Against Gun Registration
Several members of Congress would like to see it become law.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.)


Charles C. W. Cooke

New Zealand’s long-gun-registry experiment ended in failure, too. By the early 1980s, New Zealand’s National Police pleaded with that country’s parliament to abandon the system, having watched ballooning budgets lead only to a lot of wasted time and to the expansion of a system that, frankly, didn’t do anything useful. In 1983, parliament, conceding that criminals are unlikely to leave registered guns at the scenes of their crimes, complied.

Very little thought is necessary to render as a sick joke the oft-repeated claim that police benefit from knowing who has guns and who hasn’t. A registry tells authorities which law-abiding citizens have weapons and which don’t — which at best is useless information, and at worst is yet another case of government’s failing to do anything about the criminal and so going after the rest of us instead. The reductio ad absurdum of this tendency has been well documented by the historian Clayton Cramer. “The U.S. Supreme Court,” Cramer writes,

ruled in Haynes vs. U.S. (1968) that convicted felons have a Constitutional right to not register a gun, because to register a gun would be self-incrimination. Only people that aren’t criminals can be punished for not registering. If the criminals aren’t required to register, but you and I are, why bother?

As Cramer noted, the Supreme Court thus ruled that on Fifth Amendment grounds “a person illegally possessing a firearm, under either federal or state law, [can] not be punished for failing to register it.” This conceit has been upheld elsewhere, too. I have no great objection to this principle, but it does highlight the absurdity of an approach that would see constitutionally protected individual liberties being strictly guarded in the case of criminals but restricted when it comes to the law-abiding. Practically speaking, the Haynes decision legally exempts from any future registry the very people whose behavior is used to justify its necessity. Surely, if we are going to become so strict about the Constitution, then the Second and Fourth Amendments should share in the bounty?

If good sense prevails, this principle will never need to be tested. As John Lott argued in 2012, “in parts of the United States where registration is required, the results have been no different” from what they were in Canada. “Neither Hawaii, D.C., nor Chicago,” he adds, “can point to any crimes that have been solved using registration records.” Both philosophically and practically, Senator Coburn is right to insist that the federal government stay out of the game. Only in Washington, D.C., could a handful of politicians look at the failure of registry programs at home and abroad and propose that they be copied and expanded. Those who have charged that opponents of a federal gun registry are fighting a straw man will, I can only presume, line up in support of Coburn; for if there’s truly no enthusiasm for record-keeping in D.C., then no one has anything to fear from the senator’s innocuous stand.

Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.