Friday, December 04, 2020

Gun Owners Support the Right Not to Bear Arms

Ian Ayres

 Ian Ayres & Fredrick Vars

In 1982, Kennesaw, Georgia enacted an ordinance (still on the books) requiring the head of each household to maintain a firearm and ammunition. A spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA) applauded the new ordinance, explaining that the organization “supports the freedom of choice” to bear arms. When asked if the Kennesaw ordinance also restricts freedom—the freedom to choose not to own a firearm—the spokesman could only muster as a response: ‘That's a point, too.’”

In 2018, Washington State went in the other direction, by actually increasing its citizen’s firearm choices.  It enacted a law allowing individuals to temporarily suspend their own ability to purchase a firearm. This law expands, rather than contracts, Washingtonians’ freedom to choose whether or not to bear arms. They can choose now not to buy a gun later. Washington was the first state to adopt voluntary firearm self-restriction, also known as Donna’s Law. Virginia has just this year followed Washington, allowing individuals to suspend not only their ability to buy firearms, but also their right to possess firearms.

The law is an important tool in the fight against gun suicide.  Nearly two out of every three gun deaths are suicides.  Giving people the option to suspend their ability to purchase or possess firearms could prevent many impulsive gun suicides, but only if people take advantage of the option.  Research shows many people at risk for suicide would restrict firearm access in this way.  In moments of clarity, people choose to bind themselves to avoid bad choices in dark times.  Donna’s Law is like an advance directive for firearms.

Few issues are as divisive as gun control, but Donna’s Law has the potential to bridge the divide.  To test this, we conducted a nationally representative survey.  Support for Donna’s Law was high. Around two-thirds of respondents said states should give people the ability to suspend their rights to purchase guns or to purchase and possess guns. The Virginia purchase-and-possession version was even more popular, but the difference was not statistically significant.

What’s more, Donna’s Law was supported by broad support from many different subgroups Americans.  Substantial majorities of each and every state and region supports passage of the law.  A majority of Republicans supported Donna’s Law.   Even a majority (56%) of gun owners support the law’s enactment.  Indeed, Donna’s Law garnered majority appeal across political party, region, race, gender, age, and veteran status.

This breadth of support should not be surprising. Donna’s law is completely voluntary.  If you don’t want to give up your gun rights or don’t trust government, don’t sign up.  The proposal is deeply libertarian and speaks to citizens that want the option to be left alone.  Donna’s law expands personal choice.  Few gun owners would endorse the Kennesaw ordinance requiring everyone to own a gun. They viscerally reject laws that impose their own preferences regarding guns on others. Even the NRA recognizes that Donna’s Law is different than traditional gun control. The Alabama chapter has signaled that it will not oppose Donna’s Law.

These findings help explain why Donna’s law have been gaining legislative traction.  Versions of “no gun” registries have been introduced in eleven states across the country and efforts are underway in others. Advocates can now point to the broad bipartisan popularity of Donna’s Law in support of these efforts. Politics and good policy converge. That has not always translated into action on gun policy—particularly at the federal level—but Donna’s Law is qualitatively different than traditional gun control. It is a voluntary self-protection measure that people can choose or reject for themselves. Policymakers should follow public opinion and give us this new choice.

Ayres and Vars are law professors at Yale and Alabama, respectively, and co-authors of the new book, Weapon of Choice: Fighting Gun Violence While Respecting Gun Rights.  This post is adapted from an article in the Emory Law Journal.


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