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Ben Peterson (MPP candidate '16) on Federal Micromanagement of Gun Safety | The New York Times

Federal Micromanagement of Gun Safety Won’t Work

Ben Peterson is a graduate student at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. He is on Twitter.

January 10, 2016 | The New York Times

Even before the data is in as to whether guns surpassed cars last year to become “America’s top killing machine,” President Obama kicked off this year declaring that the “epidemic of gun violence in our country is a crisis.”

Parts of the “commonsense” policy framework the president urges are overly reliant on federal law and too generally applied to balance the competing objectives of preserving liberty and reducing gun violence. Excessively regulating minutiae at the federal level, like mandating smart gun technology implementation, would burden the vast majority of gun owners and manufacturers who are law-abiding, but do little to hinder irresponsible actors or those with criminal intent.

The idea of regulating guns the way we do vehicles, with licensing, registration, insurance and safety feature requirements, has intuitive appeal. However, the analogy between the two “killing machines” only goes so far.

Guns are not cars. The liberty to “keep and bear arms,” is more central to American liberty than the right to car ownership. To be sure, it’s a unique liberty, fit only for a virtuous people with a strong gun culture. It’s scandalous to some precisely because guns, unlike cars, are in essence “killing machines.” They’re designed to be “lethal products” for personal protection.

In his recent op-ed, President Obama makes the case for increased federal regulation of gun manufacturing:

As Americans, we hold consumer goods to high standards to keep our families and communities safe. Cars have to meet safety and emissions requirements. Food has to be clean and safe. We will not end the cycle of gun violence until we demand that the gun industry take simple actions to make its products safer as well. If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should also make sure she can’t pull the trigger of a gun.

A big part of the president’s case is based on outliers, not norms. Failure to hold gun manufacturers accountable for incorporating safety features is not what’s driving the “cycle of violence.” Unintentional shootings, while obviously tragic and devastating to families and friends of loved ones, accounted for less than 2 percent of gun-related fatalities in 2010.

The larger issue is this: Even with expanded background checks, very often we cannot know who is a “responsible actor.” We don’t know who the bad guys are (it is mostly guys) until they do something bad. So if you want to limit a potential mass murderer’s clip size or ensure that parents’ guns are rendered useless to any isolated teenager with suicidal intent, the only way is to curtail the liberties of the citizenry at large.

Americans broadly support the expanded background checks and mental health service provisions in President Obama’s recent executive action, if not the decision to bypass Congress. To the extent possible, doing more to keep guns out of the wrong hands and enforce laws already on the books is better policy than the federal government setting clip-size limits or mandating smart gun mechanisms for every gun owner or manufacturer. Hot guns are a problem, but we ought to seek less invasive means of providing for public safety than blanket federal restrictions on a constitutionally protected liberty.

Federal micromanagement of gun manufacturing is not a policy framework that preserves a proper balance between liberty and security. That’s the balance a free people must seek.