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.