Cory Booker says the gun control ideas he unveiled on Monday are necessary "to make justice a reality for all." But the New Jersey senator's plan, which he touts as "the most sweeping gun violence prevention proposal ever advanced by a presidential candidate," would unjustly deprive peaceful Americans of the fundamental right to armed self-defense.
At the center of Booker's plan is a federal licensing system that would require would-be gun owners to "submit fingerprints, provide basic background information, and demonstrate completion of a certified gun safety course" before they could exercise their Second Amendment rights. The process also would include a "comprehensive background check" by the FBI to make sure the applicant is legally allowed to possess firearms.
Booker says "many states" license gun owners. But according to David Kopel, a gun policy expert at Denver's Independence Institute, only three states -- Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey -- impose that requirement for all types of firearms, as Booker wants to do at the federal level. Last year, a circuit judge in Illinois deemed that state's licensing system inconsistent with the Second Amendment in a case that is headed for the Illinois Supreme Court.
Booker likens the licensing of gun owners to the licensing of car drivers, which is not handled by the federal government, generally does not apply to the operation of vehicles on private property and does not involve a specifically enumerated constitutional right. In fact, states commonly refer to driving on public roads as a "privilege," which gives you a sense of how Booker views gun ownership.
Booker's plan says licensing gun owners, combined with "universal background checks" for gun sales, license renewal every five years and "regular, automatic checks to flag non-compliance with license terms," would "keep guns out of the wrong hands." But exactly which hands are "wrong" is a contentious issue.
Current federal law unfairly and unreasonably prohibits gun possession by broad classes of people who have shown no inclination to assault others, including cannabis consumers, people convicted of nonviolent felonies and anyone who has ever been involuntarily treated for suicidal impulses. To the extent that Booker's licensing system improves enforcement of those wrongheaded bans, it will magnify the injustice they inflict.
That's assuming the records on which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives relies to determine who is allowed to own guns are complete and accurate. "Booker's proposal presumes that the federal government is competent to operate a licensing system for gun owners," Kopel observes, "and to not prosecute lawful owners when the government loses the records of their licensing." He thinks that's highly unlikely, given "the fiasco of ATF recordkeeping" related to the national registry of machine guns and other products restricted by the National Firearms Act.
Booker's plan would not necessarily create a national gun registry, but it would by design create a federal database of gun owners. It is not difficult to imagine how that information might be abused by malign, incompetent or firearm-fearing officials.
Booker himself is hardly immune to the temptations of power. Like his Senate colleague Kamala Harris, another contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, he promises to accomplish by "executive action" what Congress declines to do through legislation.
That includes "closing dangerous loopholes in gun sales," such as the three-day limit on mandatory background checks, the private-sale exemption from the background check requirement and the definition of "domestic violence" misdemeanors that disqualify people from owning firearms. Whatever the merits of those rules, they are set forth in statutes that can be changed only by Congress.
In trying to impose new gun restrictions by presidential fiat, Booker would be imitating Donald Trump, who demanded an administrative ban on bump stocks that required twisting the statutory definition of machine guns beyond recognition. It is telling that Booker believes voters who are appalled by Trump's power grabs would welcome a Democratic president who thinks he can ignore the law as long as they like his policies.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum.