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COLUMN

Licensing the Constitution

Kris Schnee

How would you like to live in a nice, safe cage?

President Clinton brought us all a little closer to that ideal last month in his State of the Union speech, in which he proposed a national system of gun registration and licensing. His proposal would expand the existing system of background checks, which aims to prevent illegal gun sales to convicted felons, to one which targets law-abiding citizens.

To buy a handgun under the new system, citizens would not only have to pass a background check, but also a government gun safety training program. Gun owners’ proof of their innocence would take the form of a license -- a license to bear arms.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” American citizens have the legal right to own weapons. This right is “sacred” in the sense that it is part of the nation’s highest law, and it may not be removed without constitutional amendment.

Licensing our civil rights would, simply put, profane them. Imagine if Clinton’s licensing program were extended a bit: Since the pen is mightier than the sword (or gun), all writers should receive government training and permission for their work, to avoid harming people with their words. (Writers would have to buy their creative license.) We could then have the government license freedom of worship as well.

The concept of permits or licenses for private activities is inherently oppressive. It assumes that all power naturally rests in the hands of the State, and that “whatever is not allowed is forbidden,” rather than that people are free to do whatever they like except for those things their social contracts forbid (like theft and murder). Licenses may be necessary for banks and barbershops, but requiring them for the private actions of free citizens -- especially constitutionally-protected acts -- is the policy of a government sticking its nose where it does not belong.

So why should we license gun owners, once we decide to ignore that pesky Constitution? Bill Clinton said he wanted to give the government “enforcement tools” to “trace every gun and every bullet” used in crimes. In other words, he advocated limiting individual freedom in the name of security. Logically, the next step from there would be to make policemen’s jobs even easier by allowing universal wiretapping and search-and-seizure without warrants (another constitutional sin). We might ask whether getting total safety is worth the price of total surveillance and government control.

Another prime argument for licensing is the reduction of accidents and suicides involving guns. A USA Today editorial entitled “Why Gun Licensing Works” argues that “mandatory safety classes could help weed out emotionally unsuitable applicants.” What an excellent idea, to have appointed bureaucrats decide whether we have the right to thoughts and emotions!

Yes, gun owners would be wise to take training classes; the National Rifle Association offers extensive programs for adult and child gun safety. But if citizens choose not to train for the use of a gun kept in their own homes, it is none of the government’s business to protect them from themselves.

The fear of gun-control opponents is that licensing will lead to outright confiscation of the American people’s weapons. If the government tracks all guns, it has one list to find them all. Unlike licensed cars, which not even Al Gore has proposed to outlaw, guns are an obvious target for a government sweep; other countries have already made the slip from gun licensing to confiscation. We who protect individual freedom more strongly can avoid making the same mistake.

The main purpose of gun ownership conceived by the Constitution’s authors is for the people to protect themselves from an oppressive government -- one which violates their legal rights. If gun ownership is a constitutional right, then a government which tries to forbid its law-abiding citizens to own guns (even for self-defense and hunting) is in violation of the Constitution and will be resisted. Reject all of the above arguments if you wish, but recognize that some gun owners will resist national disarmament.

How extensive and severe will such resistance be, if gun owners are ordered someday to turn in their weapons? At the very least, a national War on Guns would be a long battle of non-compliance and half-hearted enforcement, harassing innocent people without eliminating guns from the hands of criminals; at worst, people will shoot each other over their interpretation of the Second Amendment. To protect free citizens who do not want government protection, and to control gun-using criminals who by definition cannot be controlled, are gun-control advocates willing to risk more gun violence by revoking the Second Amendment?