Responsible owners should ask themselves why they accept a corrupt system that protects wrongdoers at their expense. At the very least, “responsible” should mean willing participation in a transparent system of accountability. Justice Brandeis wrote “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.”
Transparency begins with knowing who owns guns just as we must know who is legal to vote. Universal registration, whether at the state or federal level, is essential to any transparent system and there is no legitimate argument against it thanks to Heller. Government agents may no more take your gun without cause than they can search your house without a warrant. And if they do, Heller gives you legal redress in court – since 1790, our most trusted and reliable means of overturning acts of government. Opposing registration coddles the paranoid.
Until responsible owners stand up to be counted, we cannot possibly identify the irresponsible, unstable or illegal ones. Gun owners who advocate preserving the secrecy of our current system shield the irresponsible, whether they mean to or not. Ultimately the responsible many are tarred by acts of a few. Therefore, by definition, responsible owners would embrace universal registration and expect it of one another, if only to protect their reputations and end their association with wrongdoers operating in the shadows.
Following universal registration, background checks by a federally licensed dealer are an essential part of a transparent and accountable system. Responsible owners would be outraged that dealers who cheat and falsify records face only a misdemeanor charge and that it is nearly impossible to catch them at it. Whether sold at a gun show, a pawnshop, Wal Mart, or through Craigslist we must be able to identify those whose past crimes or mental illness bar them from legal ownership. Responsible gun sellers should demand this requirement to ensure the industry does everything possible to prevent another Jared Lee Loughner from legally owning a gun. Supporters of Second Amendment rights cannot oppose this and claim to have integrity.
As part of this, every state must report mental illness and criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check database. Currently 30 states do not fully report this key information, thus mentally ill people such as Seung-Hui Cho and those with a record of drug abuse such as Loughner and even terrorists can pass a federal background check and legally buy a gun. This cannot continue. Where are the voices of responsible gun owners, loudly protesting this failure?
Finally, requiring liability insurance also promotes accountability and transparency. The point isn’t to increase cost of ownership – indeed the cost is often quite low. It’s not to create an unconstitutional de facto ban. The point is to create systematic due diligence, replacing secrecy with transparency, and adding checks to our own judgment. Is my son responsible enough to handle an AR-15? An independent assessment might have made Nancy Lanza think twice.
As stakeholders, insurers would have a powerful incentive to understand ownership patterns and habits. Currently, we have scant and contradictory data on what responsible gun ownership looks like, therefore we can’t spot deviations and identify looming risks. Gun owners should support this as a tool for guarding their reputations, weeding out the mentally unstable and irresponsible without intrusive government action, and protecting those contemplating suicide.
Accountability must come from within the gun-owning community. In our free society industries often avoid or minimize government regulations by embracing robust self-regulation. It’s time for this community to police itself better. When the owner of a shooting range demands proof of registration and insurance from his customers or one gun owner turns to another and asks “are you insured for that gun?” we will have come a long way toward the right balance of freedom and responsibility.
Dunlap taught high school for twelve years and in 2006 earned National Board Certification in adolescent social studies. She is also a James Madison Fellow (1995), a distinction earned by fewer than 2,000 U.S. teachers. She is now an attorney in private practice. The views expressed here are solely her own.