Firearms Discussion (Part I): “Getting Firearms ‘Off the Streets’”

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan rightly said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” He might just have rightly said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to be confusing.”

The discussion of any matter of public policy is not aided by using language in a confusing manner, and yet people rather routinely do this very thing. One of the most confusing statements one hears regarding firearms policy is this: “We need to get guns off the streets.” I have heard this statement many times for many years, and I still have absolutely no idea what that means. One might as well say, “We need to get purple zebras out of the trees.” There are (to my knowledge) no purple zebras, and there are no zebras of any color in the trees, so it simply would not make any sense to say, “We need to get purple zebras out of the trees.”

Now, I have been driving an automobile for about four decades, and I have seen many things in the streets: I have seen children’s toys left in the street. I have seen children themselves playing in the street. On windy days I have seen trash cans rolling around in the street. I have seen dogs, cats, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other animals in the streets. But I have not once seen a firearm in the street. Firearms are not in our streets, and so it simply does not make sense to say we need to get them “off” the streets, since they are not on them in the first place.

So, when people say that we need to get firearms “off the streets,” what do they really mean? Well, they could mean a number of things—some of which I would agree with, some of which I would disagree with, and some of which I would be willing to consider.

I would agree with the expression if it meant this: “We need to do what we reasonably and constitutionally can to restrict the possession of firearms by those who will employ them violently.” Yet, our current policies already address this; felons and those who have been adjudged mentally defective (and several other categories) are prohibited by law from possessing firearms, and I largely concur with such laws.

I would disagree with the expression if it meant: “We should prohibit absolutely all private ownership of firearms.” Unfortunately, this is, in fact, what some people do mean by the expression; they simply have not the honesty and/or intellectual clarity to say so. Any policy that prohibited the private ownership of weapons absolutely would be unconstitutional and unwise.

As a third possibility, the expression could mean: “I would like to see the number of privately owned firearms in the United States reduced from 300 million to 250 million.” I would be willing to consider such a statement; and if a convincing case were made for it, I would be willing to agree to the policy. But there can be little progress on the public-policy front if people insist on employing language that is non-sensical (language that simply does not make any sense if taken in a straightforward manner).

If people desire to eradicate entirely the right of citizens to own firearms, they should say so. If they wish (for whatever reasons) to reduce the total number of privately owned firearms, they should say so. And if they wish to try to prevent the private ownership of weapons by criminals or the mentally deranged, they should say that, too. All three make sense; all three are clear; and all three could be discussed intelligently. Let’s start with honest language and then have an honest debate.

Editor’s note: This is Part I in a five-part series on the topic of firearms. See Parts II, III, IV, and V here:

Firearms Discussion (Part II):
“Firearms Buy-back Proposal”

Firearms Discussion (Part III):
“We Will Preserve Your Second Amendment Right to Hunt?”

Firearms Discussion (Part IV):
“Reason or Emotion, Mr. President?”

Firearms Discussion (Part V):
“’Reasonable’ or ‘Sensible’ Firearms Policies?