As published in The Sierra Times
I wrote an article a couple of years ago questioning our nation's current policy on felons and firearms. It got a lot of play, and it earned me a lot of hate mail, but it also prompted a lot of serious discussion on the subject. In the light of some of the mail I have received and some of the discussion I have "heard" in forums and mailing lists since, I've decided to look at the subject again.
The first very frightened opinion that I've heard from a lot of people is that the very idea of violent criminals possessing weapons just scares the living daylights out of them. I can understand that very well, because it scares the living whatever out of me, too -- which often surprises the very people who read that article. So I'd like to address several fundamental misconceptions shared by most Americans once again.
The first misconception I see today is that most felons are violent. This simply is not true. In these days of mandatory sentencing guidelines, most criminals who did more than spit on the sidewalk or jaywalk are felons. Most drug possession charges are felonies. Most hot check charges are felonies. Most tax offenses are felonies. Most frauds are felonies. As a result, you have a huge group of felons today who are guilty of either unintentional or victimless crimes, and the majority are entirely non-violent. One of my closest friends today wrote some inadvertent hot checks thirty years ago, when she was all of seventeen. Today, she is an ordained minister who spends most of her time helping people. Nevertheless, she is branded as a felon forever -- and forever barred from purchasing a firearm, although the State of Texas will generously permit her to possess a firearm in her home. And what firearm would that be? A gift that could get the giver in a lot of trouble? A firearm belonging to her spouse? Or perhaps a borrowed firearm? This is a recipe for disaster if I ever read one!
Another misconception is that state judges can restore a reformed criminal's rights. On paper, this is at least partly true. Even on paper, however, only A.T.F. can restore the right to purchase a firearm -- even if an offense has been pardoned or expunged! -- although many states do allow possession in the home after a certain number of years have passed. What difference do the state laws make if you can be arrested merely for the attempt to purchase a firearm? So can these people make application to A.T.F. to restore their rights? Well, they can apply all day long, but it will never happen. For many years, the rights restoration program through A.T.F. has been un-staffed and unfunded. So it simply never happens these days. Never. And I know this to be true, because I have been trying for twenty years to assist another very law-abiding friend in expunging his ancient offense and recovering his rights.
The simple truth is that we are creating an artificial underclass of people in this country. Felons often cannot get a decent job. They cannot vote. They cannot defend their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. They have problems renting a place to live -- even most apartments these days do a background check before renting to anyone, and even trying to get a mortgage with a felony in your past is not to be contemplated. In the eyes of the law, felons have forfeited their civil rights forever, even after they have paid their debt to society and tried to go straight. As a result, they are angry, bitter and desperate people, often homeless, and the outcome is all but inevitable. According to Department of Justice statistics, the rate of recidivism nationwide in 1994 approached seventy percent! And that study only covers those persons arrested again for a serious crime within a paltry three years! What about within five or ten years? I could not find studies covering longer periods, but wouldnot be surprised to see data approaching 100 percent. As desperation grows, so does the incentive for crime.
The even sadder truth is that the situation was not always as it is today. In the 1800s, if you were convicted of a serious crime, you received a much shorter sentence than you would today. In actual fact, time served today is about the same, but the total sentences are much longer because of parole rules. In any event, you got out of prison in about the same length of time, give or take a bit. However, in the 1800s, when you were discharged from prison, your belongings (including your weapons!) were returned to you, and there was a real incentive to move elsewhere and put it all behind you, because an employer in another town need never know that you had once made a terrible mistake. Even if you chose to tell him the whole truth, the extreme prejudice you find today against giving you another chance simply did not exist. You had a genuine opportunity to make a new life. As a result, recidivism was very low, roughly in single digit percentages. Why would anyone with a real chance to make a good life ever choose to go back to the slammer? That's just common sense!
There is a compassionate argument as well. Why should a felon's life, especially one trying to go straight, be worthless? That is the message we are sending, make no mistake. Take the case of the hypothetical gang member who was arrested at seventeen and leaves prison at 24 or 25 years of age. The first hurdle he will face is his former gang buddies trying to kill him -- especially if he tried to cooperate by giving the authorities information about other crimes! He needs the means to defend himself far more than you or I do. You or I may one day be victims of gang violence, but that will be seriously bad luck. They're actually looking for him. No comparison at all.
Finally, and most importantly, gun laws do not keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals. They can't. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference what is written in some book of statutes somewhere. If a criminal is not concerned about obeying the law, guns are readily available to him. And the higher prices involved in acquiring a firearm illegally just provide him with a huge incentive to steal more. Crime pays very well. Sad, but true.
Let's apply a little common sense. Assuming that you are like me, (i.e., no good at martial arts, aging, fat and slow), what gives you a better chance when facing a violent criminal? If both of you are unarmed, the chances are that said violent criminal is going to clean your clock, because you are deeply reluctant to do various vicious and bloody things that he finds no problem at all, even if you were physically evenly matched to begin with. On the other hand, if you both have guns, your chances are at least even. Your chances are better than even, really, although there is no way to measure them, because a criminal is nearly always motivated by self-interest, meaning that he is usually a physical coward. If he even thinks you might have a gun, chances are very good that most such problems will never even happen. You, on the other hand, didn't choose to become embroiled in a life or death situation, but if it happens, you will fight like an enraged tiger.
I do not know why this is so hard to understand for so many people. Perhaps it is because so many are unwilling to take up arms to defend themselves -- unwilling to take responsibility for their own safety, in other words. Maybe they are making a foolish and completely misguided attempt to level the playing field, but it does not work. The fastest glance at crime statistics, and how rapidly they have fallen where guns have been made more welcome, should show them the errors in their thinking, but it does not. What part of common sense is giving them trouble? Our founding fathers were no fools. "Shall not be infringed" was stated so strongly for a reason.
If you choose not to defend your life with force, you have that absolute right, and the rest of us will attend your funeral. Whether you reap an eternal reward for your non-violent choice is entirely between you and your God. You do not have the right to make the rest of the world pay for your choice.
America as a country needs to learn that the failure to legislate against something is not condoning it. We must recognize that some laws are unenforceable, and cease efforts to do so. Keeping guns out of criminals' hands is completely and utterly impossible, so why waste the time and money trying to enforce such nonsense? When drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and opium were legal, drug usage was very low in this country. We've had brutal drug laws now for more than a generation, and all we have to show for them is an astronomically higher rate of drug importation (much of it by the CIA), usage (particularly harder drugs), and the loss of our freedoms. Remember that the Drug War brought you the no-knock warrant that has provided many of J.J.'s Whack & Stack incidents for the Sierra Times. The War on Terror has brought you a debacle in Iraq that looks like an excellent candidate for our next Vietnam, along with the freedom-hostile Patriot Act and possible sequels -- yet the real perpetrator of the horror in New York in Washington, Osama bin Laden, is still walking around free.
Prohibition does not work. We should have learned that from the dismal failure of the "great experiment" of the 1920s, but legislators are only interested in votes. Being tough on crime, tough on drugs, tough on terror, and tough on guns make great campaign sound bytes. Maybe we should let our legislators know that we don't like the smell of what they have been spreading.
A felon who is still dangerous should not be freed. "Rehabilitated" felons should get all of their rights back when their debt is paid, including their gun rights and their right to privacy. Debt paid should mean exactly that. Let's give those who are genuinely trying a reasonable chance to go straight.