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Thursday, August 16, 2007

  3 comments

"Feel Good" Gun Control Measures

[The Simi Valley City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring the reporting of Lost and Stolen Firearms. I objected unsuccessfully, by speaking at both Council meetings at which it was considered, and sending the following email to all the Council Members explaining why the arguments in favor of it made no sense.]
I would like to urge you to reconsider the Lost & Stolen Firearms ordinance when it comes up for its Second Reading. Logically, I believe this ordinance will have no positive effects and some negative effects. I’ve analyzed all of the possible cases below to demonstrate this result.

The main argument in favor of the ordinance, as expressed in the staff report and in newspaper reports, is that it would help discourage “straw purchases” and subsequent use of firearms in crimes. How can this be, when the ordinance deals only with the reporting of lost or stolen guns, and says nothing about illegally transferring guns?

As nearly as I can tell, the purported connection to illegal transfers and crime usage goes something like this: Guns may be used to commit crimes, or else they me be stolen or sold or given away to ineligible individuals who then use the guns to commit crimes. When the guns are traced back to the original owners, those owners often claim that they had nothing to do with the crimes because the guns had previously been lost or stolen (but never reported as such). By requiring a report, we take away that excuse/subterfuge.

But this is a non sequitur. Consider each of the following possible cases:

• Case 1. Gun is lost or stolen; never found nor recovered; never identified as being used in a crime; owner fails to report. In this case the owner has technically violated the ordinance, but nobody ever knows and no harm results, so the owner is never cited and the ordinance has no effect.

• Case 2. Gun is lost or stolen; owner reports it but doesn’t know serial number or other identifying details. If the gun is never found nor recovered, and never identified as being used in a crime, this is functionally equivalent to Case 1 above and the ordinance has no effect. If the gun is found or recovered or used in a crime but can’t be matched up with the owner due to the lack of identifying information, the ordinance has no effect.

• Case 3. Gun is lost or stolen; owner reports it and provides serial number or other identifying details. If the gun is never found nor recovered, and never identified as being used in a crime, this is functionally equivalent to Case 1 above and the ordinance has no effect. If the gun is found or recovered (either from the thief or from a criminal who used it to commit a crime) the owner may eventually get the gun back. That’s a good reason to VOLUNTARILY report a lost or stolen firearm with identifying details. But failure to report is its own punishment, since then the owner doesn’t get the gun back. Why is it a benefit to the gun owner to add a further punishment via this ordinance? This case represents more intrusive nanny-government: Requiring people to do things “for their own good” instead of allowing them to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of their un-coerced actions.

• Case 4. Gun is illegally sold or given away to an ineligible person, but gun is not subsequently discovered in the possession of that person or used in a crime. Since the gun was not lost or stolen, it did not have to be reported as such; hence this ordinance does not come into play at all.

• Case 5. Gun is illegally sold or given away to an ineligible person, and is either discovered in the possession of that person (in itself a crime) or is used in a crime.

• Sub-Case 5(a). Gun cannot be traced back to the original owner. Since the gun was not lost or stolen, it did not have to be reported as such; hence this ordinance does not come into play at all.

• Sub-Case 5(b). Gun is traced back to the original owner, but the owner does not claim that the gun was lost or stolen. Since the gun was not lost or stolen, it did not have to be reported as such; hence this ordinance does not come into play at all.

• Sub-Case 5(c). Gun is traced back to the original owner, and the owner tries to avoid blame by falsely claiming that the gun was lost or stolen within the past 3 days. Whether or not the owner is believed, this does not violate the ordinance, so the ordinance has no effect.

• Sub-Case 5(d). Gun is traced back to the original owner, and the owner tries to avoid blame by falsely claiming that the gun was lost or stolen more than 5 years before the ordinance was enacted. Whether or not the owner is believed, this does not violate the ordinance, so the ordinance has no effect.

• Sub-Case 5(e). Gun is traced back to the original owner, and the owner tries to avoid blame by falsely claiming that the gun was lost or stolen more than 3 days ago but less than 5 years before the ordinance was enacted. If the owner is believed, this would violate the ordinance and be punishable as a misdemeanor, but it would avoid the more severe penalties for either illegally transferring a firearm or being complicit in the criminal use of a firearm. If the owner is not believed, and is successfully prosecuted for illegally selling or giving away a gun to an ineligible person and possibly being complicit in its criminal use, then by definition the gun was not lost or stolen, and the owner cannot be prosecuted under this ordinance for failing to report it as lost or stolen. Either way the ordinance has no deterrent effect.

• Case 6. The owner commits a crime with a gun and tries to get rid of the gun. The gun is later found and linked to the owner, but he falsely claims it was lost or stolen (more than 3 days ago) but never reported as such. This is functionally equivalent to Sub-Case 5(e) above, and again the ordinance has no deterrent effect.

• Case 7. In anticipation of either committing a crime with a gun, or illegally selling or giving away a gun which might later be found in the possession of an ineligible person or used in a crime, the owner reports to the police that his firearm was either lost or stolen. This provides some modest level of deniability that the owner was complicit in a crime. As such, the ordinance provides a benefit to criminals and has a negative effect on public safety.

Case 7 is even more harmful than it appears at first glance. Suppose, for example, that a person of doubtful character who has had a few past brushes with the law was to walk into a police station today and report that his (legally-owned) gun had just been lost or stolen. Then a few weeks later that gun turned up during the investigation of a crime in which the owner was a suspect. The owner’s prior out-of-character police report might be viewed with considerable skepticism by a jury. But if an ordinance was enacted which REQUIRED such reports, his rationale for doing so would be a lot more persuasive.

I think I’ve covered all of the possible cases. In reviewing them, there is no instance in which this ordinance will have any positive benefit or deterrent effect with respect to public safety, and it does not even apply for many of the cases which have been touted as justification for its enactment. If anything, this ordinance will provide a slight benefit to criminals by giving them a reasonable-sounding excuse to report their guns as lost or stolen ahead of a crime.

Please vote against this measure.

[Streaming video of the July 23, 2007 City Council meeting which first passed the ordinance, and the August 13, 2007 meeting which passed it on the Second Reading, are available at the City of Simi Valley's website. Just scroll down and click on the video links for the meetings. For the July 23rd meeting, you can jump to Item 7B to see the public comments and Council deliberation and vote. For the August 13th meeting, the public comments came at Item 2A and the Council deliberation and vote were at Item 6B.]










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