed to Congress (where bills are turned into floor amendments, and voted on before anyone has had a chance even to read the bill). Both Colorado and federal law allow juveniles to possess handguns while target shooting at a range. But according to federal law, a father who takes his son target shooting, and supervises him at all times, is a criminal, unless the father also writes the son a permission note, and makes the son carry the note--even though the father is with the son every moment.
Rather than expanding the scope of foolish federal laws, we should begin repealing them, and let the states deal with the minutiae of who can possess a gun.
Although Clinton and his allies are moving incrementally, there should be no doubt about where they are taking us. In 1994, President Clinton told Rolling Stone magazine that he wanted to outlaw handguns. As explained by Handgun Control, Inc.'s founder Pete Shields, in a 1976 article in the New Yorker, it is necessary "to get handguns registered" before advancing to the groups next step: "to make possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition...totally illegal." Thus, it should not be surprising that the Clinton administration is using the current national "instant check" on retail gun purchasers to compile illegal registration records.
In this context, Clinton's campaign to outlaw privacy for gun buyers makes a great deal of sense. Under current law, anyone who is "engaged in the business" of selling guns must comply with various federal laws (including the instant background check). The law applies no matter where the sale takes place--at a gun store, or at a gun show.
Conversely, persons who occasionally sell guns, but who are not firearms dealers (e.g., a widow selling off her husband's gun collection) do not need to comply with the rules applicable to licensed gun dealers. And the law is the same wherever the sale takes place. It does not matter whether she sells the guns over a few weeks out of her home, through classified ads, or if she sells all the guns in a single weekend, by renting a table at a gun show.
Contrary to the impression created by the gun prohibition groups, data from the United States Department of Justice show that only 2% of crime guns were obtained from gun shows. [The study if "Homicide in Eight Cities."] And most of those guns likely came from licensed dealers selling at gun shows, rather than from the small fraction of gun show tables rented by non-dealers.
Outlawing all private transfers at gun shows is simply a giant step towards outlawing the ability to exercise one's constitutional right to own a gun without being put on a government database.
Three of Harris and Klebolds guns did come from a girlfriend who bought them at a gun show. But if she hadnt bought the guns there, she could have bought them somewhere else. Gun laws are very good at disarming law-abiding people, but not very effective on people who spend a year planning a mass murder. Harris and Klebold and their accomplices broke at least 20 federal and state gun control laws. It is ludicrous to believe that they would have been deterred if they had to break 21 laws instead.
The only gun control policy which even arguably could have stopped Harris and Klebold would be the total confiscation of all firearms. Short of that, Mr. Clintons poll-tested proposals are at best a distraction from serious discussion of the problems that led to Littleton, and at worst a direct threat to the right of innocent people to protect themselves from rapists and other predators.
Other writings from the Independence Institute on Columbine.