There is No Right to Murder in the Second Amendment

In the new issue of Harper's, Rebecca Solnit has an interesting piece on the contradictory tenets of modern conservative ideology called "The Ideology of Isolation." She deftly notes that the rugged individualism and appeal to personal freedom among Republicans these days are not really liberating ideas for most people.

But she also weaves into her takedown one of the most common - and disingenuous - attacks on gun rights and the Second Amendment:

That there is a constitutional right for individuals to own guns is a gift of Antonin Scalia's radically revisionist interpretation of the Second Amendment, and it's propped up on the cowboy ethos in which guns are incredibly useful for defending oneself from bad guys, and one's right to send out bullets trumps the right of others not to receive them.

If you read carefully, you'll notice that Solnit is actually griping about two very distinct rights, only one of which Americans actually have.

There is still much scholarly debate about whether the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller (that "gift" to which Solnit refers) was "revisionist" at all, let alone "radical." But it is true that because of it, Americans do, at the very minimum, have a federal right to keep handguns in their homes.

Put aside for a moment that in most states, the recognition of gun rights doesn't require interpretation (radical or otherwise) because those rights are explicitly spelled out in state constitutions using very clear language. Even if the federal constitution doesn't really convey an individual right to self defense despite what the Supreme Court says, that right is nevertheless prolifically protected in American law. I make no argument whether that's a bad thing or a good thing. It simply is.

Solnit obviously thinks it is a bad thing. But the problem with her line of attack is that she conflates one right - a right to own guns - with another right - the right to murder other people.

Americans only have one of those rights. And even though there is an obvious correlation between lots of owned guns and lots of gun murders, being free to possess a weapon does not mean one is also free to use it against other people, nor does it mean that possessing a weapon will inevitably lead to its violent use.

One thing almost universally overlooked in our debate about gun rights is not how many guns Americans own (something around 300 million), but the fact that almost none of the guns in America will ever be used to kill or injure other people, statistically speaking. If it were otherwise, almost all of us would be dead. Though American gun deaths are frequent and many (roughly 30,000 per year, more than two thirds are suicides) they are caused by a relatively tiny portion of the national private gun collection and by a relatively tiny portion of the national population. 

Nearly none of the millions of gun owners in this country will ever hurt anyone with their guns, and their guns are incapable of hurting anyone else without their owners' intentional or reckless actions. Simply owning a gun is not, by itself, an inherently violent act.

It is perfectly valid to oppose personal gun ownership from a political standpoint, and similarly valid to try to convince others to repeal the Second Amendment. Our rights are conveyed and protected by consensus, after all, and our constitutions may be changed through changing that consensus. Someday most Americans may actually want to disarm themselves, and they have that power.

But if you're trying to win people over to the idea that Americans should not be allowed by the government to privately own guns (the truly radical position, historically speaking), disingenuously arguing that a right to own a gun is the same as a right to use a gun aggressively may backfire. You will find that millions of peaceful gun owners don't much appreciate being lumped in with murderers simply because they exercise a right you dislike.

I'm as frustrated by the inconsistencies and hateful undercurrents of conservative politics as Rebecca Solnit. I, too, think "cowboy culture" and appeals to rugged masculinity are exclusive, dangerous, and cannot make our country better if widely embraced. But I also am not won over by bad arguments. So please, if you oppose gun rights, find a better way to argue your position than conflating the right to own a gun with the right to murder. We have never had a right to murder and the Second Amendment, even under the most radical of revisionist interpretations, will never convey one.

Gun Rights Could Survive the Repeal of the Second Amendment

The biggest hurdle to comprehensive restrictions on private gun ownership is the Second Amendment. It has been interpreted to protect an individual right to self defense, and local bans on handguns have been struck down under that interpretation. Other gun limitations have survived (so far), but at a minimum, the Second Amendment preserves a base level of individual armament.

But what would happen if both the Second Amendment and its state constitution counterparts were repealed? Would the government, either federal or state, be able to fully ban private gun ownership? The answer could very well be no for another reason than the one I discussed in my last post.

