In the last issue, noted gun-rights authority Alan Gottlieb argued that Second Amendment advocates should support so-called "safe storage" legislation, that would mandate that gun owners store their firearms in such a way as to keep them out of the hands of children, or others who would be likely to mishandle them. Mr. Gottlieb argues that such laws can be crafted in a reasonable way that would pose no threat to anyone who secures his guns in even the most elementary, common sense way, as the vast majority of us do already. He argues further that mandatory safe storage laws are an issue for which we must bend to public perceptions to preserve our image, because child safety is so emotionally evocative that it defines the "true court of public opinion" in the battle to preserve our gun rights.
With due respect to Mr. Gottlieb's experience in the field of gun rights, I think he is wrong. I disagree with him that supporting mandatory safe storage laws is a good idea either tactically or philosophically.
I will begin my arguments by pointing to an analogous issue that happens to be current here in Pennsylvania -- mandatory seat belt laws for motorists. Under current law, seat belt use in Pennsylvania is mandatory, but motorists cannot be stopped or cited for failure to use their seat belts unless they are stopped for, and subsequently convicted of another traffic violation. This was introduced as "reasonable" legislation some years ago, with supporters making arguments almost identical to Mr. Gottlieb's arguments for "reasonable" safe storage laws, namely, that only in the case of conviction of some greater violation would citizens be subject to search or penalty. So, what was to fear? Only in the case of someone guilty of driving in an unsafe manner, could they be punished for compounding that hazard by not wearing their seat belts.
Over the years the mandatory seat belt law has been credited with increasing seat belt use in Pennsylvania to a peak of about 71 percent in 1995. While it may be questioned how much of that increase should be credited to the law, and how much to education, the increase in seat belt use was certainly a desirable outcome -- just as an increase in the safe storage of firearms would be.
However, in 1996, officially reported seat belt use inexplicably reversed its trend, and declined to about 65 percent. As might be expected, the immediate response to even this small reversal was a call to "put some teeth" into the mandatory seat belt law. Rep. Bob Godshall [R. 53rd District] has introduced legislation that would make failure to use your seat belt a violation for which you could be stopped and cited, in the absence of any other violation.
People in other states that already have such laws report police standing in the middle of multi-lane highways or at toll booths, slowing traffic while inspecting each car for seat belt use. It has been charged that suspicion of failing to use seat belts has been used as an excuse for police to stop "suspicious" motorists without reasonable cause, and to otherwise go on "fishing trips" among the motoring public.
Therein lies the danger of "reasonable" legislation. While Mr. Gottlieb dismisses the "slippery slope" argument when applied to mandatory firearms storage laws, the progress of mandatory seat belt laws demonstrates the slippery slope principle to perfection.
What precisely was the criterion for "success" of the "reasonable" seat belt law? While unspoken, it was that seat belt use should increase continuously until, ultimately, it reached 100 percent -- and that in the future it never, ever, should decline. Even though seat belt use is now much higher than in all but one former year, that alone is not regarded as good enough -- a decline for even one year has triggered calls for more stringent legislation, since obviously the current law is a "failure."
What would be the criteria for success of a mandatory safe firearms storage law? That too is unspoken, but it would be that accidental firearms deaths among children should decline -- from this year forward and forevermore, until there were no deaths among children at all. Failing in that for even one year, we can be sure that there would be an immediate call by someone of Rep. Godshall's spirit to "put some teeth" in our formerly "reasonable" law. As in the case of police stopping traffic to inspect for seat belt use, we should expect that police would be empowered to arrest anyone violating safe storage criteria, as long as the violation was detected by any means not violating reasonable search and seizure standards -- for example, police peering in an open window or door after coming to your house for some other, unrelated reason. And, it is not unreasonable to expect that violation of safe storage criteria for a single gun would provide justification for confiscation of every gun in the house.
There also is another reason to give serious thought to what the criteria for success of a safe storage law would be. Mr. Stephen L. Christopoulos, a public health researcher at Easton Hospital, reports that Lehigh and Northampton Counties -- two suburban Pennsylvania counties with a combined population greater than three states of the U.S. -- had no accidental firearms deaths among children in the five year period between 1990 and 1995, and no accidental firearms deaths at all for two of those five years. We are led to ask, how much could legislation improve that safety record? But, when the next death did occur, be it two, five, or twenty years in the future, we can be sure it would be portrayed by some as an abject failure of the existing law, which "failed to go far enough."
