So the battle between gun control and lack thereof is often grounded on civil liberties. Opponents of gun control argue that it's really about civil liberties. As the NRA screams on its homepage, “It’s not just about guns. It's about freedom.” As a progressive libertarian, these arguments cause me concern. We need to be very careful about curtailing civil liberties. But, the question is, does a lack of gun control actually promote civil liberties. I would respectfully submit that it does the exact opposite – the lack of effective gone control undermines civil liberties.
How can that be? Well, the opponents of comprehensive gun control support a variety of alternative measures, some absurd, like arming teachers, but some would have a greater impact on restricting freedom than say an all-out ban on semi-automatic weapons. The most notorious is that we should stop would be shooters with a better mental health system. But while that sounds nice, the solutions are problematic.
One proposal is to make it easier to have someone committed based on the report of a family member, neighbor or another person. The law now is generally that an adult cannot be committed unless s/he is a danger to him or herself or others based on mental illness. It’s a high standard, but for good reason. Confining someone to a mental ward, even temporarily, is a serious deprivation of liberty. We can’t commit every person who might conceivably be prone to gun violence. Doing so would be something out of the movie, Minority Report, a dystopian science fiction picture in which citizens are incarcerated before they commit a crime. Of course, the society envisioned in Minority Report is the very opposite of a free society.
Less drastic means, even ones well intention, curtail civil liberties. Here, in New York, the legislature passed sweeping reform after the Sandy Hook shooting. New York did not ban guns, not even assault weapons, but it passed many restrictions called the New York Safe Act. But one that few noticed was a provision that an amendment to the state’s “Mental Hygiene Law” that required mental health professions (psychiatrists and psychologists) report to authorities, "if they conclude, using reasonable professional judgment, that the individual is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” This, of course, runs counter to the long-standing principle that allows individual to seek treatment from a psychiatrist or psychologist and have the communications to their doctor treated as privileged.
In case anyone is wondering about how much of a curtailment on liberty these measures impose, one should remember that Richard Nixon's surrogates broke into the psychiatrist's office of one of his political opponents. See E. Krogh, The Break-In That History Forgot, NY Times June 6, 2007. A society in which one’s doctor turns on his or her patient is not particularly free.
I focus on the mental health aspect of this because it is the most egregious, but the free availability of guns has other civil liberty impacts. Mr. Trump tells us that we must “harden our schools,” which he presumably means that access to school property would be extremely restricted. When my children were in school, I as a parent, could go to the school freely, probably sit in a class, and keep tabs if I wanted to. But the school as a “secure” place means that access must be restricted, just as we no longer allow friends or family to accompany us to the airport gate if they are not on the flight. Today, however, that is just not possible. You can’t even get into my offices (the Empire State Building) without a check of your identity and a quick background check.
We give up many liberties in the name of security. Some of that would continue whether or not assault weapons were banned and guns were tightly controlled. But the free availability of firearms necessarily means that we must live with more restrictions, not less. In my last essay, I showed that the original principle behind the Second Amendment – allowing citizens to overthrow an unjust government, failed the test of time and experience. Absent that rationale, I would submit, the lack of gun restrictions means that we must live with other restrictions, which makes us less, not more, free.