Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guns Before Butter

That was the title of a discordant, angry song by the Gang of Four, a band that I quite liked in my misspent youth. They were loosely paraphrasing Otto von Bismarck, the effective founder of modern Germany, and suggesting a militaristic preference for the one over the other. On the other hand, ‘butter’ is a part of the well known phrase referring to basic food goods, ‘bread and butter’, and one’s source of income. Well, this week Wal-Mart, the largest seller of firearms in the US, appeared to put voluntary restrictions on the sale of guns ahead of the bread and butter of sales. Given the Presidential campaign, recent jibes about gun-owning, and the landmark case (Heller v. District of Columbia) regarding the District’s restrictions on gun ownership pending in the Supreme Court, Wal-Mart’s decision made a lot of noise. What was the buzz about?

Wall Street appears to have approved because Wal-Mart gained $1.12 as one of the DJIA leaders on the first day of trading following the announcement. “Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns”, led by New York City Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, approved, with Wal-Mart announcing its decision in association with the Bloomberg funded coalition of Mayors in favor of gun control. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence approved, as did other organizations in favor of gun control. Both groups applauded Wal-Mart’s adoption of a 10 point plan to strengthen background checks on buyers and its employees who sell guns with measures that include, among other things:

· Creating a record and alert system to record when a gun sold at Wal-Mart is later used in a crime. If the purchaser of that gun later tries to buy another gun at Wal-Mart, the system would alert the sales clerk of the prior buy and could refuse to make the sale.

· Retaining the recorded images of gun sales in case law enforcement wants to view them later as part of an investigation.

· Expanding background checks of employees who handle guns and expanding inventory controls.

The National Rifle Association did not approve. “I view it as a public relations stunt that stigmatizes law-abiding firearms purchasers exercising their freedom under the Constitution,” said NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre. He further said that if politicians were serious about reducing gun crime they would worry less about legal sellers and buyers and get tougher criminal sentences for illegal gun dealers. “I honestly think it’s a corporation trying to curry favor with politicians as opposed to doing anything meaningful about stopping crime,” said LaPierre.

There’s certainly something to be said for LaPierre’s point of view. It is highly likely that currying favor with politicians was somewhere on Wal-Mart’s decision tree, along with litigation risk prevention. On balance, for the company and its shareholders, this would appear to be a smart move. Outside Alaska, the company only retails rifles and shotguns (in Alaska it does sell handguns). As handguns are statistically more likely to be used in crimes Wal-Mart has already managed its litigation risk to some extent. Furthermore, citing falling revenues from gun sales in many outlets, two years ago this very week the company ceased rifle and shotgun sales in about 25% - 30% of all its mainland US outlets. Given these facts, it seems unlikely that sales revenues will be significantly affected by the new voluntary restrictions (a fact that Wall Street seems to agree with) while at the same time, the company has improved management of its litigation risks and, yes, curried favor with politicians in major urban centers where it wants to open new outlets and where such moves have previously met with substantial opposition. Wal-Mart has undoubtedly got this one right.

But what of the NRA’s criticism? Doesn’t LaPierre have a point in saying that these types of restrictions will stigmatize law-abiding firearms purchasers? Yes and no. Given the Malthusian proliferation of state and municipal gun laws that have emerged over the last two decades, those with a broad view of the Second Amendment, like the NRA, have a valid argument that more and more restrictions may indeed serve to “stigmatize” law-abiding purchasers of firearms by making exercise of their Second Amendment rights not dissimilar to the purchase of pornography, a shady and shameful thing. And most people could probably agree that a father taking his son to buy his first deer rifle should not have to undergo a shady or shameful experience.,2933,338282,00.html

But the Supreme Court seems poised to make a decision affirming a lower court’s ruling that the District of Columbia’s near total ban on handgun ownership is illegal and contravenes the Second Amendment rights of those like the six DC residents who originally brought suit against the DC law. So LaPierre and others with a broad view of Second Amendment rights need to rethink their strategies. If the DC ban is indeed overturned by Supreme Court decision, there will be substantial jurisprudence in favor of an individual’s right to keep and bear arms and it will open many other state and municipal gun laws to challenge. This will be a dangerous time for gun owners, and gun-owner advocacy groups. Gloating may see them snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

“Hell hath no fury like a Liberal scorned”, writes the Bleeding Heart. “If the Court overturns the DC law banning handgun ownership in the District, we will mobilize en masse to oppose further erosion of the rights of state and municipal governments to create reasonable and appropriate laws aimed at diminishing gun violence and gun crime in our cities. This will not stand as an open invitation to every crazy gun-owner to stock up on Glocks and Magnums so that our children can be put at further risk”.

The Bloated Plutocrat was more subdued in his reaction to the subject. “I can’t imagine why anyone would be buying shotguns from Wal-Mart in any event. I had a lovely set of Purdeys made for me several years ago and that’s what you want. Nothing beats a bespoke gun. As for the Second Amendment, I never viewed it as the ‘Deer Hunting Amendment’. I always understood it as protecting a law-abiding individual’s right to keep and bear arms in order to protect himself and his community from both foreign invaders and domestic tyranny. In fact, less hunting is what we should be after. When I go grouse shooting, I don’t want to have to share the woods with a bunch of yahoos in camouflage waving around Wal-Mart shotguns. Hunting is a gentlemen’s sport and should be reserved for gentlemen.”

LaPierre and others who favor a broad view of the Second Amendment should take note of the Bleeding Heart’s words. If the Supreme Court affirms overturn of the DC handgun ban, gun control advocates will go ballistic. Compromise is best made from a position of strength and, while the NRA has battled on behalf of gun-owners for decades, it will be interesting to see whether it can make reasonable compromises on behalf of gun-owners as well. LaPierre may want to take a lesson from Wal-Mart about doing the right thing at the right time.

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