The Bill of Rights identifies specific individual rights, such as the right to free exercise of religion and the right to a jury trial. These rights are called "enumerated rights" and are entitled to strong protection from government interference. The right to self defense is an enumerated right.

But the Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to protect other rights beyond those specifically spelled out by the other Amendments. This process is called "substantive due process," and through it the Court has identified and protected certain "fundamental rights" that are not enumerated but are no less entitled to to strong protection.

One of these fundamental rights is marriage. The Bill of Rights contains no Amendment identifying marriage as an individual right, but the Supreme Court has long recognized that its importance to the exercise of personal autonomy is critical to citizenship and should be protected from unnecessary interference. The most recent case on this topic was Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized a fundamental right to marry to which all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled. Government therefore needs a very good reason to stop people from getting married.

Obergefell is very expansive in its language, and does not provide any clear test to determine if a claimed right is in fact fundamental. That wasn't really necessary in Obergefell, because the Court held that the marriage right sought by the plaintiffs in that case wasn't something novel but a very old right that had been repeatedly recognized as fundamental for decades. Gay and lesbian couples simply sought equal access to it.

By contrast, in the case of Washington v. Glucksberg, the plaintiffs asked the Court to recognize a fundamental right to determine the terms of one's own death, or, more crudely put, a right to die (through assisted suicide). The Supreme Court unanimously rejected this claim under a two-part test designed to ascertain whether a claimed right can really be considered "fundamental" enough to be protected by the Constitution (despite not being mentioned by it).

The first question is to determine a "careful description" of the asserted liberty interest. For a right to be fundamental it cannot be vague or nebulous. The second question to answer is whether the carefully described liberty interest is "deeply rooted in the Nation's history and tradition."

The Court in Glucksberg rejected the idea that there is a general fundamental right to "self sovereignty" or personal autonomy and that there is a right to end one's own life on one's own terms included in that. "That many of the rights and liberties protected by the Due Process Clause sound in personal autonomy does not warrant the sweeping conclusion that any and all important, intimate, and personal decisions are so protected." Thus it narrowly defined the liberty interest sought by the plaintiffs as a separate "right to commit suicide" and be assisted while doing so.

Then the Court asked whether a right to commit suicide was deeply rooted in the Nation's history and tradition. Unanimously, the justices answered no. In fact, suicide and assisted suicide had been uniformly prohibited all across the country with nearly no exceptions. Thus, the right sought in Glucksberg was not fundamental and therefore not entitled to special constitutional protection.

There is an argument that Glucksberg has been displaced by Obergefell as the prevailing case on substantive due process, but I'm not convinced for the reason I stated above. Obergefell dealt with a right long previously recognized by the Supreme Court as fundamental. It simply struck down a form of interference with that right. Glucksberg, on the other hand, dealt with a fairly novel asserted liberty interest that had not been allowed or recognized almost anywhere before.

But I digress. The point I'm getting to is that even if you apply the more conservative test and holding of Glucksberg to the question of arms, the likely result is that a right to self defense, or, in the alternative, a right to privately own guns, must be considered a "fundamental right" even if it is someday no longer an enumerated one.

The right to bear arms, or the right to defend oneself, is clearly defined. In fact, it's much easier to define this right if you do so independently from the muddled, confusing language of the Second Amendment itself. A basic right to be armed for self defense is simple and clear cut. Perhaps a right to own private nuclear weapons would not be considered fundamental, but a right to own handguns and rifles certainly would be (since those weapons have always coexisted with the United States).

And a right to private gun ownership is most certainly "deeply rooted" in the national tradition. Private gun ownership predated the Second Amendment and has been allowed - in most states with very few regulations irrespective of the Militia Clause - from the Founding until today. Guns are as American as apple pie (tragically, perhaps).

Under the Glucksberg test, it is difficult to see how a right to bear arms would not be considered fundamental, and therefore retain its protected status despite a repeal of the Second Amendment and all other state constitutional analogs. Granted, a federal amendment explicitly prohibiting gun ownership (similar to the now-repealed Eighteenth Amendment's prohibition of alcohol distribution) would likely cancel out a substantive due process argument.

