Recently the idea of a firearms registry has gotten attention. Some support the idea and some oppose it. But what would a firearms registry look like?
A firearms registry would require that all people register any firearms they own. They would also have to registry any transfer in ownership, sale, loss or theft of their firearms. There would need to be some grandfather period (say 6 months or a year) in which people are free to register their firearms but are not punished if they don’t. Then after that period possession of an unregistered firearm would be a legal offense and would carry some form of punishment as well as confiscation of the firearm. Furthermore the system would have to be electronic and national so that law enforcement in all states can access it in a timely fashion in order to deal with situations in the field.
So what would that accomplish? First and foremost it would allow police to determine the lawful owner of a gun. That means that any guns involved in a crime or encountered by police could be checked against the registry. If the gun is not registered then it could be confiscated and the person possessing it could be charged. This would make it possible for police to get more guns out of the hands of those who are not permitted to own firearms. Also it would make it possible to identify stolen weapons quickly and easily so that they may be returned to the owner. In that sense a registry supports property rights because it can help police return stolen firearms.
Second a firearms registry would allow law enforcement to track the movement of weapons. That means when a firearm shows up at a crime scene the police are easily able to identify who previously owned the gun and when they lost possession of the gun. That could help to identify if there are specific firearms dealers who’s weapons show up in crimes more often than others. It could help identify weapons trafficking by looking at loss, theft and sales rates of guns in the registry along with information about guns found in crimes.
Third, gun rights advocates are quick to point out that criminals don’t follow laws which is very true. So something like a background check would not effect criminals in the same way it would effect law abiding individuals. The criminals simply would not submit for a background check and purchase / sell their weapon under the table. But with a registry it become illegal to possess an unregistered firearm. That gives police a weapon for combating unlawful possession of firearms. So even though a criminal can acquire an illegal firearm they still run the risk of getting busted with that gun. Background checks only provide a point in time enforcement opportunity but a registry provides a continually opportunity for enforcement.
Fourth, a firearms registry can bolster the strengthen universal background checks. Since a registry would require notification when ownership of a firearms is transferred then law enforcement would be aware of gun sales. This would make it more feasible to enforce background checks for private sales of firearms. Both the buyer and seller would have a vested interest in performing a background in order to properly register the transfer of ownership. That is because failure to do so on either end would be unlawful. The new owner would want to ensure that they don’t loose their new firearm simply for failure to register it, while the seller would not want legal charges if law enforcement finds the gun in possession of somebody else but not registered as sold, lost or stolen. This gives an incentive for private buyers and sellers of firearms to perform the background checks and register their weapons properly.
So what is the problem with a firearms registry? The primary issue expressed is the fact that the government would be tracking firearms. I have heard Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, the local conservative talk guys on KLBJ and even personal friends express this concern. If the government knows who owns what guns and how many then the government might take action against those people. The most common concerns center around confiscation and taxation.
Some believe that a gun registry is the governments first step in disarming the public and confiscating firearms. It is definitely true that identifying all the weapons in the country is a necessary first step in confiscating all the weapons in the country. But a registry doesn’t mean that will happen, it only means that it could make it possible.
The chances of the government trying large scale confiscation of firearms seems extremely unlikely. There are around 300 million firearms in the US and there is no way the government could collect them all. If the government begins confiscating firearms the public reaction will be very very bad. Think about how gun rights advocates react when there is a potential possibility at restricting guns in ANY way. Actual confiscation would lead to an extremely ugly situation. Next if the government starts confiscating weapons many people would hide their firearms so they would not be taken. On top of that a proportion of the guns will not be registered which means that it will be very difficult to find those guns in order to confiscate them. Furthermore there are many in law enforcement that oppose greater gun control and have threatened to not enforce anything they view as unconstitutional. If the government attempts large scale confiscation of firearms those threats may become more than just words. If those expected to enforce a confiscation will not do so that it would become virtually impossible.
But even if the government were able to implement a highly effective confiscation program it may not mean much. Leaving even a small proportion like 5% of weapons in circulation turns into 15 million firearms. Consider that the US has 88.8 firearms per 100 people, if the government confiscated 95% of all firearms we would be down to 4.4 firearms per 100 people. Syria has 3.9 firearms per 100 people and yet they have been capable of waging a revolution for the past 2 years (Firearms stats per wiki). The point being that even if the government were exceptionally successful in confiscating firearms they would not be able to functionally disarm the populace.
Now taxation of firearms based on a firearms registry is far more possible. Unlike confiscation I doubt many people would risk their lives or freedom over taxation of firearms. I also doubt that many law enforcement would risk their jobs over non-compliance with taxation of firearms. It would piss a lot of people off to be taxed for owning a gun but most would probably just grumble about it before paying. The bigger question is whether it is right to tax gun ownership?
Taxing a Constitutionally guaranteed right could be considered unconstitutional just like poll taxes. By taxing a right the government is infringing upon the free exercise of that right. Furthermore the tax may make gun ownership prohibitive to some who can’t afford the tax. This is probably the strongest argument against taxing gun ownership.
Though I am positive if guns were taxed that a number of people would claim it is a subtle method of disarming the country by making gun ownership more and more difficult. If that were the case it likely would not be effective considering the gun culture in the US. People love their guns enough that most would figure out how to pay the tax and few would give up guns in order to avoid the tax.
On the other side people can reasonably argue that guns are involved in problems like crimes. Thus it is fair to tax guns in order to pay for the resources devoted to dealing with gun related problems. Some of the fees we pay for a drivers license and to register our cars goes toward roads. Fees paid for fishing licenses go toward maintaining natural areas. So why not tax guns and use that money to pay for law enforcement resources dedicated to dealing with gun violence?
Honestly I don’t care if guns are taxed or not. Guns maybe a right but they are also a choice. If somebody chooses to purchase a gun then has to pay a tax it doesn’t bother me. On the other hand since guns are a right and law enforcement is already publicly funded then I am perfectly fine if all of the problems associated with guns are publicly paid. We don’t charge people more taxes for the police if they own more expensive items. So why should somebody pay more for police because they own a gun?
In conclusion a firearm registry could help law enforcement identify the proper owners of firearms, reduce weapons trafficking and bolster a universal background check. But at the same time it could lead to the confiscation or taxation of firearms. When all is said and done I believe that confiscation of firearms is extremely unlikely and I am not adverse to taxation of firearm owners therefore the benefits of a registry outweigh the drawbacks.