Gun Control

Virginia's New Gun Control Proposals Won't Protect Public Safety

Most Second Amendment restrictions take rights away from people who don't commit crimes and never will.

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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe calls the gun-control proposals he unveiled Monday "common-sense" measures. Brian Moran, his secretary of public safety, also calls them that. You can bet that supporters of the measures—a one-gun-a-month limit, background checks at gun shows, a prohibition on gun ownership by persons subject to protective orders, revocation of concealed-carry permits for parents who fall behind on child support—will call them common-sense, too.

McAuliffe also claims to support the Second Amendment. Gun-control proponents usually do. But calling for new laws to infringe on gun rights sure is a funny way to show it. That's like claiming to support gay rights while pushing "common-sense" proposals to restrict homosexual activity, or insisting you're a big fan of free speech while advocating "common-sense limits on what people can say."

The common-sense claim invites skepticism for another reason: the connection between the proposals and what they're supposed to address. The aim behind gun control is to prevent certain horrible crimes, such as school massacres (McAuliffe announced his proposals on the day after the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn.), or to reduce violent crime generally. Revoking concealed-carry permits when the permit holders miss child-support payments, for example, seems completely untethered to public safety.

The protective-orders provision, on the other hand, rests on data showing women in abusive relationships are more likely to be killed when there's a gun in the home. The connection to crime there seems stronger than it does with respect to the other measures. That is owing in no small part to the fact that it targets specific individuals, as opposed to all gun owners generally, as the one-gun-a-month idea does.

The overwhelming majority of gun owners—60 million to 75 million people nationwide—are law-abiding citizens who pose no threat at all to public safety. The one-gun-a-month law, like most gun-control measures, therefore seeks to reduce crime by taking rights away from people who don't commit crimes and never will.

Supporters of one-gun laws often ask why anybody needs to buy more than that: For heaven's sake, isn't 12 guns a year enough already? Behind that question lies an ominous presumption. Most of us buy much more of many things—clothes, books, music, electronic devices—than we actually need. Allowing the government to limit our choices to what it thinks we need is an invitation to restrict our liberty in countless ways.

The question also inverts the burden of proof. Rights, including the right to own firearms, do not need to explain themselves, and the bearers of rights do not need to justify the exercise of them. That is the very definition of a right. The burden of proof more properly rests on those who want to take rights away. Can the governor and his supporters provide sufficient empirical evidence that the policies they want will have a measurable effect on crime?

It doesn't seem likely. Overall, crime rates have been declining even as gun rights have been expanding. On the other hand, gun-rights proponents can point to numerous examples where the predictions of gun-control opponents have been proven wrong. After the Supreme Court rulings in the Heller and McDonald cases upholding an individual right to keep and bear arms, gun-control advocates made a host of histrionic predictions about rampant bloodshed. But violent crime fell. The same thing happened with the spread of concealed-carry laws.

From 2006 to 2011, gun sales in Virginia soared by 73 percent. Gun-related crimes fell by 24 percent. When Virginia debated allowing guns in bars and restaurants, gun-control advocates howled about the deadly mix of booze and bullets. After the law passed, "the number of major crimes involving firearms at bars and restaurants statewide declined 5.2 percent," the Times-Dispatch reported.

This doesn't mean the expansion of gun rights caused the decline in crime. But it does mean the expansion of gun rights did not make crime rise. We should therefore be skeptical about claims that restrictions on gun rights will make crime fall.

To be fair, if all guns magically disappeared today, nobody would get shot tomorrow. But gun-control advocates claim they don't want to confiscate everybody's guns. Indeed, some of them hotly protest that gun-rights advocates who say they do are wildly misrepresenting their intentions.

That is probably true of some—just as it is true that some supporters of parental consent and other restrictions on abortion rights want abortion limited, but not outlawed. On the other hand, just as some anti-abortion activists want the procedure banned entirely, some gun-control activists would be happy to see most or all guns outlawed.

Those activists are starting to get their way in places such as New York, which recently sent a letter to individuals who own rifles and shotguns that hold more than five rounds, instructing them to surrender their weapons. New York, of course, got a big head start on gun control. But that's no reason for Virginia to try and catch up.