The Corner

Gun Rights and Property Rights Shouldn’t Be in Tension

I’ve written a few times about the unfortunate manner in which some pro-gun lawmakers place the Second Amendment above every other consideration. This, from Tennessee, is a perfect example of what I’ve been complaining about:

If a Tennessee grocery store bans guns on its property and a black bear or wild hog kills or injures a person who otherwise would be carrying his or her gun, the gun owner would be allowed to sue the property owner if a newly introduced bill became law.

Sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, Senate Bill 1736 has a very specific purpose.

“It is the intent of this section to balance the right of a handgun carry permit holder to carry a firearm in order to exercise the right of self-defense and the ability of a property owner or entity in charge of the property to exercise control over governmental or private property,” the bill states.

To accomplish that goal, the legislation allows any Tennessean with a valid gun permit to sue a property owner in the event of injury or death provided the incident occurred while in a gun-free zone.

This is a bad bill. Why? Well, because it aims to advance one right at the expense of another, and for no good reason. Gresham says that her proposal would “balance the right of a handgun carry permit holder to carry a firearm in order to exercise the right of self-defense and the ability of a property owner or entity in charge of the property to exercise control over governmental or private property.” But there is no tension between the right to keep and bear arms and the right of private property owners to determine what happens on their land.

The Second Amendment protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms against infringements by the state, not by individuals. Initially, this protection applied only against the federal government; after the 14th Amendment, it was applied against the states as well. But it does not — and should not — apply against Home Depot. If a business wants to prohibit firearms — and, indeed, to make it clear that all customers enter at their own risk — that’s its prerogative. Clearly, this bill wants to change that, tipping the balance in the favor of gun owners by attaching a legal cost to private decision making. To anybody who values personal choice, that should be abhorrent. Do we believe in private contracts or not?

Now, I notice that Gresham has also included a reference to “governmental property” within her bill. And that, of course, is fine. But she should not be so casually mixing up ideas, and nor should she be implying so lazily that “governmental” property is conceptually identical to “private property.” Inevitably, the rules that govern state land will be set by the state, the question at hand being not “should the government get involved here?” but “given that it is involved already, which rules should it institute?” If Gresham’s bill did nothing more than to a) set state-property liability rules, and b) ensure that constitutional rights were being respected in such cases as private citizens are forced to interact with the state, it would be fine.

But it doesn’t. Rather, it interferes with the rights of private property owners in order to advance a particular goal, and it does so under the guise of protecting individualism. That makes no sense. It is entirely possible for the state of Tennessee to protect the right of the people to keep and bear arms and to protect the right of businesses, charities, residences, and so forth to make their own decisions. Indeed, this is what it is doing right now. If Gresham cares at all about preserving property rights she will admit her mistake, recall the bill, and remove all the references to private property from its text. There are more things in heaven and earth, Dolores, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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