But if the Constitution were to go silent on the matter, it would be difficult to see how states or the federal government could use the repeal of the Second Amendment to enact total bans on ownership as long as substantive due process remained a viable line of constitutional attack. The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments would become the new sources of American gun rights.

The Federal Gun Rights Floor

The Internet continues to be embroiled with a debate on gun rights and what can be done to stop mass shootings like the recent one in Orlando. Now the law professors are going at it. Adam Winkler proposed a system of secret courts that can strip people of their rights based on accusations and suspicion alone. Josh Blackman responded sternly.

Rather than belabor the point that secret courts and the stripping of rights without normal due process is highly dangerous and prone to abuse, I'd like to discuss a potential conflict that could arise from a tightening of federal gun rules.

We have all heard of the federal Constitution and its Second Amendment. It has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that all U.S. citizens have a basic right to self-defense and may purchase, own, and carry guns subject to some restrictions. But the federal Second Amendment is not the only source of gun rights in America. State constitutions also protect gun rights.

Consider, for example, the seventh "inherent and inalienable right" protected by the Section 1 of the Kentucky Constitution:

Seventh: The right to bear arms in defense of themselves and of the State, subject to the power of the General Assembly to enact laws to prevent persons from carrying concealed weapons.

Unlike the muddled language of the federal Second Amendment, with its weird justification clause about "a well-regulated militia," the language of Kentucky's Section 1 is very clear. The state recognizes an individual right of all people to bear arms in self-defense. The lone limitation on this right is spelled out: the state legislature may enact laws to restrict concealed carry.

And enact laws they have. Concealed carry is legal in Kentucky but only if you have a license for it. You can get a license by applying for one with your county's sheriff's department, taking a class, and paying a fee. A felony conviction is a disqualifier, as would be failing the instructional class (but I've never heard of anyone doing that).

Open carry is unrestricted with the exception of public buildings. You don't need a permit or a license to carry a handgun on your hip or a rifle slung over your shoulder in Kentucky.

But what would happen if the federal Second Amendment was repealed and U.S. citizens no longer had a federal right to self-defense? What if the federal government passed a sweeping ban on the sale or purchase of guns? People who live in Kentucky are also U.S. citizens, so one law under which they are governed would say one thing while another law under which they are governed would say something different. Could they be arrested for breaking the federal law even though the state in which they live allows their behavior?

This situation is not theoretical. It's actually a daily problem already. Some states allow the purchase of certain drugs like marijuana. But marijuana is listed as a "Schedule 1" drug by the federal government and is strictly prohibited under federal law. While residents of Colorado, for example, may legally purchase and possess marijuana under state law, they are breaking federal law by doing so. They can be arrested by federal drug enforcement agents in Colorado even though Colorado police can't arrest them.

This conflict was addressed, at least from one constitutional standpoint, fairly recently in a case called Gonzales v. Raich. California had passed a law allowing personal production of marijuana for medicinal use but federal agents were still seizing plants that had been deemed legal by the state. So a group of growers sued, arguing that principles of federalism should prevent the federal government from interfering with local behavior that was not part of national commerce.

The Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote in which conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined with the more liberal members, upheld the federal law enforcement actions. Under the Commerce Clause, the Court said, the federal government may regulate marijuana production, even if it's ostensibly for personal use only, because the risk that it may eventually enter the national drug market is too great.

The likelihood that all such production will promptly terminate when patients recover or will precisely match the patients’ medical needs during their convalescence seems remote; whereas the danger that excesses will satisfy some of the admittedly enormous demand for recreational use seems obvious. Moreover, that the national and international narcotics trade has thrived in the face of vigorous criminal enforcement efforts suggests that no small number of unscrupulous people will make use of the California exemptions to serve their commercial ends whenever it is feasible to do so. Taking into account the fact that California is only one of at least nine States to have authorized the medical use of marijuana...Congress could have rationally concluded that the aggregate impact on the national market of all the transactions exempted from federal supervision is unquestionably substantial.

