by Dave Kopel
Commerce City Beacon. July 3, 1991. More by Kopel on gun safety.
Earlier this year, State Senator Pat Pascoe proposed that before anyone be allowed to buy a gun, they should prove that they've taken a gun safety class. Although the measure seemed like simple common sense, a Senate Committee shot it down unanimously.
Was the Senate irresponsible? Should Colorado pass a safety law next year, like New York already has, and like California is considering? Not necessarily.
As a practical matter, Pascoe's bill might actually have diminished safety. Under the Pascoe law, a person who needed gun right away for self defense was out of luck. If a woman's ex-boyfriend started making threats that he would rape and murder her, the woman's only choice would be to ask him to come back in a few weeks, after she passed her safety class.
And the Pascoe law would have been subject to ready abuse by government bureaucrats. They could have made safety training so expensive, so severe, and so infrequent that buying a gun would turn into an endurance contest. That's the way it already works in New York, which has mandatory safety training.
Even if mandatory safety test could be structured to prevent abuses, it's still questionable whether the test would be a good idea. Should people have to pass tests to exercise Constitutional rights?
Before a person starts work as a journalist, should they pass a simple test about accurate reporting and libel? Maybe the wealthy broadcasting lobby would object; but most people would think there's nothing wrong in making sure that a TV reporter doesn't ruin somebody's reputation by accident. Irresponsible accusations in the media can and do drive some victims to suicide.
Before a woman gets an abortion, should she pass a test about the risks of abortion, and the facts of fetal life? Some women who have abortions later regret their decisions; an abortion safety test would serve as a short "waiting period" -- so that women could consider their decision carefully.
Opponents of the abortion test/waiting period would point to the Supreme Court's Akron decision, which ruled that the government may not even impose a 24-hour wait on adult women seeking abortion. If waiting periods are not permissible for the implicit Constitutional right to abortion, they should not be permissible for the explicit Constitutional right "to bear arms."
Before people have sex, should they prove that they've passed a basic test about birth control, venereal disease, and AIDS? A sex test would probably save more lives than the gun test, because AIDS kills far more people than gun accidents. Of course the sex test would be difficult to enforce, and many people would ignore it, and that's true of the gun test also.
Should voters pass a literacy test, to prove they can read the ballot? Government officials might abuse the literacy test, and the same is true of the gun test.
There are lots of tests for the exercise of Constitutional rights that seem valid at first glance, but turn out to create serious problems.
Before politicians enact any more restrictions on the right to bear arms, or any other Constitutional rights, maybe the politicians themselves should take a safety class. After all, a single thoughtless vote by a legislator can ruin the lives of many innocent people.
One part of the lessons for legislators could be the difference between a privilege and a right. Privileges are things like driving on a public highway, or hunting. It's appropriate for the government to license and test them.
Rights -- like freedom of speech, abortion, sexual choice, voting and bearing arms -- are things the government has no business testing. There's only one test you need to pass to exercise your Constitutional rights: being an American citizen.
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