Friday, 6 May 2011

Utah Gun Laws

Since most of my political leanings can be roughly categorized as "left" (even if they are of varying degrees of leftitude), many people are surprised to learn that I am a gun owner and advocate for greater gun rights and less gun "control." I throw scare quotes around "control" there because few laws put forward by gun control advocates really do much of anything at all to "control" gun traffic in the United States.

As with most prohibition practices - whether the dangerous activity or item banned is an automatic weapon or a fat sack of reefer - a ban or strict control does very little to limit access to said naughty activity or item, and quite a bit to drive trade into a grey or black market where any regulations at all, even the less restrictive and sensible ones I might support, are rendered meaningless. This is the first leg of my three-legged gun rights stool.

Leg number two: also as with most prohibition practices, the advocates of greater "control" are, generally speaking, breathtakingly ignorant when it comes to the practice, substance or item they wish to ban or regulate. In point of fact, I have yet to meet a gun control advocate who has shot (or, in many cases, even held) a gun in their adult life. If anything, their experience with guns tends to be like the experience that Starlee Kine (who is my new girlfriend even though she doesn't know it yet) described in her excellent This American Life piece on the great gun divide: she shot a gun as a small child, and the noise and kick scared the bejesus out of her. I won't go so far as to say that this is the root cause of many gun control advocates' attitude toward guns, but most gun control smacks of fear of guns, and in my experience, we primarily fear that which we have no knowledge of or do not understand.

This leads to legislation like the so-called "assault weapon ban." Unlike, say, the ban on destructive devices (most explosives including grenades,etc.), almost all of the features that make a weapon an "assault weapon" are largely cosmetic. For example: the primary difference between gun A, which is not an assault weapon, and gun B, which is, might be that gun B has a detachable magazine and a pistol grip. This is nonsense. Hell, even the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the 1968 Gun Control Act (sometimes referred to as Title I (68) and Title II (34) of our national gun control laws) contained some serious nonsense in addition to some good regulations. Under "nonsense" I would file regulations about the length of shotgun barrels, the near-ban on fully automatic machine guns, etc. etc. Leaving aside Titles I and II, something like the "Assault Weapons Ban" is a product of ignorance regarding what does or does not make a firearm more dangerous - not that I think we should ban anything that makes a firearm more dangerous, necessarily.

The third leg of my gun rights stool deals with a bit of history. The first time I heard gun control laws referred to as "racist" I assumed (not unreasonably) that the right wing, where, let's face it, most support for gun rights exists, was once again deploying the time-tested inside-out-and-backwards Martin-Luther-King-would-have-opposed-affirmative-action trick. In actuality, however, I was surprised to learn that this allegation from the right is exactly correct.

The original intent of the Second Amendment is something that intelligent, mature adults can disagree about: this does not entitle each side of the debate to their own definitions of reality or set of facts, however. The first gun control laws passed in this country were a direct response to a "threat" that was a direct response to a threat, in a manner of speaking (allow me to explain). Following the Civil War, through the Jim Crow era and right up to the Civil Rights Act, waves of anti-Black violence convulsed the south in the United States (they also convulsed the north - anyone who thinks that the south has a monopoly on racism and racist violence probably hasn't looked into the subject very deeply).

Quite sensibly, the African-American community - or at least many members of it - concluded rather quickly that they could not count on the police or other civil authorities for much of anything in the way of protection. The natural answer to this problem: they strapped up and prepared to defend themselves and their families and property from those who would threaten them. The prospect of an armed Black community, not surprisingly, did not sit well with the white establishment. Thus, the first gun control laws on what would eventually become U.S. soil, but at the time was a mishmash of colonies:

Racist arms laws predate the establishment of the United States. Starting in 1751, the French Black Code required Louisiana colonists to stop any blacks, and if necessary, beat "any black carrying any potential weapon, such as a cane." If a black refused to stop on demand, and was on horseback, the colonist was authorized to "shoot to kill." [1] Slave possession of firearms was a necessity at times in a frontier society, yet laws continued to be passed in an attempt to prohibit slaves or free blacks from possessing firearms, except under very restrictively controlled conditions. [2] Similarly, in the sixteenth century the colony of New Spain, terrified of black slave revolts, prohibited all blacks, free and slave, from carrying arms. [3]

In the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, the slave population successfully threw off their French masters, but the Revolution degenerated into a race war, aggravating existing fears in the French Louisiana colony, and among whites in the slave states of the United States. When the first U. S. official arrived in New Orleans in 1803 to take charge of this new American possession, the planters sought to have the existing free black militia disarmed, and otherwise exclude "free blacks from positions in which they were required to bear arms," including such non-military functions as slave-catching crews. The New Orleans city government also stopped whites from teaching fencing to free blacks, and then, when free blacks sought to teach fencing, similarly prohibited their efforts as well. [4]

That article by Cramer has made the rounds all over the internet, so if you don't trust it because it was reproduced at "," it was originally published in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, Winter 1995. It's research- and footnote-heavy, and if you think about it, sort of unsurprising. It would be a natural first move by an oppressive white majority to remove the means by which slaves (and later, poor minorities) might take matters into their own hands - and this was more than half a century before Malcolm X wrote "The Ballot or the Bullet:"

[Eventually] if we see fit then to form a black nationalist party, we'll form a black nationalist party. If it's necessary to form a black nationalist army, we'll form a black nationalist army. It'll be the ballot or the bullet. It'll be liberty or it'll be death.

This last argument is not meant to apply to modern "gun control" laws, but simply illustrates that the fruit of sensible, "liberal" gun control grows from a very poisonous root.