So even though Californians could legally grow their own marijuana for medical use under state law, they could still be arrested by federal agents for doing so. And that is now the case in Colorado as well, where people can legally purchase pot and then be constitutionally arrested by the DEA as they leave the dispensary.

How this applies to a potential conflict between a new federal gun ban and a state constitutional amendment depends on the nature of the ban. If the federal government only banned gun sales, for example, they would have a good chance of prevailing on a Commerce Clause argument as they did in Gonzales. It is certainly arguable that legal gun sales in one state will affect the larger national market for guns.

BUT! (There's always a but). If a federal ban prohibited the mere possession of weapons, rather than the purchase, it might have a problem. In a case called United States v. Lopez, the Court had to decide whether a federal ban on carrying guns in and around local schools was constitutional. A high school student was arrested and convicted under the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act. He argued that the federal government had no right to criminalize local activity that did not affect interstate commerce.

In a 5-4 opinion, the conservative members of the Court agreed, ruling that gun possession at local schools was not part of interstate commerce and therefore not subject to federal law enforcement. Conceivably, this opinion would not have been any different even if the Second Amendment was not around. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing the opinion of the Court, never mentioned the Second Amendment at all. In fact, none of the Justices who wrote opinions concurring or dissenting mentioned it, either. The issue was whether the federal government had authority to regulate behavior that has little connection to actual commerce, not whether people have a general right to carry guns.

The possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce. Respondent was a local student at a local school; there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce, and there is no requirement that his possession of the firearm have any concrete tie to interstate commerce.
To uphold the Government's contentions here, we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States.

Which brings us to what might happen should the Second Amendment be repealed and a federal ban on guns take effect. If the gun ban prohibits sale or purchase, it has a reasonable chance of being upheld as a constitutional regulation of commerce. But if the ban prohibited possession, it could easily be rejected as an overreach of federal authority that interferes with local police powers.

An important point to remember is that the federal constitution has long been considered a "floor" for individual rights. States may protect more rights than the federal constitution, but they can't protect fewer. States can't ban political speech, or establish a state religion, or conduct searches and seizures without probable cause. But they could, if they wanted to, protect obscenity, or ban prayer in legislative sessions, or require warrants for any and all police searches in any situation. Nothing can stop the states from being better stewards of individual rights than the federal government.

The Kentucky Supreme Court once recognized this when it struck down the state's old sodomy laws (which criminalized consensual sexual activity by gay people) more than a decade before Lawrence v. Texas.* In the case of Commonwealth v. Wasson, the Kentucky court noted:

We are not bound by decisions of the United States Supreme Court when deciding whether a state statute impermissibly infringes upon individual rights guaranteed in the State Constitution so long as state constitutional protection does not fall below the federal floor, meaning the minimum guarantee of individual rights under the United States Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. The holding in Oregon v. Hass is:

"[A] State is free as a matter of its own law to impose greater restrictions on police activity than those this [United States Supreme] Court holds to be necessary upon federal constitutional standards."

So even if the federal constitution no longer protected an individual right to self-defense, states could still protect it. But conflicts between one and the other could create the kind of mess we've seen with drug prohibition, where people acting legally under state law are arrested and prosecuted under federal law. A Kentucky resident who was well within their rights to buy a gun under state law could find themselves in federal court on criminal charges, and they would have little recourse.

* Hat tip to Kurt Metzmeier for reminding me about this case.

The Gun Ban Checklist

Inevitably after every horrific mass shooting in America (and there are lots of them), the drum beat for stricter gun regulations picks up. Some of the proposals, including criminal background checks and waiting periods, are not bad ideas and can be uniformly enforced without significant interference with people's rights.

But other commentators and random folks on Twitter want to go further, banning some (or all) guns outright, or banning some people from owning them. The idea is that by restricting legal access to guns, we can reduce or eliminate mass shootings like the kind in Orlando last weekend.

