Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Have Rights Too: An Argument Against Guns in Public Places

I've always loved Mark Twain's semi-autobiographical book entitled Roughing It. It principally follows Twain's travels through the Wild West in the 1860s. Among the the many colorful stories in Roughing It are tales of old-time bandits and gunfighters.

Twain described life at a stagecoach station in the Rocky Mountains this way:

It was the very paradise of outlaws and desperadoes. There was absolutely no semblance of law there. Violence was the rule. Force was the only recognized authority. The commonest misunderstandings were settled on the spot with the revolver or the knife. Murders were done in open day, and with sparkling frequency, and nobody thought of inquiring into them. It was considered that the parties who did the killing had their private reasons for it; for other people to meddle would have been looked upon as indelicate.

Regarding the "gunfighters" of the Old West, Twain said,

The best known names in the Territory of Nevada were those belonging to these long-tailed heroes of the revolver. They were brave, reckless men, and traveled with their lives in their hands. To give them their due, they did their killing principally among themselves, and seldom molested peaceable citizens, for they considered it small credit to add to their trophies so cheap a bauble as the death of a man who was "not on the shoot," as they phrased it. They killed each other on slight provocation, and hoped and expected to be killed themselves-- for they held it almost shame to die otherwise than "with their boots on," as they expressed it.

 While it all sounds quite romantic, I can't say I'm eager to live in a place where a heavily-armed citizenry practices vigilante justice and routinely settles petty arguments with bullets. But in 21st century America, that exactly where we're headed.

I've been asked if the Second Amendment is outmoded. It isn't. It's simply been misinterpreted thanks to one of the many disastrous 5-4 Supreme Court decisions of the last few years. Until 2010, the law of the land on prohibiting ownership of some kinds of weapons was based on the case Miller v. United States:

"In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun ha
ving a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length' at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument." Describing the constitutional authority under which Congress could call forth state militia, the Court stated, "With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view." 

In the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller  the Supreme Court overturned Miller, and by extension the District of Columbia's ban on handgun ownership. The Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home, and, that handguns are "arms" for the purposes of the Second Amendment.

I was never in favor of a total ban on handguns. I think it makes more sense to try to convince people that keeping them in their homes is a bad idea. I'm much more disturbed by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in December of 2012 striking down Illinois' ban on concealed-carry of handguns in public. In a 2-1 ruling, the Court said "The Supreme Court has decided that the amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside."

Personally, I agree with the dissenting Judge in the Court decision cited above who noted, "when firearms are carried outside the home, the safety of a broader range of citizens is at issue. The risk of being injured or killed now extends to strangers, law enforcement personnel, and other private citizens who happen to be in the area." Or, to put it more simply, as then Governor of California Ronald Reagan said in the 1960s, "There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons." Americans do not need handguns to protect themselves in public. I do not want to be shot by concealed handguns that fire accidentally. I do not want to be shot by stray bullets fired by armed vigilantes trying to stop crime. I do not want to be accidentally shot by people firing their guns to scare other people. I do not want to be shot by people with concealed-carry permits who go crazy and just start shooting. I have rights too, including the right to not be put at risk of being shot by people who carry loaded guns everywhere for no compelling reason.

But the gun lobby is never content. The right to carry loaded handguns in public is not enough of course. So we move to the next fight: the demand for the right to carry guns everywhere, even on private property. And with that demand, of course, comes the nonsense argument that more guns in private places makes everyone safer.

Businesses are now under heavy pressure to allow customer to carry guns on their premises, As the Chicago Tribune reported recently,

"Under the recently passed concealed carry law, businesses can now choose whether to allow handguns on their property. If they post a sign outside their business declaring it gun-free, patrons are not allowed to bring them in.

But in deciding to ban or allow guns, business owners worry they may alienate patrons who support one side or the other. Business owners also worry their choice could saddle them with legal liability, should something go terribly wrong."

The gun lobby of course has no intention of letting businesses decide for themselves whether to allow guns. According to the Arizona Daily Star,

"The Arizona Citizens Defense League, a nonprofit group that supports expanding gun owners' legal rights, provides templates of business-sized cards on its website that users can print out to hand to business owners who prohibit firearms. Under a logo indicating no guns means no money, the cards say "You have made a decision to ban guns in your store. I am going to respect that decision and take my gun and my money to a competing business.""

