Firearms Law Workshop Mini-Symposium, Part I: Going Gunless

I returned home to Houston from the workshop at the Duke Center for Firearms Law on Saturday morning, and reached my home just as the news reports broke from El Paso about the massacre at the Wal Mart there.  When I woke up the next morning, there were news reports about a similar atrocity in Dayton, OH.  The same weekend, the city of Chicago had 52 shootings (numerous separate incidents), with seven fatalities, its deadliest weekend so far in 2019.  Mt. Sinai Hospital had to divert ambulances to other trauma centers because it reached its maximum capacity.

The paper I submitted for the workshop, Going Gunless, is about conscientious people who feel it is time to renounce gun ownership for good. We need a new culture, a different mindset about relying on force and violence.  The paper proposes a system for voluntary government registration and certification of non-gun-owners, those who for religious, moral, social, or philosophical reasons want to be ineligible to buy or possess firearms for a period of five or ten years.  The voluntary legal ineligibility would also apply to state permits and licenses for buying, owning, carrying, or hunting with firearms.  It would constitute a waiver of all Second Amendment rights, with a government-issued certificate or card that the person is legally “gunless.”  Firearm policy in the United States is subject to longstanding political gridlock; I believe that political consensus is easier to build if people first personalize and internalize the issue.

The proposed system is analogous to both the registration of conscientious objectors during wartime conscriptions, and the newer suicide prevention laws whereby individuals can add their names to a do-not-sell list for firearm dealers – though the proposal made here is broader and more permanent.  The original draft of the Second Amendment contained an exemption for those “religiously scrupulous of bearing arms,” also known as the conscientious objector exception, for Quakers, Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, and other groups that abstained from killing others – not only in war as conscientious objectors, but also in using lethal force to defend oneself, one’s family, or (especially) one’s property.

Voluntary registration, with official certification, would serve three important purposes.  First, this would help create social identification markers for the gunless-by-choice movement, something that historically has been missing; formal signals and labels of identification with a movement are necessary for a movement’s success, especially with prohibition or abstinence movements.

Second, registration and certification as gunless would be a personal moral commitment marker; all societies provide ways for solemnizing one’s vows and solidifying one’s resolve on serious, lifelong moral decisions.  The impressive political success of the Prohibition Movement followed a century or more of the Temperance Movement, during which large numbers of Americans signed formal pledges to abstain completely, and permanently, from alcohol (teetotalers).  Those who took the pledge joined local chapters that were close-knit and provided interpersonal accountability and fellowship.  There is a robust academic literature about how gun ownership is not only a component of a “gun culture,” but also becomes part of the owner’s sense of identity.  My goal is to have conscientious non-ownership be something that people internalize as part of their identity as well.

Third, certification allows for a market-signaling effect, useful information that can trigger a beneficial response from the private sector, especially the insurance industry, but also socially-conscious firms.  Market responses, in turn, provide useful information about otherwise hotly-debated beliefs, such as whether guns in fact enhance or reduce safety for individuals and public places; insurers have the financial incentive to make accurate predictions about risk and safety for purposes of pricing their policies or premiums, and better information bolsters accuracy in risk assessment and risk management.  Currently there is no way for insurers or other firms to identify who is a gun owner and who is not; while the registration program would not provide complete information, it would provide reliable information about a certain sector of the population, which would be an improvement over the current state of uncertainty.

[Ed. Note: This post is part of a series on the papers presented at the Center’s first Firearms Law Works-in-Progress Workshop on August 2, 2019.]