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Straight shooting

| Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My father, who recently celebrated his 97th birthday surrounded by a large and loving family, has had many wise words to pass along to his children over the years. One lesson he stressed was to write your name on prized possessions and keep a lock on items you didn’t want stolen. He said this type of precaution was to “keep honest people honest.” My dad cautioned that a thief will take what he or she wants whether you lock it up or not, but an otherwise honest person will see the lock and move on.

This lesson was reinforced years later when I worked as in-house counsel for a large national retailer. Our loss prevention experts showed me video of professional shoplifters and asked if I could tell when the person under scrutiny made the theft of items from the sales floor. As I studiously watched video of customers walking among racks of merchandise I did not see anything unusual, but once the suspect was apprehended, store security personnel would inevitably pull a number of concealed items from the suspect’s clothing, other stores’ shopping bags, or even children’s strollers. 

I readily admitted I could not tell when the shoplifting occurred, so I asked the loss prevention guys if they could spot the theft. They admitted that in most instances they couldn’t, and they mostly relied on noting what was missing from shelves or racks from one point in time to the next. “You can’t spot or stop a real pro,” they admitted, “you can only catch them after the fact.” Accordingly the surveillance warning signs in dressing rooms and the visible security tags on merchandise are mostly to keep the honest people honest.

Given the circumstances of extreme desperation, many otherwise law-abiding persons may succumb to the temptation of shoplifting or criminal white-collar equivalents, such as embezzlement. Add in mental illnesses such as kleptomania or sociopathic personality disorders, where the perpetrators may be drawn to criminal behavior, and the efforts to enforce anti-theft laws often may seem futile. Still, no one would argue the protection of commercial property is a laudable goal, and these laws remain as a deterrent to the outright looting of retail establishments.

A wretched and growing series of mass murders committed by armed gunmen (and they are typically male) brings the lessons of “keeping the honest people honest” to mind. I will not take time here for a full exegesis of the origin, context and meaning of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, specifically as it pertains to gun ownership. What I would like to focus on is one sound-bite argument proffered by the “gun rights” advocates, namely that criminals will always be able to get their hands on guns, even if those particular guns are illegal or heavily regulated. Typically, this is couched in terms such as “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns,” or some other bumper sticker–worthy motto.

If you follow the logic of this maxim further, it appears to be an argument for no laws of any kind, since criminals will always break the law and the law-abiding people will be at a disadvantage. Despite the Second Amendment’s guidance to provide for some “well regulated” approach to owning a gun, many gun rights supporters recoil at the thought of any regulations, such as registration, limitations on the types of guns that can be purchased, waiting periods or restrictions on equipment such as silencers. Apparently, the reasoning is that introducing any regulation is viewed as a step on the path to the government taking guns away from gun owners. 

Interestingly, detailed regulation of another instrumentality of death, the automobile, has not resulted in a government program to seize cars or trucks. Your vehicle is subject to inspections and regulations regarding road worthiness, emissions and annual registration, all to protect you and other drivers (who also must obtain valid driver’s licenses) from pollution or the hazard of defective cars. Are there still smoke-belching, unregistered cars on the road, driven by unlicensed persons? You bet, but those uncommon law-breakers are identified as scofflaws and can be dealt with on an individual basis.

If semi-automatic and automatic weapons are restricted, will criminals still obtain them? I can assure you they will, but restricted weapons will be scarcer and more expensive to obtain and maintain — even professional criminals have a cost-benefit aspect to their jobs — and criminals likely will move on to other, less costly endeavors. Unlike city ordinances regarding the size or location of waste receptacles, for example, regulation of potentially lethal devices such as guns (and automobiles) is not a trivial or arbitrary exercise, though opponents want to make it appear so.

It is sound policy in support of law enforcement, and individual health and safety, to regulate and limit ownership of firearms in general, and of weapons designed for maximum killing potential — such as automatic rifles — in particular, and most gun owners should welcome a reasoned approach to gun ownership. Keep the honest people honest, and use gun laws to isolate and identify any and all bad actors who would flaunt the law. As officer Tim McCarthy might say, “Remember, the most dangerous part of any gun is a loose nut on the trigger.”

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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