The trouble with guns and their regulation is that you want to preserve individual liberties, but sometimes people exercise their individual liberty to murder others. So what do you do?

Well, one move that has conservative support is the gun violence restraining order. Essentially, if a judge determines that an individual, based on their demonstrated actions, is a threat, a judge can order their guns and access to gun sales temporarily taken away. I learned about this reading the National Review, which ran an op-ed applauding the NRA for supporting this regulation.

Register that. David French, of National Review, lauding the NRA’s decision to support a gun regulation. How? Because it respects individual liberty. The lesson to learn is that you can get conservative support for gun regulation if it respects individual autonomy. So let’s use that individual autonomy. What we want is to incentivize gun sellers and gun owners to have preferences which match those of the public.

I propose that we make Walmart pay a “murder fee.” Keep a registry of guns, not by owner, but by seller. Every time a murder (or perhaps suicide or accidental death, depending on what incentives we want gun distributors to have) is found by police investigation to have been committed with a weapon bought at Distributor X, Distributor X is fined three million dollars, or four million dollars, or whatever we consider the appropriate number. Clearance rates for homicide are around 65 percent, and often the murder weapon is established while the perpetrator is not, so this type of fine should catch most homicides. This is a carbon tax, but the pollution is murder. The result is that the federal government doesn’t lay a finger on gun owners and stops murder at the same time. If the fee doesn’t stop enough murders, then we make the incentive stronger. At some price, the profitable option for Walmart is to enact the common-sense policy. You may object that this puts an arbitrary value on human life. But you’re dealing with Walmart and Dick’s, so the only toys you have to play with are arbitrary values.

“The large majority of gun owners aren’t going to do anything good or bad for public health with their guns this year,” said David Hemenway, a leading public health researcher on guns, to the Guardian this year.

What this means is that there’s wide room for sellers to screen buyers without drastically affecting most gun owners.

Handguns are the most likely weapons to be involved in murder. Shotguns and rifles are the least. A profit-maximizing Walmart will be more willing to sell shotguns and rifles than handguns, will price accordingly, and may refuse handguns to all but certain customers.

Concealed-carry permit holders have extremely low crime rates. In the pursuit of profit, Walmart should allow a much wider selection of guns to them. This may similarly apply to professors, kindergarten teachers, women, or other low-murder (and thus low risk of fine) cohorts.

Why pass a law requiring a criminal-history background check? We should make a registry available to sellers. If this prevents murders, Walmart will have that as company policy.

And if Walmart tries something, and it doesn’t prevent murder? Then Walmart will change policies. We don’t need to trust in Walmart’s Holy Goodness. If we tax Walmart for our pain, Walmart wants what we want. Anything Walmart does is necessarily common-sense regulation, because if it were arbitrary or useless (such as banning a certain shape of grip), Walmart wouldn’t do it.

On top of the practicality, this fits traditional conceptions of law. This is not regulation but justice: when a corporation causes death, it must pay.

Most importantly, people who are verifiably trustworthy with guns will not be deeply affected by this. This group of people makes up the core of the NRA and believes that they have earned the right to own guns through their good behavior. As a result, they don’t want to be legally punished for others’ bad behavior. Well, this law wouldn’t.

Granted, there are some thorns. Small-scale gun sellers would be harmed. They’re unlikely to be able to support the necessary infrastructure for buyer-by-buyer discrimination. Secondly, gun shows and other informal gun sales may have to end, as these cannot be tracked easily.

The price of guns would likely go up, particularly handguns. Risk can’t fall to zero, so Walmart’s costs will inevitably rise.

Walmart would certainly lobby against it, hard. In fact, there is currently a law on the books which explicitly makes illegal holding gun sellers accountable for negligence. You can guess who made sure that passed. But it was allowed to pass because fines for negligence never weighed heavily on public inflation. On big ticket issues, money has a surprisingly small political influence.

And so, like all other gun regulations, this would be difficult to pass. But you can sweeten it: remove all other gun regulations. End the three-day holding period on handguns. If it stops murder, Walmart will institute it on its own accord. End the ban on automatic weapons. Let private citizens drive working tanks. Allow open-carry everywhere. Anyone carrying is the kind of person who can be trusted to carry. Those likely responsible will see rapid-fire horizons of new liberties. And thousands of lives can be saved.

Tom Hanes is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at thanes@wesleyan.edu.

  • Jay

    While an interesting idea, how do you propose Walmart would “screen” (i.e. discriminate) against their buyers beyond a face to face interaction (assuming a background check as well)? As you point out citizens with concealed carry permits are less likely to be involved in gun homicides, so are only those who have the time and money to obtain these permits able to purchase a firearm? People also purchase firearms for a multitude of reasons; the person with a concealed carry permit is completely different than the hunter or the hobbyist. At what point would said gun seller no longer be responsible for the actions of the buyer, if for instance the firearm used in a homicide was stolen, or if the firearm was purchased 25+ years prior, as they were not selling to the same person or same state of mind of the person in question? Should car dealerships be fined in the same way if their customers cause car accidents?

    • Thomas

      No one has to figure out how Walmart will discriminate. Walmart simply will, in a largely-efficient manner. It must. Walmart should be able to figure out if a gun is likely to be stolen by a prospective murderer, so they should be held responsible for stolen guns. A statute of limitations of, say, 50 years may be reasonable.

  • Man with Axe

    I think that the same concept should be imposed on knives, vehicles, poisons, plastic bags, golf clubs, and hammers. In short, anything used to murder someone should create massive liability for the seller. In this way, these engines of death can be eliminated from our society.

    I’m trying to figure out what to do about strangulations but so far I’ve come up empty. Anyone have any ideas?

    Meanwhile, when all the guns disappear, the strong will have absolute control over the weak. Good luck, little lady, trying to defend yourself from that stalker or abusive ex.

Twitter