Published February 2003 in Hook & Bullet
With the serious budget problem facing state government, the General Assembly won’t have time this session to fool with gun laws, right?
Wrong, I’ll bet.
Our two-year terms mean that legislators are always running for office. That means they’re always looking for publicity. And the only way most gun laws are effective is in getting TV coverage for legislators.
I expect we’ll see a proposal for a "ballistic database" and/or more registration, based on the claim that the Washington, D.C., sniper case shows that these "improvements" are "needed." Those who make the proposal will neglect to mention that no form of registration would have helped catch the sniper.
Gun owners have known for a long time that gun registration has never been used to solve crimes. In fact, registration has only been used to confiscate guns. The proof is in the recent history of California, New York, New Jersey, England, and Australia - and in the history of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Today, however, there’s a new side to gun registration that all gun owners should know.
It’s especially relevant as the legislature debates how to deal with all the red ink in the state budget.
During the past few years, our neighbors in Canada have attempted to create a registry of all firearms owned by civilians. The process has dragged on past several missed deadlines; it’s been obvious that many gun owners were not complying with registration, so the bureaucrats extended the deadline again and again.
But in December 2002, a federal auditor confirmed the latest suspicion about the gun registry.
It’s a money pit.
Canada’s gun registry was originally estimated to cost $2 million (in Canadian funds - about $1.3 million U.S.). The auditor’s latest report says that by 2005, the gun registry will cost $1 billion (about $670 million U.S.).
But even at these shocking prices, they haven’t been able to get it right. In November 2002, a member of Parliament (Canada’s version of Congress) disclosed that more than 200,000 entries in the registry are duplicates. That is, there are more than 200,000 guns listed in the registry as having the same make, model, AND serial number as some other gun in the registry.
Because Americans own about 10 times as many firearms as Canadians, it’s plausible to estimate that a national database here would cost at least $6 billion in U.S. funds.
But it would still accomplish zero - other than getting headlines for politicians.
The "ballistic database" is even more plainly a waste of money, if that’s possible.
In 2001 in California, the idea was tested to see if it would really be possible to make a database of fired bullets that could be matched to specific firearms. The California study, conducted by the state’s own Department of Justice forensic laboratory, showed that a ballistic database probably would produce erroneous results about half the time.
According to the California report: "Automated computer matching systems do not produce conclusive results. Rather, a list of potential candidates are [sic] presented that must be manually reviewed. When applying this technology to the concept of mass sampling of manufactured firearms, a huge inventory of potential candidates will be generated for manual review. This study indicates that this number of candidate cases will be so large as to be impractical and will likely create logistic complications so great that they cannot be effectively addressed."
In other words, with a huge database - and there are 250 million firearms in private ownership in the United States - an attempt to match a spent bullet to a single firearm would come up with so many matching firearms as to be worthless.
All this overlooks another obvious fact, however. Because gun barrels do wear out, most modern firearms are built so that barrels can be replaced easily. I can change the barrel on my Glock in 20 seconds, without tools. Change the barrel, and you’ve changed any identifying marks that might be created on a bullet fired from one particular gun.
This means that a "ballistic database" would make just as much sense as a "tire track database." We could pass a law requiring that every new car be driven over a patch of wet concrete, which would be photographed, with the photograph being stored in a $6 billion computer database. This way, every time tire tracks are left at a crime scene, police could use the database to identify the car - right?
Copyright 2003 by Ralph D. Sherman
Published April 2002 in Hook & Bullet
How to store guns: What the law requires
"What’s the law about storage of firearms? Are the police going from house to house searching for guns that aren’t locked up?" —G.M.
Connecticut has three statutes about storage of firearms. Two statutes define crimes. The third creates civil (lawsuit) liability.
Section 29-37i defines a misdemeanor crime: "No person shall store or keep any loaded firearm on any premises under his control if he knows or reasonably should know that a minor is likely to gain access to the firearm without the permission of the parent or guardian of the minor unless such person (1) keeps the firearm in a securely locked box or other container or in a location which a reasonable person would believe to be secure or (2) carries the firearm on his person or within such close proximity thereto that he can readily retrieve and use it as if he carried it on his person. For the purposes of this section, "minor" means any person under the age of sixteen years."
This type of unlawful storage is considered a misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of $100 per firearm. A conviction could also cause the revocation of your pistol permit on the basis that you are not "a suitable person" to hold a pistol permit.
The statute does not mean that the police can simply show up at your door and demand to see how you store your firearms. If the police can show probable cause to believe that you are violating the statute, they could ask a judge to sign a search warrant, but that’s an unlikely scenario for this particular crime. Instead, every time I’ve had a client who was charged under this statute, the police were already in the house for some other reason. Usually a family member called the police because of violence, or a neighbor heard what sounded like fighting. While the police were inside, they observed a child and a loose firearm. So the owner was charged with unlawful storage under Section 29-37i.
If you have small children in your home, you shouldn’t have to be told to keep your guns locked up. This applies even more if the children aren’t your own. For example, I had a bachelor client who hired a woman to clean his apartment once a week. She usually brought her 4-year-old with her. Although the bachelor had no children residing with him, the visiting child gave plenty of reason to make sure guns were inaccessible.
But what if you have a child who is under the statute’s arbitrary age of 16 but whom you are sure is responsible and knowledgeable enough to have access to firearms? This is hardly an unusual situation. For example, children are eligible for junior hunting licenses at age 12. They have to take the hunter-safety course, which includes firearms safety. Obviously the parents of these junior hunters believe the children can handle guns safely.
In my own family, we have a home-defense plan in case someone breaks into our house at night. Although my wife and I are ready to handle such a situation alone or together, it would be advantageous to have more "good guys" on our team. I’m sure our children will be ready to help before they’re 16.
The best way to deal with the statute under these circumstances is to keep the firearms locked up but to give the trained, responsible child the knowledge needed for access. That means telling the child the combination to the safe or the location of a hidden key. If you’re worried that your child will boast about this knowledge to friends or play "show and tell," then your child isn’t ready. To stay out of trouble with the storage law, it will have to be a family secret that your child knows how to access the firearms.
The second statute on firearms storage is Section 53a-217a. It provides that a person is guilty of a Class D felony when he violates Section 29-37i (the misdemeanor statute) and a person under 16 obtains a firearm and causes the injury or death of himself or any other person. The felony statute does provide an exemption for any case in which the minor obtains the firearm as a result of an unlawful entry to any premises by any person. This means that if you leave a gun unsecured in your home or other premises, and a burglar (of any age) steals the gun, and a person under 16 obtains the gun and hurts someone with it, you cannot be prosecuted under the felony statute. But note the words "unlawful entry." If the gun was stolen by a lawful visitor—friend, relative, repairman, etc.—you may be on the hook.
The third statute on firearms storage is similar to the felony statute. Section 52-571g provides that if you violate the misdemeanor statute, and a person under 16 obtains the firearm and hurts someone with it, you can be held liable in civil court for the third party’s injury or death. This liability is based on your negligence (carelessness) as defined in the misdemeanor statute: failure to store the firearm in a way that "a reasonable person would believe to be secure."
"Safe storage" laws are like most other gun laws. They’re obeyed by persons who would do the right thing whether there were a law or not. Research on gun safety has shown that persons who have accidents with guns tend to be careless or reckless with other tools. They have no hesitation about having a few drinks and getting behind the steering wheel or starting up a chain saw. Safety warnings mean nothing to this type of person. Why would they react any differently to a law about firearms storage?
For now, however, the rest of us have to deal with it.
Copyright 2002 by Ralph D. Sherman