By John Taylor
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
In the 105th Congress, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL ) has introduced HR339, "to provide a national standard in accordance with which nonresidents of a State may carry certain concealed firearms in the State ..." Predictably, within the pro-gun community, there have been certain denizens of lists and boards who have seized this cudgel, and commenced flailing about with it.
Members of one list attempted to organize a petition campaign in support of the bill, stating, in essence, that one could either join in or be an enemy of gun rights forever (I paraphrase 'content', but not, I think, 'intent'). The NRA appears to favor this bill also, touting it in their 'alerts' and through messages from individual staffers on other lists.
Opposition has been treated cooly, to say the least. Therefore, it is with some trepidation that I once again venture forth with a contrarian opinion. Here are four things I think might be wrong with Rep. Stearns' approach.
The bill is written such that residents of Vermont, who are not required to possess a permit of any kind to carry concealed, are placed at a peculiar disadvantage. (More about some related underlying dangers in a later paragraph.)
The bill develops rules for persons who have obtained a license in their home state to carry in other states; one case for states that already have a license process, and another case for states that do not. There are any number of 'unintended consequences' to this type of federal intervention -- and more on that aspect later.)
There is, for example, no provision for residents of states that do not require licenses. Nor, for that matter, are there any provisions for (1) residents of states that do not issue permits at all or (2) for states that have a process but make it virtually impossible for an 'ordinary citizen' to obtain one. Yet those are the people most in need of 'assistance'.
Perhaps even more importantly, the bill creates the real potential for states or other geographic localities to make more restrictive their "requirements for carry" in response to the "relaxed" federal standard, thereby rendering a net disservice to residents of that locality, while imposing added restrictions on the ability of nonresidents to carry concealed.
Now how is a person going to keep up with changes in the concealed carry laws of each and every state through which he might someday pass, secure in the knowledge that his "national right to carry" will protect him?
And what will he do if he wishes to carry concealed in a state that requires a course to be taught by a state-certified instructor, complete with a course of live fire? And how many fees will he have to pay? What will be the total cost for an individual to carry concealed in his own state and those contiguous to him, much less all 50?
And here's a not totally irrelevant aside: remember that provision buried in the middle of 1996's omnibus spending bill that congress blasted through at the last minute? The one that reinstated the "Gun-Free School Zones" act? Just exactly what effect do you think that existing law will have on the Stearns bill? What good is a national concealed carry law without a AAA map to every single school in the nation, with a 1000' circle drawn around each one in red?
The LEO Clause
The bill includes a blanket clause that allows "qualified" and "qualified former" law enforcement officers to carry concealed handguns. Period. I have the utmost respect for the rank-and-file in law enforcement, having been there and done that.
Nonetheless, I have never heard a persuasive argument why there should be a special case for law enforcement officers (especially as broadly defined as in Rep. Stearns' bill) to carry concealed in ways that are prohibited to 'ordinary citizens'.
That this clause is irrelevant to the intent of the bill otherwise is an indication that its presence is largely gratuitous, and is a gambit to garner support form a single special interest.
I LoVermont II
We all, nearly unanimously, agree that "Vermont Carry" is the way we'd like things to be everywhere. Yet some of our 'friends' persist in advancing the thesis that a measure like that of Rep. Stearns is "better than nothing". This curious argument (which eerily parallels those touting Bob Dole for President -- and seems to be proffered by many of the same people) overlooks the merit -- or lack thereof -- of the proposal itself.
A measure such as this is antithetical to the present or future adoption of "Vermont Carry". Not only does it subvert the current status of the citizens of Vermont (see above), but it institutes a process that mitigates the drive to adopt a system like Vermont's in other states.
The Stearns proposal offers an opportunity to establish a federal database of 'licensed' handgun carriers, whose potential for abuse is endless. For example, this system constitutes yet another form of de facto registration. In addition, there exists the real possibility that a "concealed carry permit" will, in the future, mutate into a nationalized "permit to possess", and all non-permit holders will find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Once a system like this is in place, with the associated entrenched bureaucracy, it will be impossible to dynamite out. Which brings us to what I consider to be the key point in this discussion.
A Mandate is a Mandate is a Mandate
Just as it seems that we might be getting a handle on what the federal government can and cannot do, we discover that any appearance of progress in that area was nothing but illusion (see also "Gun-Free Schools Act"). If we believe (and I think some of us still do) that the Constitution has a literal meaning, then a bill such as Rep. Stearns' becomes unconstitutional from at least two perspectives.
First, and foremost, it violates the principle set forth in Amendment II of the Bill of Rights, that "... the right to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." A 'license' or 'permit' that 'allows' one to exercise a right is a contradiction in terms.
Second, this bill attempts to institute a federal standard "[n]otwithstanding any provision of the law of any State or political subdivision thereof ..." While any law of any State or political subdivision thereof that infringes the right to keep and bear arms is unconstitutional on its face, passing a federal law that is equally unconstitutional does not, by any means, set things right.
If Bob Dole had ever actually read and comprehended the copy of the 10th Amendment that he professed to carry around with him, he'd explain it to you himself.
I feel sure that Rep. Stearns and his supporters feel that what they are doing is right and proper. I feel equally sure that, if backed into a corner and forced to choose, any and all of them would take "Vermont Carry" as a preferable option to HR339. Yet to a man, they will continue to insist that (1) only a bill such as this has any chance of passing, and (2) all dire predictions of unintended consequences are mere prattlings of the chronic naysayers.
To which I say the following:
(1) This dog won't hunt; the anti-gun forces of evil will trot out all the predictable (and false) arguments against the right of self-defense; polls will be rigged that support the anti-gun position; the President and others will weigh in, dragging innumerable sad-sack "professional victims" onstage with them; and the Republicans will turn tail and run. And that's the best case scenario. More likely, the bill will die of neglect before ever reaching the floor of the House.
(2) Even if this bill did, through multiple acts of some heretofore unused "deus ex machina", manage to pass both houses and not get vetoed, all one has to do is take a look at history for all the examples you'll ever need of well-intentioned "gun bills" whose execution was abused by the federal government right from the get-go.
Nope, this effort is a waste of time, good intentions notwithstanding. We'd be a lot better off, from a federal standpoint, pointing out that the 2nd Amendment affirms a right that applies to all citizens "notwithstanding any provision of the law of any State or political subdivision thereof", and that any state upholding laws that infringe in any way on that right are acting unconstitutionally.
Now that is a national standard I could live with.
John Taylor is the Maryland Coordinator of the Libertarian Second Amendment Caucus.
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