First of all, selective bans must incorporate some form of due process. To restrict individual rights, the government must do so equally, consistently, and with a process that allows the restricted person to contest the restriction. Many proposals fail this requirement.

Second of all, any kind of comprehensive ban would run directly into the Second Amendment, which says - or at least has been interpreted to say - that all Americans have a right to private gun ownership. Non-comprehensive bans may be doable, but that's currently up for debate in the federal appellate courts. Some say you can ban certain guns like "assault rifles" while at least one says you can't. But assuming the Second Amendment can someday be repealed, the problem isn't so easily solved; other complications would arise.

I propose the following list of logistical concerns to the most commonly asserted "solutions" to gun violence:

No-Fly and Terror Watch List Restrictions

A common suggestion is that anyone listed on a "no-fly" list or "watch list" for potential terrorists should be prohibited from legally purchasing guns. That sounds like a no-brainer. But those lists are a huge mess. For one, they're secret. People are placed on those lists by government law enforcement agencies without any public trial or hearing. And there is no reliable process for getting the falsely-accused off the lists. There's a reason groups like the ACLU have long battled against these lists. They are a due process nightmare.

Semi-automatic Assault Weapons

Mass shootings inevitably spark outrage at so-called "assault weapons," which are generally just military-style rifles such as the AR-15. They have elaborate body styles with larger magazines, long barrels, and folding or collapsible stocks. They look scary. The rhetoric against them tends to focus on their rate of fire, which is semi-automatic. Semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet per trigger pull, as opposed to automatic weapons which fire bullets continuously as long as the trigger is pulled. That's a big functional difference.

Rifles like the AR-15 aren't the only semi-automatic weapons, either. Most handguns are semi-automatic, and shotguns are available in that style as well. Handguns are far more prevalent than AR-15s, and kill far more people annually, but rarely get the kind of attention that their larger cousins get in the wake of high profile acts of violence. Semi-automatic handguns are quite capable of killing lots and lots of people. For example, the shooter at Virginia Tech killed 33 people with just two handguns. And in state-sanctioned acts of violence, police officers all over the country have demonstrated how fast a handgun can be fired, like the time a Chicago police officer shot Laquan McDonald sixteen times in just a few seconds.

If your primary concern is the number of people a gun can kill, then singling out AR-15s and similar rifles makes little sense. Handguns and shotguns can kill lots of people very quickly as well, and do so more frequently. So if the goal is to rob potential shooters of the ability to cause mass casualties, a more comprehensive anti-gun approach is necessary than just restricting the sale or purchase of "assault weapons."

The Number of Guns in America

Some estimates suggest that there are over 300 million privately-owned guns in America. That's almost one gun for every person. Of course, a minority of Americans actually own all those guns,  but we're still talking about millions of owners with millions of guns. A future ban on the sale and ownership of guns would instantly create a very well-stocked black market that is its own means of violent enforcement. As we saw with alcohol Prohibition and still see with the War on Drugs, black markets are violent things because disputing parties cannot turn to the courts to resolve their differences - they have to take matters into their own hands. You can't sue someone for stealing your heroin, so you have to seek some other method of punishing or deterring the affront. The method, as we've seen over and over and over, is violence.

Because of the risk of increased violence associated with a black market, a ban without some form of mass confiscation would be a toothless ban incapable of preventing future mass murders. (We'll ignore, for the purposes of this post, the problem of America's very long and porous borders and coastlines and the explosion of international smuggling that would inevitably arise if a domestic ban successfully disarmed the population).

The Fourth Amendment Problem

Even if a ban on guns could be legal, the problem becomes one of enforcement. How do you effectively disarm the most well-armed civilian population on the planet? One method would be a voluntary gun buyback program, where the government shells out millions of dollars to pay people to turn in their guns. No doubt this would be successful to an extent. Lots of people own guns that they never shoot and have no particular affinity for (heirlooms and inheritances from relatives). And lots of people would just like to make a quick buck.