With our stool now sitting steady on its legs, let's have a gander at the Salt Lake Tribune's recent article, "'Craziest laws: Utah scolded by national gun-violence group." Right out of the gate, two things struck me. First, any time I see "gun violence group" in the news, I immediately suspect the G*d-damned Brady Campaign has something to do with it. Sure enough, it's the Brady Campaign's annual "scorecard" on gun restrictions:

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence this week gave Utah, Arizona and Alaska all scores of zero, and said they “do not have a single common sense* gun law on their books.”

Utah won an additional “honor” from the group that Arizona and Alaska did not. It won one of its “Craziest Gun Laws” awards, for allowing guns on college campuses.

The Brady Campaign, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, is an organization with an ostensibly noble mission that has gone terribly, terribly awry: interestingly, both are holdovers from the Clinton years, which were arguably the high-water mark of influence for both organizations. In the case of the SPLC, they may be the one place in our universe where the sort of political correctness and thoughtcrime enforcement so feared by the right actually exist (much to the detriment of their credibility, the SPLC inflates and exaggerates hate group threats for fundraising purposes). The Brady Campaign is slightly less shady, and is pretty up front about their agenda, although their claim that they're trying to prevent "gun violence" is pretty disingenuous (is there an organization that seeks to *increase* gun violence? Well, maybe World Net Daily...). The fact that they gave Utah a low score and a special award should really be looked upon as a badge of honor by anyone who is a proponent of liberty when it comes to firearms.

In fact, if memory serves, the Brady Campaign gave Barack Obama Ds and/or Fs in all their gun-control criteria, and I was able to use that document to convince not one, but two people to vote for him. Of course, the hysterical ninnies in the NRA and even (unfortunately) in the Utah Shooting Sports Council are firing up their Engines of Perpetual Fear to try to mobilize people against the "gun grabbers" (I hate that term) in the Democratic party, especially Obama, even though a quick glance at the record will tell you that the Democrats have been quietly sneaking away from gun regulation as a major (or even minor, in some cases) issue.

For what it's worth, I think there are some valid complaints about our regulations here, and our gun culture. My minor quibbles are as follows.

It's Way Too Easy To Get a Concealed Carry Permit

I love my CCW. It's probably the card in my wallet I use most, followed shortly by credit cards, library card, etc. Where and when I conceal carry is none of your beeswax. As my concealed carry instructor says, "The *whole idea* is that nobody knows you're carrying. If they know, it's not very concealed, is it?"

Speaking of CCW instruction, in Utah you can get a concealed carry permit if you can pass a background check, sit through a few hours of instruction, submit some fingerprints and a photograph, and that's about it. No required range time with an instructor, no multiple safety or shooting classes - you can complete the requirements (class, fingerprinting, forms etc.) in one evening, without ever having held or fired a gun. That last kind of spooks me - would you be okay with drivers on the road who never had to drive or pass a test to get their license? Me neither.

This is biting us in the ass, by the way. I can't for the life of me find a source, but at least one state has left the CCW Compact that Utah is part of for this very reason. It would be an easy fix to make. While we're on easy fixes, there is no reason (good or otherwise) to let out-of-staters get a Utah CCW. The reason this is a popular option right now is that Utah's license is recognized in several other states, and, as I've already explained, it's a one-evening deal to get one. I like the fact that my CCW makes it very, very easy to buy guns (no waiting period, no background check, etc.) - it's like clearing a hurdle that lets you take the express lane when it comes to firearms.

If 'Get Some Guns and Ammo' Ain't Haunted, It Damn Well Should Be

The number of suicides at Get Some is jaw-dropping. This is because at Get Some (and, to be honest, I really like this offer) you can rent any number of stylish handguns, buy ammunition for them, and try them out (one at a time, I think). This is great for people who are just getting into firearms, and want to try different styles and calibers to see what fits most comfortably.

Unfortunately, people who are suffering from suicidal ideation can also rent a gun, buy some bullets, and commit suicide on the gun range. This is messy, awful, and could be avoided with a safeguard or two: perhaps Get Some should only allow CCW holders to rent guns. At least that way the renter in question has passed a background check. More rigorous screening for mental health issues to identify people suffering from ideation of harm to themselves or others would be good: if our mental health system weren't hopelessly broken in many cases (and thereby hangs a whole other post) we could keep guns out of the hands of suicidal or homicidal people a little better.

I didn't really want to mention Get Some by name, because it's without a doubt the best indoor range in my area. The staff (while coming from the "black rifle"/survivalist school of gun love, which I still find slightly weird and intimidating, given the expense and expertise involved in really committing to an AR-15 or the like, even one mostly pre-assembled by Rock River) have always been super-awesome to me, and very helpful. I only mention Get Some because the quantity of range suicides there is getting ridiculous.

Honestly, Do We Have To Spend So Much Time On This Crap?

Yes, yes, it's super cool that we now have an official State gun (and the 1911 was a good choice), but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, there are more pressing concerns at hand - always - than tweaking our gun laws yet again. We've got a pretty good system, but lets resolve our education issues, air quality, mining and exploration overexploitation, etc. etc. before we go getting a wild hair up our collective ass over whether University of Utah kids should be able to saunter around campus while strapped up like gurneys (for the record: I think they should be able to).

As a final note, my take on guns is essentially like my take on drugs: they should not be illegal, their use should be allowed, but the moment that someone acts the fool - whether they crash their car high or rob a bank - the presence of said non-prohibited privilege (gun or drug) should compound the severity of the crime *severely*. And, to be quite honest, that's about as law-and-ordery as I tend to get.

* - I've noticed that, in general, when someone starts making an argument from "common sense," it generally means that they are uncommonly stupid and displaying an utter lack of sense. Just sayin'.

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