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Gun Rights and Property Rights


So I think there is one dimension of our discussions of guns and gun rights that is  being ignored in our current arguments: the status of guns as property.

Notably, the NRA began its crusade to convince people that the Second Amendment protected a person’s right to own whatever guns they wanted in whatever numbers they wished (to stop crime, or prevent the coming of a totalitarian government, or whatever) in the 1970s, at exactly the same time another political movement hit America: the property rights movement.

The property rights movement was, like so many movements that began in the 1970s, a reaction to the liberal 1960s. People got mad that government moved homeless shelters and drug treatment clinics to the suburbs; they got mad that government zoning laws restricted their right to use their property as they wished; they got mad that property taxes rose. Some mobilized this anger into a counter effort to restrict government’s power to shape how they could use their private property.

At its most effective, this movement was able to pass initiatives like California’s Prop 13, a measure that limited the state’s ability to raise property taxes on current homeowners. (This law still hamstrings California’s budget.) At its most extreme, the movement generated groups like the Montana Freemen, a group that believed the government had no right to tax or otherwise enforce the law on any property the Freemen owned. Most commonly, the movement embedded the notion in peoples’ minds that the government was doing too much and working too hard to limit what ordinary people could do on or with the property they owned.

I think that a fair amount of the push back I have been hearing about what seem like perfectly reasonable gun control measures (mandating the use of gun safes and trigger locks; mandatory registration of all firearms; mandatory reporting if a weapon is stolen; eliminating the gun show exemption on background checks) — none of which restrict anyone’s right to own a gun in any way — derives from peoples’ anger at the idea that government has the right to tell them to do anything with their property. 

The equation seems to go: guns are legal + guns are private property = government leave me alone. 

As with most things, of course, the real story is more complicated than the private sentiment. Just as no other right is absolute (even most gun owners don’t expect to own automatic weapons or anti-aircraft missiles), no property right is absolute (I can’t set up an oil rig or a strip club in my back yard). But once people get to squabbling, nuance and moderation seem to leave the room, only to be replaced by extremist absolutist rhetoric.

I get why gun people want the right to do with their property that which they wish to do. I just wish they got why they might face more burdens than, say, a book owner does. It is, after all, pretty hard (not impossible, just pretty hard) to deliberately misuse a book and kill someone, but it is actually quite easy to properly use a gun and kill someone.

The fact that the gun is “property” in no way changes its special status as a tool of killing.