Should Prospective Immigrants Be Asked to Voluntarily Give Up Gun Rights?

If the recent past is prologue, in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, we are very likely to hear some people call for more federal gun control, and some people call for more unpleasantness towards Muslim-Americans.

If the recent past is prologue, calls for more federal gun control are likely to founder in Congress -- indeed, there is some evidence that calls for more federal gun control in the wake of mass shootings boost gun sales and gun industry profits -- and the calls for being more unpleasant to Muslim-Americans are likely to prosper, particularly if they are amplified by Republican presidential candidates.

Is there any way out of this quagmire? Let us consider a thought experiment.

Suppose we were to ask prospective immigrants to the United States to voluntarily give up their right to "keep and bear arms," or to accept additional restrictions on it. There could be a box on an application form: check here if you are willing to give up your right to purchase firearms in the United States, or check here if you are willing to be subject to greater scrutiny from the FBI before purchasing a firearm in the United States. In the latter case, instead of the rule being that you can purchase a firearm unless the FBI says no within a certain amount of time, the rule could be that you can't purchase a firearm until the FBI says yes.

Marking yes would not necessarily be a legal requirement for admission, so it would not necessarily require Congressional action. Putting a box on a form could be accomplished by executive order.

On the other hand, it would be a piece of data that the authorities could use in evaluating applications. I would imagine that someone eager to immigrate to the United States for blameless reasons might be willing to give up the right to purchase a firearm, or might be willing to be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny before purchasing a firearm. I've known a number of immigrants who became U.S. citizens who never expressed the slightest interest in purchasing a firearm. The FBI director has complained that the FBI doesn't have enough information about prospective immigrants coming from war zones. Well, here's some more information: no interest in ever purchasing a firearm. Wouldn't that be relevant?

One might ask: why focus on prospective immigrants, when such focus has been a dog whistle for xenophobia? My answer would be twofold: first, because the dog whistle issue is already on the table, the question is how to get the dog whistle issue off the table. Second, because I think a lot of native-born U.S. citizens would be happy to sign the same boxes that the prospective immigrants are being asked to sign in an act of solidarity. Starting with me.

I am 50 years old. I have never purchased a firearm. I have no plans to purchase a firearm. I foresee no future situation in which I would want to purchase a firearm. I would be happy to voluntarily forfeit my right to purchase a firearm if it might help America become less violent and less xenophobic. If I thought it might be politically useful, I would be happy to enter my name in a government database of Americans who have voluntarily forfeited their right to purchase a firearm. I would also be happy to enter my name in a government database of people who have volunteered to be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny from the FBI before being allowed to purchase a firearm. Forward-leaning states could help get the ball rolling. It could be a box I mark when renewing my driver's license, like becoming an organ donor. Maybe I could get a little congratulatory sticker, like when I vote or donate blood: "I voluntarily gave up my right to purchase a firearm." Or: "I voluntarily agreed to FBI approval before I purchase a firearm."

If such voluntary databases were established, they could have other uses, like in court proceedings. A judge is considering whether to send someone to jail, or give that person probation. Or a parole board is considering whether to grant parole. A lawyer says, "Your Honor, my client has agreed to give up his right to purchase a firearm." A judge could take this into account in weighing the danger to society of letting that person walk free, and thus the "do not buy firearms" registry could help serve as part of the menu of alternatives to incarceration.

Again, I submit that many U.S. citizens with no criminal record who have no plans to ever purchase a firearm would be willing to voluntarily join the list, thus reducing any stigma of joining the list. An official checking the list would have no way of knowing how someone got there, whether as a result of a court proceeding, an immigration document, or simply by their own volition.

Why not give it a try? The cost of trying is low, and likely alternatives are awful.