2021 Leg Session, Ari Armstrong, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Exclusives, Right To Arms

Armstrong: Gun storage bill misses its target

Safe storage of firearms—who could be against that? No one, obviously, when storage actually increases net safety. So why did Colorado House Republicans spend ten hours opposing the measure, House Bill 21-1106, before Democrats passed it? Mainly because it’s a bad bill.

Civil-libertarian Democrats should realize that a bill means more than its title, that the devil often hides in the details, that the enforcement even of well-intentioned laws can be punitive and discriminatory, that politicians often run unnecessary legislation to score political points, and that a softer legal touch often produces better outcomes. Let’s hope Democrats remember such points as they take up the measure in the Senate.

The measure requires licensed gun dealers to sell a “locking device” with each firearm, and it creates a misdemeanor offense for not securely storing a firearm such that an unauthorized juvenile or someone legally forbidden to possess a gun could access it. None of this sounds terribly unreasonable at first glance, so what’s the problem?

Let’s start with the obvious fact that such laws are practically custom-made to give police yet another pretext to screw with people who are poor and with minorities. As Colorado attorney and liberty activist D. K. Williams put the point, “Laws like this give law enforcement another tool to harass minorities and the downtrodden. Want to bet Cherry Hills PD never enforces this?” At least the law is far more likely to be enforced against the poor than against the wealthy. We all know which people are most likely to be hassled by the cops under this bill and subject to its $500 fines. But Democrats often have a criminal-justice blind spot when it comes to guns.

Regarding the requirement for providing locking devices with guns sold, federal law already requires such devices for handguns. The Colorado bill extends the requirement to (nearly) all firearms.

Democrats should oppose the sales requirement for a locking device for the same reason that they oppose onerous burdens on abortion, or would oppose burdens on buying “dangerous” books. Every time Republicans propose a measure that adds cost or hassle to getting an abortion, Democrats rightly complain that such burdens undermine people’s rights and burden especially the poor. Or imagine if legislators tried to require sellers of “dangerous” books to provide “safety” materials with each purchase. (Actually, please no one tell Kerry Donovan about that idea.)

As I noted in my piece on proposed gun waiting periods, the right to own a gun is enshrined both in the federal and in our state constitutions. Certainly civil-libertarian Democrats would not tolerate legislative burdens on the practice of any other Constitutional right.

Granted, the financial burden of a locking device is slight. I found a cable lock on Amazon for $6.99, and I found a used .380 handgun on Guns.com for $179.99. But we also have to consider that such cheap locks are practically worthless in most contexts, so effectively they are a sort of tax on a Constitutional right.

Many gun buyers either aren’t required by the bill to use a lock, because no children or felons are around, or they already have or plan to get superior gun storage.

For older children and adults, cheap locks are all but worthless. Deb Azrael of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center told one journalist, “They’re pretty flimsy and even I—and I’m not clever at these sorts of things—can use a screwdriver to open one up, or bang it with a hammer, or cut it with a good set of wire clippers. That cable lock is no more than a temporary impediment.”

A YouTuber called the “Lock Picking Lawyer” demonstrated that a cheap cable lock can be defeated in moments. He said, “As you saw, I was able to open this in a few moments with a relatively unskilled raking [picking] attack. As such, this is not something I would rely upon to stop a curious adolescent.” The same fellow found that, although the heftiest cable locks are pretty strong against cutting attacks, the flimsy locks, which are all the bill requires, can be quickly cut with widely available hand tools. Of course bolt cutters or a hack saw could defeat any such lock. He also found that standard padlocks can be defeated pretty easily with a hammer. Another fellow showed that even a hefty cable can be cut with “the simplest of cutting tools.” “The key is to just take little tiny bites” into the cable with a cutting tool, he said.

With this bill, then, Democrats ask state government not only to formally endorse ineffective gun locking mechanisms but to force people to buy them. In this way, the bill undermines serious gun safety.

Regarding the provision pertaining to juvenile access, obviously gun owners need to take reasonable precautions to keep their guns out of the hands of irresponsible minors (as well as adults). But Colorado’s child abuse statute, 18-6-401, already counts as abuse a person permitting “a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that poses a threat of injury to the child’s life or health.” We just don’t need legislation specific to gun storage to address this matter. Ah, but without the new legislation, Democrats wouldn’t be able to claim they’re getting “tough on guns.” This bill is about politics, not safety.

I’ll point out here that the bill also creates a “firearms safe storage education campaign.” Obviously the legislature could spend money to help educate people about the safe storage of firearms without creating a new category of criminal penalties.

What about people ineligible to possess a gun? Under existing statutes (18-12-108), “possession of a weapon by a previous offender” already is a felony offense. Does anyone seriously believe that requiring someone to put a flimsy cable lock on a gun is going to stop someone willing to commit a felony to get that gun? It would be pleasant if legislators would try, at least sometimes, to live in reality. I realize it’s hard for them, when they fantasize that they can make problems vanish by putting magic words to paper and holding a vote.

Every sensible person knows this bill will do exactly nothing to stop criminals from getting guns. What it probably will do, though, is give police yet another pretext to screw with people who innocently break the letter of the law. Consider this scenario. Sally (we’ll call her) meets an old friend from college, Tom, who needs a place to stay for a couple of weeks. Sally lets Tom rent a room at her place. Unknown to Sally, Tom has an old criminal conviction that makes him ineligible to possess a gun. Unknown to Tom, Sally keeps an unlocked gun in her dresser. Sally potentially is a criminal under this bill, even though Tom doesn’t know about the gun and makes no effort to possess it.

True, the bill applies only to a person who “knows or reasonably should know that . . . a resident of the premises is ineligible to possess a firearm.” Okay, but what does “reasonably should know” mean here, and who gets to decide? This is, again, the sort of ambiguity practically custom-made to entangle people with law enforcement.

Safe storage of firearms in relevant contexts is important, I agree. And I acknowledge that this year’s bill is relatively less-bad than the storage bills Democrats ran a couple decades ago. Still, this bill is a bad way to promote gun safety, and it pushes criminal justice reform in the wrong direction.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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