Not long ago, a friend of mine was telling me the story of his father’s acquisition of long-desired handgun. They were in a gun shop and found the exact gun his dad had been wanting for a number of years. The price was right, but the problem was that they were all the way across the state of Texas from their hometown, and if the background check didn’t go through and immediately return an approval, it would require a nine-hour drive back to the shop when the approval finally came through a few days later. His dad was going to pass on the gun because his “instant” background checks seemed to always get delayed, and he wasn’t willing to make the drive again. As a solution, my friend pulled out his Texas concealed carry permit and bought the gun on the spot. Having a carry license negates the need for a background check in most states. After the sale, he handed the gun to his father and his father handed him a check for the price of the gun. In doing that, they both committed a federal felony, as did the dealer who sold it to them and witnessed their private transaction.
My friend was incredulous when I explained to him that, had he bought the gun as a gift for his father, everything would have been legal, but because he was reimbursed for the cost for the gun, the transaction was technically a “straw sale.” My friend, his father and the dealer could be charged with lying in the process of a firearm transaction – the same crime members of the Reese family spent a year and a half in jail over and for which they are still being persecuted. The stated penalty for the crime is up to five years and a $5,000 fine, but if some in Congress get their way, that will move up to a penalty of up to 20 years and $100,000 in fines.
That’s why gun-rights advocates like me are so wary of any new gun laws. Enforcement agencies have demonstrated a marked inclination to use these laws to go after the wrong people, crucifying people who make paperwork errors or technical violations like my friend and his father. The reason they do it is simple: It’s less risky and yields the same results – prosecutions. So the real criminals walk away scot-free or with a slap on the wrist. And it’s important to point out that what is considered a slap on the wrist to a Mexican drug smuggler or an outlaw biker can be a serious, life-altering event for a typical, middle-class American. Had a federal officer witnessed my friend’s transaction, it could have cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and destroyed my friend’s career – he’s a law-enforcement officer himself.
That’s also why you’ll never see me advocating for authorities to “enforce the laws already on the books.” We have too many laws that could easily ensnare people who simply don’t understand what’s legal and what’s not. As noted, my friend is a cop, but he had no idea that buying a gun for his father was illegal.
In her seminal work, “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand has a political insider explain the inner workings of the legal system to the hero:
“Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against. … We’re after power and we mean it. … There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”
Rand is often criticized for her cynical take on government, but an examination of the laws on the books and those currently under discussion makes her fictional analysis ring uncomfortably true. Whether an intended goal, or an unintended consequence, government trying to fix social problems with layers of laws yields exactly the world Dr. Ferris describes – a micromanaging government, a criminal public and ever-increasing power of government over the people .
Just driving down the street with a gun in the car creates dozens of unintentional felonies. The federal Gun Free School Zones Act makes it a felony to be in possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school – that’s about two blocks. People with a permit to possess the firearm are exempted from the 1,000-foot rule, but only if the permit is issued by the state they are in at the moment. Permits for other states, even if they’re recognized by the state you’re in, do not qualify you for an exemption. So you can be in full compliance with all state laws regarding possession of the gun, but still violate federal law. The Gun Free School Zones Act is just one example of a law that’s “already on the books” that is thankfully almost never enforced.
Now Congress is looking at criminalizing all private firearm transactions that don’t go through a dealer. They would make felons of lifelong friends who swap guns between themselves without the additional steps of traveling to a licensed firearm dealer or police station, paying a fee and completing several forms, only to then have to wait up to three days for the feds to get around to approving the transfer.
They call it “universal background checks.” I call it criminalizing selling your stuff. Let’s tell Congress to call it dead on arrival.