Guns, drugs & sit/lie laws: who's got the real rights?

Discussions stirred up by the comments in this space a few days ago (see below) concerning gun rights v public safety rights ranged from the specifically pro-gun and pro-open carry (“citizens use firearms for self-defense between 150,000 and 3,052,717 times a year. The lowest estimate comes to about 410 times a day, and the highest estimate is 8,363 times a day,” says willbill; “How many times has an open carry proponent shot someone? If you use statistics rather than “from the hip” anti gun rhetoric, you will find legal gun owners are not the problem. Illegal gun owners are the problem,” says airtechjr) to the pointedly anti-gun (“Besides looking really stupid, having a gun visible – even if unloaded – is scary! Do you know how fast you can jam a clip into a Glock Automatic? 3 seconds,” says Tom Medlicott.) Emeryville, CA Police Chief Ken James says it’s 1.3 seconds.

In the long run, though, the argument is not about gun rights v public safety rights, says carlfromchicago, because I have no constitutional right to feel safe in public. And this all started because I admittedly did not feel safe while attending a panel discussion on the proposed California Open Carry ban (AB #1934 now in the state legislature) and learning that I was the only unarmed citizen within three solid rows of citizens carrying (presumably legal) concealed weapons. According to Carl,

Whether people are comfortable around guns is a very interesting and relevant social discussion. But this is not a question of two rights pitted against one another. As much as we all want to feel safe, it’s simply a frame of mind. The right you have is to think what you wish, and feel what you wish … but that compels no one, or the government, to ensure what you think or what you wish becomes reality for everyone.

This brings us to San Francisco’s currently proposed sit/lie ordinance. It says (more or less) you may not sit or lie on the sidewalk. It means, please get the drug pushers and increasingly obnoxious defecators-on-front-steppers out of the ‘hood. It arose out of frustrations in San Francisco’s famously tolerant Haight Ashbury (remember the 60s?) neighborhood where things recently have gotten somewhat out of hand.

This space is a strong supporter of humane treatment and expanded rights for homeless. Countless local and national programs, some good, some better, are in place and worth everyone’s attention; I try to make regular, teeny contributions of time and resources. But should I have the right to walk along Haight Street in broad daylight without tripping on a soiled, zoned-out kid whose dog is only loosely tied next to him? That’s the question. And should we now have a law enabling law enforcement officials to wake him up (if possible), move him along or toss him in the paddy wagon to be deposited in a jail cell? That may not be the answer. Either way, it is generating great heat and not a lot of light in my beloved hometown.

San Francisco is not alone in this dilemma. City Watchdog blogger Melissa Griffin, on her Sweet Melissa blog, reports having dug up a report (“Big pdf here,” she warns) on “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.”

The report surveyed laws in 235 cities (including San Francisco) and made some interesting findings:

  • 30 percent prohibit sitting or lying in certain public places.
  • 47 percent prohibit loitering in certain public places and 19 percent prohibit it citywide.
  • 47 percent prohibit begging in certain public places; 49 percent prohibit aggressive panhandling; and 23 percent have citywide prohibitions on begging.

At almost 200 pages, the report provides an exhaustive discussion of the legal landscape in 90 cities. Some have definitely used creative methods:

  • In Billings, Mont., it’s illegal to “aggressively solicit” and/or lie about being “from out of town, a veteran, disabled or homeless” while asking for money.
  • In Boerne, Texas, all panhandlers have to buy a license to solicit (like other solicitors and vendors) at a cost of $115. Durham, N.C., charges $20 for a panhandling permit.
  • Las Vegas, briefly had a law that prohibited sleeping “within 500 feet of a deposit of urine or feces.”

I am getting right back on the fence. Public safety does seem to me both an appropriate issue for discussion and an individual right. How far it can be legislated (there are over 20,000 gun laws already on the books across the country, uncertain wrote in) is debatable. I still wish guns would just go away. I don’t know what to do about obnoxious sitters/liers upon the sidewalks. Both seem obstacles to the peaceful communities some of us have in our memories and all of us have in our imaginations.

10 responses

  1. Wow. I had never heard of panhandling permits. I am not sure that I really like the idea either. It seems like it probably doesn’t accomplish any specific objective other than allowing the government to tax charitable contributions.

