Would New Gun Laws Spark Widespread Civil Disobedience?

In his State of the Union address, President Obama doubled down on his gun-control proposals, again demanding that Congress ban so-called “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines.” This is not a surprise. What has been a surprise are the increasingly open calls for defiance from gun owners, state legislatures, and local law enforcement. If the president’s proposals become law, he may move the country into turbulent waters we haven’t seen in many years.

Gun control has long been a controversial issue in American politics. However, there are three aspects to this issue that make this more volatile than other hot topics such as taxes, foreign policy, or abortion:

1) The strongest advocates of each side hold fundamentally irreconcilable positions.

On one hand, committed gun-control advocates say: “No one should be allowed to own certain weapons.” On the other hand, equally committed gun-rights advocates say: “No way in hell are we giving up these weapons.”

2) Ordinary Americans have declared their willingness to disobey the law.

New York state has already passed laws similar to Obama’s proposals. Gun owners there are now organizing a campaign of open civil disobedience, daring state officials to “come and take” their rifles. State officials already acknowledge that they will be unable to enforce the new law.

3) Local law enforcement officials and state governments have also vowed civil disobedience.

Over 280 sheriffs and eight state sheriffs' associations have vowed to protect citizens’ Second Amendment rights against new gun laws.

The Utah Sheriffs' Association used unusually strong language:

We, like you, swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and we are prepared to trade our lives for the preservation of its traditional interpretation.

Similarly, several state legislatures are considering laws to stop federal officials from enforcing new gun laws within their jurisdictions, including Missouri, Wyoming, and North Dakota.

In the worst case, we could see clashes between armed law enforcement officials at different levels of government, each regarding themselves duty-bound to enforce their respective understandings of the Constitution. Wide swaths of the country would likely thumb their noses at the central authorities -- and get away with it.

In addition to open civil disobedience, new technology also increases the capacity for quiet noncompliance, at least with respect to magazine capacity restrictions. 3D printing enthusiasts are already developing plans that allow people to create their own 30-round magazines at home. The designs are still rough, but will almost certainly improve when thousands of motivated hobbyists turn their minds to this challenge. Even if the government outlaws the dissemination of the design data and/or possession of such home-built magazines, an underground market will likely still thrive, just as there is already a thriving underground market in pirated software and music.

Once such unenforceable laws are on the books, there are serious negative consequences, including:

1) Selective enforcement

The federal authorities may try to make an example of a few high-profile cases, but that will probably anger the other gun owners more, rather than cow them. (For more on the problems of proliferation of laws which prosecutors can then selectively enforce, see this paper by law professor Glenn Reynolds.)

2) Diversion of limited police resources from real crimes

This is just another example of Charles de Montesquieu’s adage: “Useless laws weaken necessary laws.”

3) Increasing contempt by otherwise honest citizens for the central government

As Reynolds noted in a separate USA Today piece, Americans are increasingly mistrustful of the government. New gun laws would worsen this problem.

No one can know exactly how this will play out. This will depend on how strongly the central authorities wish to enforce the law in the teeth of the defiance, and how committed gun-rights supporters are to sustained civil disobedience. If history is any guide, violence is not out of the question, even if cooler heads on both sides do not wish it. New gun laws could be the political equivalent of a spark thrown onto dry tinder.

According to Politico, gun control is the most divisive issue separating the two major political parties. Passing the law would accelerate the already growing polarization of America.

During Obama’s first term, many on the Left who were frustrated by their inability to fully impose their political agendas repeatedly invoked the mantra that America was “ungovernable.” If the president’s gun-control proposals become law, they haven’t seen anything yet.

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L.A. Times: Violent Movies Don’t Cause Violence, but Guns Do