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


Taking Aim at Gun Control

August 3, 2012

By Roy Clouser 

An earlier version of this article was published in Capital Commentary in 1999. The author updated the argument and the context in light of the renewed attention to the issue of gun control in the wake of the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado. 

Government has a legitimate role in human life, but a role that is limited. The simplest description of that limit is to say that governmental authority is restricted to public justice and safety. Thus, we see it as legitimate that governments not only enforce civil and criminal codes, but also inspect bridges, airplanes, food and medicines. It’s also why state and local governments patrol highways. 

If this view is correct, it seems clear that government also has an obligation to play a role in regulating firearms for the public’s safety. If it is proper to have laws requiring a driving test and 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 need was once again brought to national attention by another senseless massacre of innocent citizens in Colorado. 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. 

But is that all? Does requiring background checks on gun purchasers really fulfill government’s responsibility? I think not. Taking seriously the analogy of a driving license, we need instruction and testing in the safe use, handling and storing of firearms. In other words, the responsibility of public safety requires that government not only pass laws to prevent the misuse of arms owing to crime or insanity, but also ameliorate accidental misuse owing to ignorance. I propose that we pass additional laws to require such instruction and approve new state agencies to test applicants for gun permits, similar to the agencies that test drivers. 

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

My own experience is 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 can do and am convinced that every gun purchaser needs such instruction.  

So, I further propose that the government designate the NRA (and/or other highly qualified organizations) to train applicants for gun permits (for a minimal fee) and to help enforce the background check requirements. The NRA could provide this service with the full confidence that the Second Amendment is inviolable, as has been upheld by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2010). That ruling should also reassure the NRA that there is no risk of a slippery slope, were they to admit that the public’s right to weapon ownership doesn’t extend to machine guns and other powerful military weapons that have nothing to do with hunting, sport or home protection. We should be willing to be guided in this matter by the advice of our law enforcement professionals who risk their lives every day to keep us safe—that that includes plugging the loopholes which allow for gun sales that do an end run around the background checks and safety laws already in place. 

These proposals will not, all by themselves, stop the illegal sale of firearms. Nor will they stop all accidents or crime any more than driving instruction stops all accidents or all drunk driving. They will not provide a panacea. But it seems clear that state and Federal legislation could do far more than is now done both to promote firearm safety and to prevent the criminal and mentally unstable from obtaining firearms.  

—Roy Clouser is Professor Emeritus of The College of New Jersey, the author of The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (1992, 2005) and a former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice. 


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