Companies like Starbucks Coffee have made it clear that they would prefer not to allow guns on their premises, but they no longer feel they have choice. A spokesman for the company has commented, "In communities that permit open carry, we abide by local laws. Where these laws don't exist, openly carrying weapons in our stores is prohibited."

In Arizona, Pizza Hut has reversed its no-guns policy and is allowing customers to carry firearms into the restaurant if they are legal possessors. A spokesperson noted that the new policy doesn't apply to employees, who won't be able to carry guns at work. "For safety reasons we have always had a 'no weapon' policy (while working) for all of us at Pizza Hut of Arizona" It's interesting that Pizza Hut's official comment on the change is similar to that of Starbucks: they believe that guns on the premises make everyone less, not more safe.

They're right of course: guns carried by persons without weapons and law enforcement training make everyone less safe. This is not an opinion, it's statistical fact, as demonstrated by actuarial science. Consider for example a recent decision in Kansas that permits teachers and custodians to carry concealed firearms in schools. Journalist Charles B Pierce notes,

"The EMC Insurance Co. insures 85 percent to 90 percent of all Kansas school districts and has refused to renew coverage for schools that permit teachers and custodians to carry concealed firearms on their campuses under the new law, which took effect July 1. It's not a political decision, but a financial one based on the riskier climate it estimates would be created, the insurer said. "We've been writing school business for almost 40 years, and one of the underwriting guidelines we follow for schools is that any on-site armed security should be provided by uniformed, qualified law enforcement officers," said Mick Lovell, EMC's vice president for business development. "Our guidelines have not recently changed.""

"Bob Skow, chief executive officer of the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa, said he's not surprised by the companies' decisions. Insurance is all about risk and about pricing the cost of coverage in a way that correctly reflects it. That's one of the reasons many schools have gotten rid of their trampolines, he said. "It's one thing to have a trained peace officer with a gun in school; it's a completely different situation when you have a custodian or a teacher with a gun," Skow said."

The law enforcement community has expressed concerns similar to that of the insurance industry. Regarding Mississippi's new open-carry law, Ward Calhoun, chief deputy of the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department said, "One of our main concerns with a citizen carrying a firearm, no matter under which law it is, that they are trained not only in the operation and functions of the firearm but when that person can deploy that firearm." Mississippi does not, of course, require any such training to carry a gun.

It's also worth pointing out that introducing guns in schools, even when carried exclusively by police and trained security officers, presents its own dangers. Schools in Highland, New York recently began putting armed police officers in schools, and it wasn't very long before one of them accidentally shot his gun in a school hallway. This past May, an armed security officer at a school in Aurora, Colorado accidentally shot a student in the leg. In January, a security officer in Michigan left an unloaded gun in a school bathroom.

So, open and concealed carry without a permit on the street, in every business, janitors carrying guns in schools, is there anything I forgot? Why of course: guns in government buildings! From, "The Gilbert (Arizona) Town Council is considering allowing the public to carry deadly weapons, including guns, into town buildings and events after two conservative councilmen last week voiced support for the proposal."

But to return to my original point, the principal danger every American now faces is not that guns are carried in every public and private place. The real danger is gun-toting vigilantes who see themselves as authorized to use deadly force in public.

In August of 2012, two teens in Jacksonville, Florida attempted to rob a local store using BB guns. A customer in the store shot and killed one of them.  My reaction to this is, "the customer is not a police officer. What right does he have to deal out deadly force when he believes a crime is being committed?"

My opinion, however, seems to be very much at odds with other people commenting on the situation. The gun lobby, of course, touts the story as an argument in favor of concealed carry. And as strange as it seems to me, local law enforcement chose to praise rather than condemn the use of vigilante justice. Lt. Rob Schoonover of the Jacksonville police said, "He put himself in harm’s way by getting involved," "To us, he prevented any other violence from happening."

When I get on the bus Monday morning, and one of those odd verbal altercations I often hear between passengers on public transportation begins, will the people involved then decide to escalate the matter by drawing their legally carried guns? Will another person then decide to settle the issue by shooting them both dead? If he does so, will he then be praised by the police, rather than charged with murder?

With each passing year, I'm coming closer to the conclusion that I'm living in the wrong country.