Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The NRA's Broad Conception of Liberty

Florida has passed a law overriding local gun ordinances. ("Good man! Nixon's pro-ordnance and anti-ordinance.") Just another reminder not to set foot in Florida under any circumstances.

Now, I don't know if, as the NY Times claims, it is legal to fire a gun up into the air in Florida (at least, the article claims that municipal governments can't ban that activity). I do know that it is a felony to do so in Arizona. The law was passed over the objection of the NRA after a 14-year-old girl named Shannon was hit in the head by a stray bullet, dying instantly.

So leave Florida aside for the moment. The idea that it should be legal to fire a gun indiscriminately into the air is an interesting test case for libertarianism. (Note that the status quo was that this was at most a misdemeanor, so maybe the NRA just didn't want people to face felony charges for the activity.) I can see a few possible avenues of thought.

1. The government has no business regulating when and where individuals fire their guns. The tort system is sufficient to ensure that the socially optimal number of 14-year-olds are gunned down each year. (That is, if the victim's estate can prove who fired the gun and that doing so was negligent, and can prove up the damages, then it can get a judgment against the killer. Assuming the tort system gets the level of damages right, the victim's family/estate will be indifferent between the life of the victim and $x, where x is the level of damages. Also, gun owners will have to balance the utility from firing their guns into the air against the possibility of tort liability, and some will be deterred.)

2. Even tort liability for indiscriminate gunfire is an illegitimate curb on liberty - it's government regulation via a different channel. Road to serfdom, who is John Galt, etc.

3. Libertarianism doesn't imply that there should be no restrictions on human behavior, and it is perfectly legitimate to restrict behavior when it imposes costs or risks on others.

So anyway, food for thought. Personally I find the first and second versions of libertarianism to be somewhat unappealing, and I suspect that the third version quickly devolves into standard mainstream public policy and bears little resemblance to "libertarianism" as the term is used today. But then, admittedly I would never want to fire a gun indiscriminately into the air in the first place, so it's a bit like asking a poor person whether capital gains taxes are an execrable infringement on liberty.

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