Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Taking Aim at Gun Control

Roy Clouser


July 5, 1999

Government has a legitimate role to play in human life, yet a limited one. The simplest description of that limit is to say that governmental authority is restricted to upholding public justice, including public safety. Thus, it is legitimate for government not only to enforce civil and criminal codes, but also to inspect bridges, airplanes, food, and medicines. This is also why state and local governments patrol highways.

If this view is correct, it seems clear that government also has a genuine role to play in the regulation of firearms for the public's safety. If it is proper to have laws requiring a driving test and a license because of a car's potential danger to others, then surely it is proper to have similar requirements when it comes to the possession and use of lethal weapons. This responsibility must, of course, be balanced with the constitutional guarantee that government may not forbid gun ownership altogether. Nevertheless, if it is proper to deny a driving license to a drunk, it is proper to deny firearms to those who have a criminal record or a history of mental instability.

Is that all? Does requiring background checks on gun purchasers for those two reasons fulfill government's responsibility for public safety in regard to firearms? I think not.

Taking seriously the analogy with a driving license, I would point to the additional need of instruction and testing in the safe way to use, handle, and store firearms. In other words, the responsibility of public safety requires not only preventive measures against misuse of arms owing to crime or insanity, but also against accidental misuse owing to ignorance. Therefore, state agencies should be established to test those who apply for gun permits just as states test those applying for drivers licenses.

However, while it is proper for states to test for firearm knowledge, surely it is not government's job to supply such instruction any more than it is to teach people how to drive. And the days are long gone when most people lived in a rural setting and learned weapon handling from parents as part of growing up, as today they learn from parents how to drive. Who, then, should carry out such instruction for gun purchasers?

My own experience tells me that there is no better organization to do this than the National Rifle Association (NRA). In my teens I was a member of my high school's rifle team and frequently went to the local police range to receive instruction from an NRA rangemaster. I know what a good job they do and am convinced that every gun purchaser needs NRA-type instruction.

So I further propose that the government designate the NRA (and other equally qualified organizations) as the entity responsible to train applicants for gun permits (for a minimal fee) and to help enforce the background-check requirements. The NRA and similar organizations could provide this service with the understanding that government will, on its side, honor the Constitution's Second Amendment. Once convinced of that, the NRA might even be willing to admit that the public's right to own weapons doesn't extend to machine guns and other powerful military weapons that have nothing to do with hunting, sport, or home protection.

This proposal will not, all by itself, stop the illegal sale of firearms. Nor will it stop all accidents or crime, any more than driving instruction stops all accidents or drunk driving. It will not prove to be a panacea. Nevertheless, no matter how many additional measures are needed to promote firearm safety, they will all be more effective if they are implemented through, and added to, basic NRA-type instruction.

—Roy Clouser, Professor of Philosophy
   The College of New Jersey

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”