Why S.C. Should Resist Federal Coercion on Gun Laws



South Carolina, as we contended in an August commentary, doesn’t deserve its fiercely pro-gun reputation – at least, not if the criterion is state law rather than general attitudes. Unfortunately, however, state law isn’t the only thing South Carolina gun owners need to be concerned about. Another is federal coercion.

The only firearm-related legislation passed by the South Carolina General Assembly in 2013 has the  effect of barring gun ownership for those deemed to be “mental defectives.” It has since come to light that the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has received a $900,000 grant from the federal Department of Justice to help improve South Carolina’s use of the National Criminal Background Check System. In fact, SLED applied for the federal grant shortly after the legislature passed Act 22 barring “mental defectives” from gun ownership.

The lesson here is simple and the same for almost any interaction between a state and the federal government: Do what the federal government wants and your state gets money. Don’t do what they want, and have funds taken away.

State acceptance of federal money to help enforce gun control measures is alarming enough – even if the grant wasn’t conditioned on South Carolina passing a mental health gun control bill. But the fact that the federal government is willing to furnish funds to enforce state gun control measures may well weaken resistance among state legislators to future acts of gun control. Further, federal authorities may attempt in the future to tie more agency grants to state acceptance of new firearm restrictions. Alternatively, they may threaten not to renew existing grants unless new firearm restrictions are implemented.

The current administration has made no secret of its desire to curb gun rights around the nation. In January the administration released a multitude of new gun control proposals – some of which required Congressional action and some of which could be implemented unilaterally by the executive branch. These proposals include:

  • Universal background checks for all firearm sales and more sharing of background data from states.
  • Reenacting the “assault weapons” ban and legally limiting magazine capacity.
  • New directives and increased funding for research on gun violence.
  • Enhanced safety standards for gun locks and gun safes.
  • Laws specifying that doctors may ask patients about guns in their homes and increased funding for mental health initiatives.

In fact, the $900,000 grant SLED received from the Department of Justice is part of a larger program ($20 million budget in the FY 2013) to give states stronger incentives to share criminal and mental health background data. President Obama has proposed increasing the funds budgeted for this program to $50 million in FY 2014.

The president has even gone a step further in recent months by issuing executive orders that prohibit both the re-importation of weapons (except by select entities such as the government and museums) the U.S. has sold or donated to allies (all of these weapons are over 50 years old), and the registering of firearms to corporations and trusts.

What’s particularly interesting about these proposals and executive orders – other than their general opposition to both gun rights and state sovereignty – is that one proposal has undermined support for the rest. A directive was issued to the Center for Disease Control to carry out a study on the causes and prevention of gun violence. This study was subcontracted to the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council and the results released in June have been less than favorable for advocates of increased gun control.

Among the study’s findings:

  • The majority of gun related deaths between 2000 and 2010 were suicides, not homicides.
  • Defensive use of firearms is common, with most studies estimating between 500,000 and 3 million defensive uses per year.
  • Unintentional firearms deaths accounted for less than 1 percent of all accidental deaths in 2010.
  • Most criminals obtain firearms in the underground economy outside of the influence of gun control measures.
  • Concerning the effectiveness of gun control measures – bans on specified firearms or ammunition, restrictions on firearm acquisition, waiting periods for firearm acquisition, firearm registration and licensing of owners, and zero tolerance for firearms in schools – evidence is insufficient to determine their effectiveness.

The findings of this new study are consistent with two other major gun control studies released by the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Disease Control in 2004 and 2003, respectively, as well as research conducted by Harvard University. None of these studies could find any gun control measures that meaningfully reduced violent crime or gun violence.

In addition South Carolina’s new law, the prohibition of “mental defectives” from owning firearms, is extremely unlikely to have any significant effect on violent crime. Studies have found that only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to individuals with mental illness. Also, the vast majority of those who commit violent crimes obtain their guns through informal means – which largely mitigate the effects of any outright prohibitions on gun ownership. If anything can reduce violent crime committed by the mentally ill, it’s likely to be early detection and treatment of mental illness.

Before state lawmakers enact any further gun control measures, they should study the current research on the likely effectiveness of such laws. The real choice isn’t between safety and individual rights but between federal dollars and safety rhetoric, on the one hand, and state sovereignty and individual rights on the other. The right choice is plain.

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