Firearm Freedom: How to Achieve It

FREEDOM TO OWN GUNS ISN’T THE PROBLEM — SOUTH CAROLINIANS SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PRETEND IT IS

South Carolina is one of the most gun friendly states in America, according to conventional wisdom. This may or may not be true when it comes to citizens attitudes, but it certainly isn’t reflected in the state’s firearm laws that, unlike those of many other states, prohibit citizens from openly carrying firearms in public. If South Carolina is to truly claim the mantle of the state with the most firearm freedom, it must first overcome several obstacles.

Before examining what stands in the way of firearm freedom, however, we must know what firearm freedom would look like. In a state with true firearm freedom, all law-abiding citizens would be able to carry a firearm in public on their persons either openly or concealed, without a permit. Background checks at the point of purchase as mandated by federal law would remain in place to prevent the legal purchase of firearms by violent felons. Private businesses could also still prohibit the carrying of firearms on their premises by posting signs. The state, however, would not prohibit carrying of a firearm in any particular kind of establishment through legislation. In turn, individuals could choose not to patronize those businesses if they wanted. (Ending the state prohibition on carrying in select establishments was achieved with passage of S.308).

So: what’s preventing South Carolina from achieving firearm freedom? There are three primary obstacles, and there are three straightforward ways to overcome them.

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First and most important obstacle: the state statute restricting firearm carry.

State Code Section 16-23-20, titled “Unlawful carrying of handguns; exceptions,” prohibits the carrying of handguns by law-abiding citizens with the exception of citizens with a concealed carry permit, and several other small exceptions mostly related to transportation of firearms and government employees.

Ultimately, to achieve firearm freedom, that section of the code must be repealed. Often the practice in legal reform is to layer new laws on top of those being reformed. This is a needlessly complicated process that often leaves legal ambiguities that can cause unforeseen complications. It’s far better to simply repeal a restrictive statute; there are no grounds for claiming a law is being broken when that law does not exist.

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The second obstacle: federal encouragement of state gun control.

The federal government constantly seeks to shape state policies on virtually every issue; the favored method is to offer or withhold funds. This year the State Law Enforcement Division received a $900,000 grant from the federal Department of Justice to finance the enforcement of a new state gun control law that prohibits those deemed to be “mental defectives” from owning firearms. When the federal government offers to pay for the enforcement of gun control measures, it reduces the cost to state legislatures of passing such measures, making their passage more likely. The federal government can also offer grants that more than cover the cost of implementation to encourage new gun control measures. One key point to keep in mind about these federal grants is that while they are made available, they are not forced upon the states: state agencies must actively apply for these grants.

If South Carolina is to become the state with the most firearm freedom, it must categorically reject federal funds. Money from the federal government always comes with strings, and in this case the money requires the state to adopt stricter gun control laws. South Carolinians cannot be confident in whatever degree of firearm freedom they have as long as the state is willing to give up that freedom over time in exchange for cash from the federal government.

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And the third obstacle: misconceptions on the risk of firearm carry.

The major assumption behind state laws prohibiting the carrying of firearms by law-abiding citizens is that more firearms in public will lead to more violence in general and more firearm violence in particular. This assumption too often goes unchallenged.

The empirical evidence does not bear out the assumption that relaxed carry laws lead to increased violence. The National Academy of Sciences could find no causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates. Similarly the Center for Disease Control could find no causal link between carry laws that prohibit the discretionary restriction of concealed carry permits and crime rates.

The most instructive example on the topic of constitutional carry comes from Vermont. Hard though it may be for some to believe, the goal as described above (often referred to as constitutional carry) has been the law in Vermont virtually since passage of its constitution in 1777. The case of Vermont demonstrates that constitutional carry by itself does not result in high levels of crime or violence. Vermont was ranked the second most peaceful state by the Institute for Economics and Peace in their 2012 U.S. Peace Index Report.

The empirical evidence should not come as a surprise. The great majority of U.S. citizens are responsible and law-abiding, and moreover – given federal laws –only these law-abiding citizens are able to legally purchase a firearm to carry. Further, increased freedom always promotes increased responsibility, whether in the economic or personal spheres. In this case, permitting individuals to carry their firearms in public will make them more conscientious about obeying other laws lest they lose this right. When legal carry is largely prohibited, by contrast, those who carry in defiance of the law will tend to be the same people less likely to respect other laws.

For state policy to change, supporters of increased firearm freedom must be aware of and share the empirical research on the effects of the allowance of firearm carry by law-abiding citizens.

Of course, merely outlining the goal and obstacles to firearm freedom is not sufficient to demonstrate the desirability of the policy. In fact, there is every reason to support firearm freedom be it on legal or utilitarian grounds. U.S. citizens’ right to firearm freedom is enumerated in the highest law of the land, and the outcomes associated with firearm freedom have been documented.

There is a reason the most firearm friendly policy among the states is referred to as constitutional carry. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares in full that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Both of the clauses of the Second Amendment were viewed as important by early American generations, as evidenced by both writings and comments of founders and early American legal experts. Early American case law on the right to keep and bear arms largely recognized the individual right to arms, and the most recent Second Amendment Supreme Court cases, D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, explicitly recognized the individual right enumerated in the Second Amendment. Those decisions recognize, too, that the states and the federal government are bound by this guarantee.

As for the outcomes associated with firearm freedom, some researchers, such as former University of Chicago and Yale Professor John Lott, have found a correlation between passage of right to carry laws and a decrease in violent crime. In any case, while the larger literature is more uncertain about a reduction in crime, the most comprehensive research on state right to carry laws has found no increase in crime associated with their passage or longstanding existence. Again, when freedoms have been increased, law-abiding citizens have demonstrated the increased responsibility demanded of them. Removing the firearm carry barriers to law-abiding citizens does not affect the rate of firearm crime/violence, which is largely committed with illegally obtained firearms.

The primary effect of removing these obstacles would simply be that South Carolinians’ rights would be more effectively maintained, both their constitutional rights and their right to self-defense.

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