Freedom versus rules — the gun controversy

            Civil society is a slippery slope.

It’s a constant tug of war between total individual freedom and rules that enable us to live as a society.

We have free speech, but we may not yell “Fire” in a crowded theater to start a panic. If we defame another person, we can be liable for the damage we cause. Your freedom to swing your arm, the saying goes, ends at my nose. We argue vigorously about freedom of the press and what government should be required to disclose.

Government imposes laws, enforces laws, and has the opportunity to abuse its powers. Usually it doesn’t. When it does, people sometimes get very badly hurt, but we can correct the abuse.

Our laws swing back and forth with trends. We go through an era of being “tough on crime,” then the trend reverses as we see – for example — that too many people are in prison.

Government makes mistakes; sometimes those mistakes lead to tragic results for individuals, but the power is kept in check by opposing forces, including the will of the people and the opportunity to throw officeholders out of office at the next election.

Our world is a tangle of compromises between the power of the state and individual liberty, and we live on that slippery slope, constantly engaged in trying to keep the extremes in balance. We try to keep watch – through checks and balances, judicial appeal, independent media, volunteer watchdogs and other mechanisms – to prevent the abuses, chastise the abusers and rescue the abused.

Except when the issue is guns. On this issue and only this issue, millions of true believers are convinced that any increased restriction on firearms – even if it’s just to keep guns from mentally unstable people, criminals and terrorists — will hurl us down the slippery slope to confiscation of all our guns, and that will lead to tyranny.

This is illogical on so many levels. First, there are so many guns in the USA that government could not possibly find them all. (The Kaiser foundation estimates 29-39 percent of New Mexican households own at least one gun. Other estimates are higher.) Second, if a tyrannical government wanted to take us all over, that government would have weapons bigger than guns. Tanks, for example.

It’s also illogical to think that that small, reasonable safety measures will lead unavoidably to an extreme result.

So let’s consider the gun show loophole. That’s the omission in federal law that permits anyone to buy a gun at a gun show without a background check.

A bill was filed in the 2016 legislature (HB51, Miguel Garcia, D.-Albuquerque) to close this loophole. Governor Susana Martinez, who has made crime the focus of this legislative session, has not given this bill the required message to be considered in this 30-day session.

Here’s the core question: Are background checks a good thing or not? If background checks are useless, legitimate dealers should not be burdened with having to do them, so Congress should repeal all background check requirements of the federal Brady law. If they serve a purpose, if we think criminals, fugitives, mentally unstable individuals and likely terrorists should be stopped from buying guns, it makes no sense to let them to go a show to buy what they couldn’t buy in a store.

Even if the bill had passed, it wouldn’t change New Mexico much. New Mexico still has uncounted hundreds of thousands of guns. We’ll still have our disproportionate share of teenagers shooting their parents, bad guys shooting police officers, and the usual mayhem. We just might be have been spared the next mentally ill person killing a few people at random, or perhaps been able to prevent the next San Bernardino.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2016

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