Handguns, the second amendment and the public safety

One young man with a suitcase, one with a hand...
Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Two sides of the gun control debate squared off in San Francisco this week, focus of a mini-battle over the fully loaded question: Does your right to walk around with a loaded gun in public override my right to feel safe when I don’t know if you might go off your rocker? This writer discovered, thanks to a show of hands at the Commonwealth Club sponsored panel, that I was the only unarmed person within a back-of-the-house three-row section. This revelation guarantees discomfort but keeps you alert.

California is among the majority of U.S. states which allow anyone to carry unloaded guns in plain sight, or licensed individuals to carry loaded guns concealed. Variations of gun laws — can you have a few in the car? how about in a restaurant? suppose your taste is for machine guns? — are complex and mind-boggling. Gun proponents fall back on the second amendment; gun-control advocates tend to cite public safety and privacy rights. Reasoned debate is pretty much out of the question.

The tempest in the California teapot arose over gun folks’ dislike of the “may issue” state business. California is a “may issue” state, meaning a permit may be issued to a law-abiding applicant; as opposed to a “shall issue” state, meaning you (law-abiding citizen) will darned well get that permit once you apply. In protest over the “may issue” situation, California gun buffs recently took to the streets — or to the local Starbucks, as the case happened — with prominently displayed weaponry. Some latte drinkers were not amused. Gun buffs were defiant. Starbucks reportedly wishes they had picked Peets. Meanwhile, CA Assemblymember Lori Saldana introduced a bill, AB 1934, to ban “Open Carry,” and the battle was joined.

At the recent panel, Emeryville CA Police Chief Ken James, University of CA Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring and Executive Director Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California restated most of the familiar arguments. Throughout, James was expressionless, Zimring frowned, and Paredes wore an expression that can generously be described as a not-too-friendly smile. There were assertions (thousands of lives are saved every year by people armed and defending themselves or their neighbors; police don’t need to be stopping people all over the place asking if that gun is loaded; police can’t do their crime-stoppers job without the help of law-abiding, armed citizens; it’s not easy to know when an armed citizen will misuse his arms…) that all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

Two details are worth noting, though. Zimring pointed out that in the 2007  Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, took things a little farther than they had been by specifically mentioning handguns, which had not been invented when the second amendment was written. It’s handguns in public places that tend to rile up both sides. Therefore the hoopla over open carry, Zimring said, is not where the discussion should be. Eventually, the right to bear handgun v right to public safety will need to be settled. In other words, when does your right to pack a gun interfere with my right not to be around you when you do?

At the end of the discussion, moderator John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked a question about whether panelists were packing heat during this event. Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems. Professor Zimring was not, because he said if he tried to hit a target everyone around would be in trouble. Citizen Paredes was. A concealed weapon, because you never know if another citizen might need you to leap into action. Was it loaded? Yes.

Somehow, this did not make me feel safer.