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Today Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) signed bills which restrict rifle magazines to fifteen rounds, shotguns to eight rounds, and makes gun sale background checks universal. The statute is being hailed by some in bluing Colorado as a sensible response to last year’s Aurora shooting and the 1999 Columbine High School carnage that left fifteen people dead and a nation scarred. Since that watershed, mass media has thrust mass shooting into the popular imagination, and gun control advocates cited the Newtown, Connecticut massacre as the spark that made the new law a reality. Vice President Joe Biden (D) personally lobbied some lawmakers to support the legislation, and given the Denver Post’s lede, this is a political victory with symbolic national implications:
The governor of Colorado signed bills Wednesday that put sweeping new restrictions on sales of firearms and ammunition in a state with a pioneer tradition of gun ownership and self-reliance.
The bills thrust Colorado into the national spotlight as a potential test of how far the country might be willing to go with new gun restrictions after the horror of mass killings at an Aurora movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school.
The approval by Gov. John Hickenlooper came exactly eight months after dozens of people were shot at the theater, and the day after the executive director of the state Corrections Department was shot and killed at his home.
Unfortunately, whether the deceased Mr. Tom Clements or any of the other mass shooting victims invoked by the legislation’s supporters would have been saved is an open question at best. The politics may be comforting, uplifting, and triumphant, but the practicalities of gun regulation, crime, and violence are ugly and confusing.
The law has a number of problems, chief among them unenforceability, in the view of many charged with enforcing it. At the end of the AP article announcing today’s signing, reporter Ivan Moreno alludes to resistant sheriffs who refuse to enforce the law, arguing that their resources are best directed elsewhere. Gun shop owners and sportsmen who depend on gun sales and shotgun shells for their livelihoods also express reservations. Shop owner Richard Taylor argues that the new $10 limit on the fee he can charge gun buyers for a background check does not cover the $50 or so it actually costs; in the words of shop-owner, “How are people going to legally transfer a firearm?” The shotgun capacity limit — eight shells — likewise concerns members of the tourism industry who benefit from out-of-state visitors’ interest in shooting game. Some of these folks are shying away from the state thanks to increasing regulation, damping state industries.
These examples illustrate two points about gun regulation. Firstly, it is complicated, because firearms are complicated. A lack of practical knowledge about their design, sale, and use translates into cumbersome legalese that ultimately impedes its own objectives. Secondly, it is sweeping, because laws are sweeping. Under the 14th Amendment, federal and (thanks to the doctrine of incorporation) state laws apply to everyone equally, if not in the same manner — as in the case of the exception for police officers Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) included in her proposed assault weapons ban. This includes law-abiding individuals who must cede their personal liberties and face other burdens, ranging from small indignities at the airport to economic losses, as described above.
Given that gun homicides are uncommon compared to other causes of death in the United States, with shotgun, rifle, and mass killings progressively rarer still, is the sweeping impact of these laws on innocent, peaceful citizens justified? That is a question informed observers should answer for themselves. Politicians can only be trusted to capitalize on the suffering of others.
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