    • Some days I think if we took all of the time, money and creativity that goes into stupid and unenforceable laws and invested it instead in creative solutions to the problems they address, we wouldn’t need the laws. As far as gun laws go, I still think we would do well to have just one, nationwide. Easy for me to say, since I’ve never had and never will have any kind of gun anywhere on my person or premises for any reason. So everybody else would start wanting exceptions and exclusions and additions and stipulations ad infinitum to my one law… and that’s how we got where we are.

  2. Interesting topics for discussion (gun laws and loitering laws) – but perhaps only loosely related, as regards public safety (or annoyance, as in the case of homeless or pan-handlers).

    I have a bit of a big heart for the homeless and the destitute. I am encouraged by private charities who work toward getting the homeless homes, getting the destitute hope, and getting the penniless jobs. In regards to public spaces … I have always found myself tolerant of those sleeping/lying on the sidewalk, or in parks, etc. But that is just one person’s tolerance, and we vary. To be frank, those folks really have no enforceable right to sleep in public places … in parks, on the bus, or on the sidewalks. To me, when we talk about rights, we are talking about negative rights … that is, rights that compel people or government to leave us alone or stay out of our business.

    Fran suggested that she believes public safety is an individual right. Again, I must disagree. It’s kind of like the right to feel safe … it does not exist. We must recognize the difference from general public safety (a collective service, perhaps) and an individual’s right to be protected. The former exists and is furthered by the police, by streetlights, by goodwill, and by people who just won’t tolerate dangerous individuals. The latter does not exist … when we talk about individual rights, we ultimately invoke the constitution and the courts. Time and time again, courts have ruled that individuals have no enforceable right to be protected (such as when police fail to protect individuals from harm). Public safety is not, and cannot, be an individual right. It’s just not workable.

    Back to the issue of firearms, Fran has offered a wish that I have heard by many. “I wish firearms would just go away.” Several years ago, I discussed this very thing with a university professor. We asked ourselves “would the world be a better place if all the firearms just went away?” I was thinking “yes, of course”, and that was back when I saw sensibility in firearms regulations.

    But then he told me some things that just really made me think. In a nutshell, he said we needed to wish firearms not just to go away, but uninvented. He said that humans, the tool-making mammal, would simply make more if they “went away.” But then he suggested that the real benefit of firearms is that they equalize force equations like few other weapons (that would exist if firearms went away, and before they were invented). Firearms enable old and physically weaker people to defend themselves from younger and stronger people.

    At any rate, I always get the feeling that the firearms and gun-control issues are a waste of time. That is because guns don’t cause problems … people do. It is my opinion that we’d do better promoting kindness and understanding, personal responsibility and accountability, and common, positive goals that can tie us together and make a better and more sustainable future.

  3. Amen to your last line, Carl: “We’d do better promoting kindness and understanding, personal responsibility and accountability, and common, positive goals that can tie us together and make a better and more sustainable future.” I guess we turn to the law because those qualities are lacking in some folks (and some governments.) It’s a case of making laws where necessary but working hard to make them unnecessary. If more of us did more of the latter we’d undoubtedly need less of the former. Thanks for those well-articulated thoughts.

  4. Poor Fran cant answer the questions and facts I have posted over the last week, did not insult you personally, use foul language, just presented government facts available to the general public so you deleted my blog entries.

    You censoring actions just prove my and many others perception that ethics in journalism is long extinct.

    • Jarhead, I can understand your frustration if your posts have been deleted. But at any rate, and while I degree that journalism has declined in favor of advocacy writing … I’d probably define these articles as “blogging” rather than “journalism.”

      • Shoot, I wanted to work that into a journalism degree, Carl. Journalism — at least as that term applies to hard news and investigative reporting — seems to be an emerging art and a moving target today. It is my hope and belief that well edited, fact-checked news writing, and enlightening and authentic feature writing will survive and prosper.

    • Sorry, jarhead, I’ve tried to post links to opencarry.org, pro-gun messages and a lot of sites advocating positions with which I disagree; a lot of disagreements have surely appeared over the past two entries. This space attempts to offer commentary & opinion (sometimes differing opinions), to engage, to promote thought, and occasionally to present insight, useful news or information. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

  5. Hi Fran,
    I’m sorry to contact you this way (and hope it works!) but I couldn’t find an email address. I just stumbled upon and read your coverage of homelessness and while I know it’s not your main focus, I’d wondering if you’d be interested in contributing to the End Homelessness blog (http://homelessness.change.org/) on Change.org. If it looks interesting, I’d love to give you more info. Thanks!
    josie [at] change.org

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