Gun laws and trusting the government

Gun laws and trusting the government
Gun rights rally in Albany (Tim Roske/AP)
Gun rights rally in Albany (Tim Roske/AP)

Reportedly, a pair of U.S. Senators – Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia – have put together a compromise on extending background checks, as a way of keeping some element of President Obama’s gun-restrictions proposal alive in Congress.

Toomey was reassuring about the concern that “universal background checks” would lead to a national gun registry:

Responding to claims by opponents, including the NRA, that more background checks would lead to a national gun registry, Toomey said, “It simply doesn’t happen.”

Not quite clear what that sentence means, but it is being interpreted as indicating that gun owners’ concerns are groundless.

Are they? A recent event in New York suggests we should be very careful what things we trust the government to do and not do. Two law-abiding citizens of Erie County have been sent mailings from the state police ordering them to surrender their guns and gun permits to local authorities. In both cases (the second case is alluded to, without further identifying details, by the lawyer interviewed on Tom Bauerle’s radio show), the pretext for the order from state police appears to be the kind of medication the citizens were on – or had taken in the past.

According to the citizen’s attorney, in the case we have more details about, his physician did not make any kind of report to law enforcement under New York’s “SAFE” Act, which requires a doctor to report it when he fears a patient will become a danger to himself or others.  The citizen’s drug prescription was not known to law enforcement because of a doctor’s report.  Indeed, the citizen had only taken the meds for a short period, at some time in the past, and is no longer on them.

What appears to be the case is that a database linking the individual with his prescription for an anti-anxiety medication was accessed by someone in the state police department, who then issued an order for the citizen to turn in his guns and his gun permit.

The man’s attorney couched the matter plainly in those terms. I doubt we are going to find out that he mischaracterized what happened. There’s a database in which one’s medical prescriptions are linked with one’s identifying information, and the New York State Police have access to it. Now someone in the agency has used this access to order citizens to surrender their guns.

We might justifiably assume that this situation will be rectified once the glare of the spotlight is uncomfortable enough for the New York state authorities. But the important point here, one you must never forget, is that this is what every government, everywhere, will always do if it can get its hands on your personal information and if you have given it the authority to deny you things.

One of the key points here is that we have no business maintaining databases in which state employees can look up what medications we have been prescribed. There is no valid public purpose for this. It doesn’t matter whose daily activities are made more convenient by the existence of such a database. There shouldn’t be one.

But we need look no further than the Veterans Administration to see what government functionaries will do with your information if there is a legitimate reason for them to have it. America’s veterans have a variety of ailments and other issues with which the VA is properly concerned, on the theory that we need to take care of our vets. The raft of personal information the VA has on vets turns out to be a problem, however, when it becomes suspiciously automatic for the VA to declare veterans incompetent to manage their affairs.

Tens of thousands of veterans have been declared incompetent for fiduciary purposes by the VA in the last few years, and have been sent letters from the VA informing them that they are now prohibited from owning firearms. (The second link below indicates that over 127,000 have received such letters.) But it’s not just the letters to vets: the VA notifies the National Instant Criminal Background Check System of each judgment of fiduciary incompetence.

The suggestion that so many vets have become incompetent in the last few years may or may not strain credulity, and we need not presume to know the details of each case. There is a more damning point here, which is that the Social Security Administration also deals in judgments of fiduciary incompetence – but it doesn’t forward the judgment to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or send letters to beneficiaries informing them that they are prohibited from owning firearms. It acts, in other words, within the proper bounds of a federal agency.

The big-flick point is this: a citizen who is not a veteran would be accorded his right to a hearing before a judge, with his own representation, if a state wanted to declare him unfit for gun ownership. Certainly, it falls within the purview of states to makes such declarations. But vets are being served with these notices by the VA, a federal agency, without a court hearing.

This post summarizes the experience of an increasing number of veterans (emphasis in original):

It has also become clear that there has been a rapid acceleration over the last few years in the efforts by the VA to declare veterans incompetent and deny them the right to possess firearms. Veterans who go to the VA for routine checkups or for treatment of physical illnesses are routinely asked if they own firearms. In fact, this i[s] apparently a required question that all VA employees must ask of all veterans.

Lawmakers in Congress have sought to plug the loophole through which the VA has been issuing its letters of prohibition without the veteran getting due process of law. Alongside other senators, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn fought to amend the 2013 Defense Authorization bill with language requiring that vets get a competency hearing before a judge:

A core group of lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has for several years wanted to prohibit the VA from submitting those names to the gun-check registry unless a judge or magistrate deems the veteran to be a danger. This year’s version of the bill has 21 co-sponsors. It passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee by voice vote, a tactic generally reserved for noncontroversial legislation. Coburn’s amendment to the defense bill contained comparable language.

“All I am saying is, let them at least have their day in court if you are going to take away a fundamental right given under the Constitution,” Coburn said in the Senate debate last Thursday night.

The push to amend this year’s defense bill failed, but Coburn promised to shepherd the language restraining the VA through with other bills.

The letter of what the libertarian-minded have been warning against has now been proven. If there is a database linking us to our medical prescriptions, the state police will use it against us. It doesn’t matter that the state legislature or governor may come in after the fact and say that that was terrible and no one will do it again. Something virtually identical will happen again. Governments cannot be trusted with too much information about us or power over us.

The VA’s use of incompetence judgments to prejudice veterans’ gun rights – rights that should only be taken away through a court hearing, with independent representation for the citizen – is proof of what any government agency will do, anywhere, to anyone, about anything. Veterans’ affairs get virtually no coverage from the media, after all, and little happens to federal agencies when their actions are shielded by the sitting president. Government agencies will do whatever they can get away with. It’s human nature. That’s why it’s always a bad idea to create more of them, and to allow their effective power over us to grow.

The only way to be safe from government is to keep it small and watch it like a hawk. We don’t have to wait for the future to find out what government agencies will do to us if we entrust them with extensive medical information about us and ask them to “keep us safe” from guns. We can already see it happening.


J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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