But lots of other people would have no interest at all in turning in their guns, even if paid well for them. So millions of guns would remain in private hands. How do you get them? You could simply wait until people commit crimes and then take their guns (which is what we already do), but that isn't going to accomplish the goal of preventing mass shootings. And in the meantime lots of guns would trade hands in the black market, which would have its own violence problem.

To be even remotely effective, a gun ban would need to include a mass confiscation program. But that runs into another constitutional problem totally separate from the Second Amendment. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and our courts have long interpreted searches and seizures without probable cause or some kind of solid basis for suspicion to be unreasonable. The question becomes: how would the government become sufficiently suspicious to justify a search of a person's home for a gun? Someone would have to exhibit some kind of outward behavior to tip off the police. But simply owning a gun and storing it in the home can be done in secret quite easily. All gun owners would have to do is not tell anyone who might tell the police.

So lots of guns would remain unconfiscated, which means a large black market would persist, and mass shootings would still be quite possible (if not more frequent). Remember, in order to actually accomplish its goal of reducing violence, a ban would have to actually remove guns from private circulation, not just make people more inclined to hide them. Short of a nationwide, house-to-house sweep, that seems impossible. One need not look much farther than the Drug War to see how the Fourth Amendment makes prohibition of hideable things quite futile (despite our best efforts to water down the Fourth Amendment).

The Determined Shooter

One frustrating thing about people determined to hurt other people is that they are rarely dissuaded by laws against their behavior. Consider, first, that murder is illegal and has been forever. Yet people still commit murder. That old saying that gun bans only take guns out of the hands of law-abiding people is true - those who intend to break our laws against murder will not be stopped by laws against guns. It may slow them down a bit (and dissuade the less-determined) but those who are truly bent on mass violence will not be stopped by regulation.

That doesn't mean regulation is pointless - reducing violence (assuming regulation does that) is a fine goal - but it can't ever fully eliminate the threat of mass shootings. What tough regulations will do is restrict and punish totally peaceful behavior like gun ownership (merely owning a gun and storing it in the home is not the same as murdering someone with it). So, the question becomes: is it worth it to punish the peaceful in an ultimately futile effort to stop the violent? Perhaps most people will answer yes, because feeling like you're doing something, even at the expense of certain freedoms, can bring peace of mind (at least until the next mass shooting). But when those prohibitions ultimately fail to rid America of mass violence, just as the War on Drugs failed to rid America of drugs (and its associated black market violence) what will be the next step? How much farther can you go than a total ban?

No Easy Answers

I won't pretend to have good answers to the problem of gun violence in America. Our problem is not unique, but it is rare in the post-industrial world, and our history, culture, and legal system combine to make mass shootings not only common but fairly easy to commit. We have a truly incomprehensible number of firearms floating around.

But if we're going to keep brainstorming how to make our country less violent, we'll need to squarely address the logistical concerns raised above. Otherwise we risk enacting reactionary policies that only hurt the peaceful and do little to actually reduce violence. We often assume the law can solve our social problems, but that is rarely the case. The law works best when it operates as a peaceful means of dispute resolution. It does not work so well as a way to force people to not do bad things or hurt others in the first place. A concerted effort to reduce violence must be much larger than mere laws. It will require a major cultural shift.

My fear is that it is too late to close Pandora's Box.

The State's Power to Prevent Private Negligence

In late March, I wrote a post called Gun Laws Implicate More Than Just the Second Amendment. I discussed how laws which regulate home gun storage implicate the Fourth Amendment (search/seizure) as well as the Second Amendment (right to bear arms). The short of it is that regulations which dictate proper methods of home storage require otherwise impermissible home searches to enforce - otherwise they're merely cumulative criminal punishments stacked on top of other offenses for maximum punitive effect.

In response to that post, a fellow attorney posed a hypothetical situation I had neglected to discuss:

[W]hat about situations in which the prohibited storage of Bob's handgun results in actual harm to someone? Suppose Bob leaves his handgun loaded and on the dining room table, where his ten year-old son and a friend discover it. Bob's son then picks up the gun and accidentally shoots his friend, who dies. Is a gun regulation like San Francisco's a good way (or the only way) to ensure Bob is punished for his failure to safely store his gun?

