Why Gun Owners Worry:

I've long been struck by attempts to paint gun rights activists as paranoid. "[N]o one is seriously proposing to ban or confiscate all guns. You hear that only from the gun lobby itself, which whistles up this bogeyman whenever some reasonable regulation is proposed." Just modest, reasonable regulations, folks, that's all that it's about; and you must be an extremist or irrational if you're worried about more.

In response, I put up a Web page documenting all the groups and commentators that have urged total or near-total handgun bans (and in some instances bans on all guns); and, of course, those jurisdictions that have in fact implemented such bans. It hardly seems paranoid to worry about proposals that have been made by Senators, Representatives, mayors, editorial boards of the L.A. Times and the Washington Post, leading opinion journalists, and leaders of prominent gun control groups — and that have been in fact enacted in some places (including our nation's capital).

Still, sometimes even I am surprised by the breadth of the proposals that I hear, and the attitude they bespeak towards guns and gun policy issues. Here's one from lawprof and legal blogger Kaimi Wenger, prompted by a recent workplace shooting:

Here's a question, perhaps a suggestion: Should companies, as a condition of employment, start requiring workers to sign an agreement of non-gun-ownership? This would require an employee to state that she does not own any guns, and that she will not purchase any guns during her employment. It seems that if an employer required an employee to agree to non-gun-ownership, the likelihood of a workplace killing by that employee would be lessened.

Such a change wouldn't altogther end workplace killings. There's the possibility that the employee would lie on her application, or would simply acquire a gun after being fired and use it to attack her workplace. On the other hand, it is all but certain that there is some population of unstable, disgruntled employees who own guns, and that for some of those employees, their easy access to currently-owned guns is an important enabling factor that facilitates a decision to transfer their anger into actual killing of their co-workers.

Would a requirement of non-gun-ownership be legal or enforceable? I'm not sure. (Do we have any employment law people here?) A while ago, Eugene Volokh blogged about a court upholding a ban on gun ownership by public housing residents — apparently that kind of restriction on gun ownership is allowed. On the other hand, there is (at least in one state) a self-defense exception to the at-will employment doctrine.

If this kind of provision is legal, then perhaps it is something employers (and their insurers) should start looking into. . . .

Now as it happens, I'm libertarian enough to think that such a proposal should be legal; a private employer should generally be free not to employ people whom it doesn't want to employ. Some laws restrict this in some measure, for instance as to race or sex discrimination, but I don't support expanding those laws. A few states already ban discrimination based on lawful off-the-job behavior, and gun ownership may be one such example, but I think that this should be left to the market and social norms, not to legal constraint.

Nonetheless, while this proposal isn't a government-imposed gun ban, it surely is a suggestion for social and business norms that would dramatically affect people's ability to have guns (whether handguns, rifles, or shotguns) for self-defense, including in their own homes. What's more, it seems to me evidence quite a remarkable attitude towards guns, and towards the cost-benefit calculations to be made when making gun policy.

After all, the proposal would at best prevent a tiny fraction of all workplace shootings: To be affected, the murderer would have to be someone who (1) is sufficiently rule-abiding that he complies with the employer policy, (2) is so staggeringly non-rule-abiding that he's willing to commit murder (lots of us get upset at people, but very few are actually willing to violate the moral and legal norms about murder), and (3) doesn't have the time or the opportunity to buy a gun, or get a gun from a friend or another source, between the time that he decides on murder and the time he commits murder. (Note that the killer in the case that seemingly triggered Prof. Wenger's post was apparently fired in 2004, following an arrest on child pornography charges, though the story is slightly ambiguous on that score.)

There are apparently about 550 workplace homicides per year in the U.S. (2004 data); of those, 7% were committed by coworkers or former coworkers (1993-1999 data). Even if every one of these was committed with a firearm, that would be roughly 40 homicides per year; and even if every employer in the country implemented this policy — a result that would in some ways be similar to, though not identical with, a total gun ban — and 10% of all potential murderers fit within categories 1, 2, and 3, we'd save . . . 4 deaths per year, for a rate of roughly one in 50 million workers. Even if the effectiveness rate were 50% rather than 10%, we'd still save one in 10 million workers. Or if you look at it on an enterprise basis, a company with 10,000 employees would like avoid, on average, one death in 5,000 years (assuming the 10% number).

What about the cost side of the ledger, which isn't even mentioned in the proposal? For starters, 35-50% of all U.S. households contain a gun. Presumably the policy would have to operate on a household basis, since an adult member of a household likely has access to the guns in his household. So to avoid one death in 5,000 years (or one in 1,000 years, if you use the in my view wildly optimistic 50% figure), the company would risk losing 35-50% of its potential workforce. Even if half the workforce cheerfully complies, then the company would still lose 17-25% of its potential workforce. (Of course, more likely the company will lose little of its potential workforce, since no-one would take the contract seriously, but then there'd be no upside to the contract, either.)

And of course if half the workforce does comply, that half of the workforce would be completely disabled from using guns for lawful self-defense, either in the home or in the street (in the majority of states in which any law-abiding adult is entitled to get a license to carry a concealed weapon). Yet the proposal doesn't even mention this loss of self-defense. Is it that the response to losing 20% of your potential employees should be "good riddance"? That loss of people's ability to defend themselves is irrelevant? That it's so obvious that gun ownership doesn't really promote the ability to defend yourself? That workplace shootings are so overcovered by the media, and law-abiding gun ownership is so undercovered, that the benefits of the proposal would loom far larger than reality, and the costs would seem far smaller than they are in reality?

I realize that this is just one proposal by one law professor. If that's the only call I heard for gun bans or something close to them, then indeed this would be nothing to worry about. But, as my calls-for-gun-bans Web page demonstrates, the proposal is just an unusual twist on a longstanding pattern. Given this longstanding pattern, is it any surprise that people who care deeply about self-defense rights worry about even modest proposals? Is it any surprise that they scoff at claims that of course the core of their self-defense rights is secure, and that no one is seriously proposing to ban their guns? Is it any surprise that inside many a gun controller there is a would-be gun banner, whether the ban operates through legal compulsion or through some proposed social norm that would strip those who want to own a gun for self-defense of their livelihoods?

UPDATE: By the way, just to make it clear, I realize that Prof. Wenger's post is phrased as only "perhaps a suggestion" and "perhaps it is something that employers (and their insurers) should start looking into." If this means that the professor is open to persuasion, I certainly hope to persuade him. Yet the other calls for gun bans that I point to are surely not merely "perhaps suggestions." The movement to ban guns is out there, and has some prominent adherents, who aren't just throwing around hypothetical suggestions (which I surely agree is a perfectly laudable use of blogging).