Some people may wonder why NRA members and millions of other American gun owners protest so loudly when the gun control lobby offers one more "reasonable solution" to problems that they associate with guns. They may even be aware that Sarah Brady, chair of the nation`s largest anti-gun group--Brady Campaign (previously Handgun Control, Inc.)--years ago discussed her plans for the future with the New York Times. She said in her Aug. 15, 1993, interview that her group favors a "needs-based licensing" system, with all guns and all gun transfers registered. In the Brady world, an honest citizen who wanted to own a gun would have to prove to his or her local police the "need" for that gun.
Constitutional issues aside, those who wonder what motivates American gun owners should understand that perhaps only one other word in the English language so boils their blood as "registration," and that word is "confiscation." Gun owners fiercely believe those words are ominously related.
Gun owners also know that criminals will never register their illegally possessed guns and, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Haynes v. U.S. (309 U.S. 85 (1968)) that since felons are prohibited from owning firearms, compelling them to register them would violate their 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Gun owners know further that the registration and licensing of America`s 60-65 million gun owners and their estimated 230 million firearms would require creation of a huge bureaucracy at tremendous taxpayer cost, without any tangible anti-crime benefit.
Gun registration is, of course, hardly new, and neither are its widely recognized dangers. In 1975, U.S. Sen. James A. McClure (R-ID) said: "Gun registration is the first step toward ultimate and total confiscation, the first step in a complete destruction of a cornerstone of our Bill of Rights." When Sen. McClure sponsored the Firearms Owners` Protection Act (1986), he made sure that it included a prohibition against the federal government keeping a national registry of gun owners. Similar prohibitive language appears in the Brady Act and in annual appropriations bills.
Others recognize gun registration`s inherent purpose. In 1975 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime, anti-gun advocate Charles Morgan, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Civil Liberties Union stated: "I have not one doubt, even if I am in agreement with the National Rifle Association, that that kind of record-keeping procedure is the first step to eventual confiscation under one administration or another."
Registration lists have led to gun confiscation in Australia, Bermuda, Cuba, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Jamaica, Soviet Georgia and other countries. It has also happened here, and the history of firearms registration in New York City is particularly instructive.
In 1967, New York City passed an ordinance requiring a citizen to obtain a permit to own a rifle or shotgun, which would then be registered. Concerns over the potential use of those registration lists to confiscate guns in the future were dismissed as paranoia. In 1991, gun owners` legitimate fears were realized, when the city passed a ban on the private possession of some semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, despite the police commissioner`s testimony that no registered firearms of the types banned had been used in violent crimes in the city. New Yorkers who had been licensed earlier to possess semi-automatic rifles and shotguns were told that any licensed firearms that were covered by the ban had to be surrendered, rendered inoperable or taken out of the city. They were warned that they might be subject to "spot checks."
American gun owners know their fears about licensing and registration are hardly unfounded, because they are familiar with the sorry story of gun control in Great Britain. This story is concisely told in the monograph, "Lost Battles, Lost Rights," written by David B. Kopel, adjunct professor of law at New York University Law School.
As Kopel recounts, after passage of the Firearms Act of 1920, Britons suddenly could possess pistols and rifles only if they proved they had "good reason" for receiving a police permit. Then, in 1936, the British police began adding a permit requirement requiring that the guns be stored securely.
As the public grew accustomed to the idea of guns being licensed, it became possible to begin to enforce the licensing requirements with greater and greater stringency. By enforcing the Firearms Act with moderation, at first, and then with gradually increasing severity, the British government acclimated British gun owners to higher and higher levels of control.
An English court decision reveals how far this control has gone. The London Times reports that on March 6, 2000, a judge denied an appeal by Arthur Mark Farrer to renew his license to own a shotgun. Farrer`s license, or "shotgun certificate," allowed him to own a shotgun as long as he stored it in compliance with increasingly severe British storage laws. He kept his gun in a safe at his mother`s house. But when he told his mother where the key to the safe was kept, the police licensing bureau was not pleased--81-year-old mom had no license. The judge agreed, ruling Farrer "was in breach of the condition prescribed by rule . . . that he should store the gun securely so as to prevent . . . access to it by an unauthorised person."
The judge cited a section of English law stating that a person can be granted a certificate if the chief of police is "satisfied that the applicant could be permitted to possess a shotgun without danger to the public safety or the peace." Since Farrer trusted his mother access to the shotgun, he did not qualify.
Today, in Great Britain, handguns are banned. Semi-automatic center-fire rifles, which had been legally owned for nearly a century, are banned. Pump-action rifles are banned, since it was argued that these guns could be substituted for semi-automatics. Shotguns that can hold more than two shells at once now require a "firearms license" and are thus registered, and shotguns that can hold only two rounds require a "shotgun certificate."
American parallels are obvious. Enactment of the Brady Act, for example, establishes the principle of a national gun licensing system. Once a lenient national handgun licensing system is established, the licensing system can gradually be tightened, and police, as they have done in Great Britain, can begin inventing their own conditions to put on licenses. Such practices already occur in American jurisdictions such as New York, where licensing authorities sometimes add their own extralegal restrictions to handgun licenses.
Those, who from time to time wonder about what American gun owners think and why they think it, should realize that those who believe in their Second Amendment-guaranteed right will fight mightily to prevent this nation from becoming, like Great Britain, a place where the rights of gun owners are slowly strangled to death because too many people trusted politicians who did not trust them.