This raises another question that is somewhat politically incorrect to mention, which is, exactly where are accidental firearms deaths among children the greatest problem? And, if accidental firearms deaths are not uniformly distributed through all geographic and demographic areas of society, is it appropriate to pass blanket legislation that seeks to solve a problem that doesn't exist through most of our state?
The fact is, that the greatest number of accidental firearms deaths and injuries among children occur in urban and inner-city areas. Would it make sense to impose legislation directed at a ghetto problem, on the residents of our suburban and rural counties? Certainly not!
Nor should it seem I am implying that safe storage laws would make sense anywhere. Many dedicated city dwellers I have known have abandoned Philadelphia in the face of overwhelming crime. One couple gave up on their stylish neighborhood after someone was shot and killed at their doorstep, in broad daylight. Another couple bailed out after their house was burglarized six times in one year; the last time while they were at home in bed. In the latter case, the homeowner, who fortunately didn't have to confront the burglar, reported that he learned that an unloaded gun, even with ammunition in close proximity, could not be brought into action quickly enough after waking up from a sound sleep in the middle of the night.
Keep in mind that these were so-called "gentrified" neighborhoods. If people need to have a viable means of self- defense immediately at hand in upscale urban neighborhoods, imagine the situation for the unfortunate residents of the ghettos, which amount to virtual combat zones. Even in Vietnam, where every soldier had extensive training and familiarity with firearms, a high number of casualties resulted from firearms accidents; from that it may be concluded that a higher than average rate of firearms accidents does not result from inherently irresponsible behavior, but comes as a natural byproduct of living under combat conditions. The answer for accidental firearms deaths in urban areas is not to force the beleaguered, honest residents to lock up their means of self- defense, but for authorities to meet their responsibility to provide real protection for them!
Mr. Gottlieb argues that the intelligent approach is for gun owners to support legislation that does not mandate how or where your gun must be stored, but instead holds irresponsible people liable for their own actions. The problem is that law, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and if the law is vague or silent about the precise definition of "safe" storage, the courts will soon supply that definition. Would you like "safe storage" to be defined by legal precedent, by a jury in liberal Bucks or Montgomery Counties? Might it not be decided that a precocious child who could find a hidden key, and deduce that it fit his parents' gun safe, was proof that even a $2000 vault does not constitute "safe" storage?
Perhaps the weakest of Mr. Gottlieb's arguments for supporting safe storage laws is that the "true court of public opinion" already has decided that the welfare of children is placed at severe risk by the mere presence of firearms. As can be proven by countless examples such as that of Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, and the vast majority of areas across our state and nation, the public's opinion is plain wrong, and to accede to it is to accede to a lie. To accede to a lie for the sake of appeasing public opinion is immoral, and would be as shameful in principle as acceding to the once popular but now discredited belief that some races were less human than others.
If it were tactically advantageous to cave in to the public perception that firearms are a significant danger to our children, why not gain even more advantage by surrendering to the widespread public perception that "assault rifles," "Saturday Night Specials," "semiautomatics," and countless other media- created myths, all pose a severe and immediate threat to society? It may be an uphill battle, but it always will be better to combat a Big Lie with a Big Truth, for there never will be an end of Big Lies calling for our surrender.
I recently encountered a column by Washington columnist Samuel Francis, addressing the tactic of proposing legislation "for the sake of the children." Francis observes, ". . .the tactic of starting out with piecemeal, incremental restrictions that 'just don't go far enough' is common. . .The point of starting small with regulatory restrictions that apply to only part of the population it to legitimatize the problem and its solution by state action. Once that is granted it's like being a little bit pregnant, and state power can be easily expanded to include 'solutions' that really do go 'far enough.'"
Mr. Gottlieb concluded his article, "If you don't agree with me, then point your loaded gun at your foot and pull the trigger." I would counter that anyone who does agree with him is pointing a loaded gun at our very heart -- while believing our enemies won't pull the trigger for us.
Andy Barniskis chairs the Legislative Committee of the Bucks County Sportsmen's Coalition.