Well, this situation isn't really hypothetical because accidental shootings of children occur with grim frequency. Back in March, a young boy in Arizona shot himself with a small pistol owned by his parents. From the report:

The boy apparently pulled a small chair up to a counter where his mother was working on a laptop computer, saw the .32-caliber semi-automatic pistol there and shot himself, according to reports. The gun was in an ankle holster with the trigger exposed “and could easily be pulled by almost anyone,” according to a report.

The boy survived, luckily, but required surgery. In response to the shooting:

Sheriff's detectives obtained a search warrant for the house in Elephant Head and found 20 guns along with boxes, cans and bags of ammunition in several rooms. The weapons included shotguns, rifles, a Ruger and a Colt .45 handgun in a holster affixed to the headboard in the master bedroom. The family owns a gun safe where several weapons were found but it was not locked, according to the report. One of the couple's four children told detectives he knew the safe was not locked; another said his father “did not remember the combination to the safe.”

Most of the weapons in the house were not loaded; several had rounds in the chamber and others had rounds in magazines, according to the report.

This is more or less exactly the situation posed in response to my original post. Almost certainly, situations like this inflame the passions of people who fear guns or otherwise wish we could eradicate them from our society. Gun defenders, on the other hand, would no doubt hang the blame not on the guns but on the parents, who made the situation possible by failing to secure the large number of firearms they kept in a home with four young children.

My concern is the proper role played by the state in this situation. Is it (or should it be) the government's job to prevent unfortunate accidental shootings like this?

Let's presume, for the sake of argument, that it is the government's job to prevent negligent gun storage in order to protect children. How would the government do that? The first step would be to pass a law prohibiting unsecured gun storage in homes with children. But how does that law get enforced in order to actually prevent (not punish after the fact) negligent gun storage?

The government would need the power to conduct searches of people's homes looking for unsecured guns. Because it would be difficult to know which houses have unsecured guns without going inside each one, the police would need to conduct periodic searches of all homes, regardless of whether any violations were actually known. Waiting until a child is shot is too late to prevent situations like the one in Arizona, so searches will have to be done frequently and without warning. It's the only way such a preventative law would be effective.

A hurdle to such a law is the Fourth Amendment, which, at least theoretically, requires probable cause to suspect someone has committed a crime (usually through a warrant) before a search of their property can be conducted. How would the police gain probable cause for searches of homes looking for unsecured firearms? What indications outside the home would tip them off? Other than self-reporting or tips from nosy neighbors, the police can't know that a home contains unsecured firearms without going inside themselves and looking. You can see the problem here. In order to search a home, police have to have probable cause to suspect a violation of the law, but the only way to learn if such a law was being violated is to search the home.

So even if it is the government's job to prevent private negligence (which is highly debatable), doing so without violating the Fourth Amendment becomes exceedingly difficult.

The question for supporters of firearm home storage laws is this: do you also support frequent, warrantless searches of people's homes by the police? Would you gladly submit to cops rifling through your belongings looking for unsecured guns when you've done nothing else wrong? There's no other way to effectively enforce these laws. Otherwise they exist only to increase the punishment for people who already broke the law by hurting someone through their own criminal negligence.*

Maybe cumulative punishment makes us feel better, but laws such as these empower the police to overstep their bounds in the name of public safety. And these laws can't turn back time to undo the harm done by negligent gun owners. So unless the police can truly enforce them through aggressive and frequent home searches, are they really necessary?

The balancing act is portrayed as safety versus freedom, but the real balancing act is state power versus private space. Are incremental increases in public safety worth the greater surrender of privacy they require? It would be an ideal world where all tragedies like the one in Arizona could be prevented by passing home firearm storage laws. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world, and such laws require a drastic surrender of private space to state power in order to even approach effectiveness.

*In Kentucky, a parent who left a gun sitting out which accidentally killed a child could be charged with reckless homicide under KRS 507.050.