The Corner

Politics & Policy

Letting Cops Decide Who Gets to Own Guns Is a Terrible Idea

At the Huffington Post, Jonathan Cohn has an article about the “toughest gun law in America”: Massachusetts’s permitting regime, which not only requires applicants to jump through various hoops (training, character references, background checks) but also grants local law enforcement the discretion to deny permits based on nothing more than “credible evidence that somebody may pose a threat to public safety.”

They don’t have to produce a record of any kind of conviction or involuntary commitment. Just “credible evidence” of a problem, and someone’s Second Amendment rights are gone, at the cops’ discretion. One of Cohn’s law-enforcement sources talks about denying gun permits to people over “incidents that don’t rise up to arrests but tell us, ‘Hey, something is not right here.’” One of his anecdotes involves a man who was taken into protective custody several times but never arrested or committed; the incidents ended in 2012, and he has since become sober and gotten a steady job, but the law gives no instructions regarding how serious or recent any disqualifying incidents must be.

Cohn writes that this is “a potential model for legislation in other states, or even the country as a whole.” No thanks.

Maybe there are deep-blue states that could get away with this (though New York and New Jersey already do it for handguns), and maybe the courts will let it go (considering they’ve shown little interest thus far in mapping out the precise contours of what the Second Amendment does and doesn’t allow). But anywhere else, the resistance from even moderate gun-rights supporters would — and should — be immense. I’m open to some forms of gun control and the son of a police officer, but even I’ll be manning the barricades to keep this kind of discretion out of law enforcement’s hands.

If the government wants to say you can do X only if you meet criteria Y, it had damn well better tell you exactly what Y is. It can’t kick that over to the police and let them figure it out on a case-by-case basis, guided by whatever prejudices they happen to hold. I wouldn’t support a process like this for backyard-fire-pit permits, and I certainly can’t support it for gun rights.

And even if Massachusetts genuinely implements its system in a fair way — as the vast majority of applicants are approved — not all states would. New York City, for example, has a notoriously tedious and expensive process for gun permits and has seen scandals over officials taking bribes in exchange for speedily granting them.

You can debate exactly who should be barred from gun ownership and what the burden of proof should be to deny someone gun rights for a given amount of time. You can also debate whether background checks at gun stores are sufficient, or whether there should be checks on private sales as well or even a more involved permitting process. But you need to write the answers to these questions into the law; you can’t just empower law enforcement to do what it wants while demanding only vague justification in court.

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