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A Libertarian Approach to Gun Control That Will Reduce Gun Deaths

Suicides account for the vast majority of gun deaths in the US. Donna's Law could make a difference without violating constitutional rights.

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

On the morning of June 26, 2018, Donna Nathan bought her first gun—a small .38 caliber pistol—and some bullets for $530.

After crafting a short note to her partner that read “I’m sorry I love you,” Nathan went to the Tree of Life in Audubon Park in New Orleans and took her own life.

Her purchase that day ended a decades-long battle with depression and bipolar disorder that had intensified in the final year of Nathan’s life. The Wall Street Journal reports she had voluntarily admitted herself for psychiatric treatment three times in the last six months of her life after experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“Each time, she willingly accepted the limitations on liberty that come with a psychiatric hospitalization in exchange for safety and the prospect of improvement,” Yale law professors Fredrick Vars and Ian Ayres write in the Journal. “What she could not limit, under Louisiana law, was her ability to quickly purchase a gun.”

Nathan was one of 48,344 Americans who died by suicide in 2018. About half of those deaths were from firearms, which are used in 23,000 suicides each year, on average.

It’s no secret that suicides account for the vast majority of gun deaths in the US. Though mass shootings receive the most attention, they account for less than one percent of gun deaths in America. Suicide by firearm, on the other hand, accounts for 60 percent of gun deaths in the US.

One person who nearly found himself in this demographic was Vars, the Yale professor who wrote about Nathan in the Journal.

“I’m bipolar and have been suicidal,” Vars told Newsweek. “I’ve gotten better.”

For this reason, Vars joined Ayres in advocating a unique gun control measure called “Donna’s Law”—named after Nathan. The legislation aims to reduce gun deaths by allowing people in distress to suspend their own constitutional right to purchase a firearm.

According to the Journal, Virginia and Washington have already adopted the law, while similar legislation has been introduced in nine other states.

A Better Way Than Force

Gun control is perhaps the most polarizing political topic in the country today. The issue is often framed as a binary choice: protect liberty or protect lives.

Donna’s Law shows this is a false choice. We can save lives and protect liberty.

By using two concepts libertarians and economists often preach—choice and voluntary action—states can help individuals suspend their own Second Amendment during periods of emotional distress and depression. By signing up for the law, the person’s name is added to the FBI’s background check system, preventing gun dealers from allowing them to purchase a firearm.

Donna’s Law involves no confiscation. It requires no law enforcement officials knocking on doors of private homes in early hours to seize property. It infringes no one’s constitutional rights.

It simply empowers individuals in need to get help and protection—from themselves.

Donna’s Law will not end firearms suicide, of course. Many people in distress will choose not to submit their names, even though they are kept confidential and can later be removed from the system. And even people who choose to use Donna’s Law may still fall victim to suicide. They could purchase a firearm illegally, steal one, or find an alternative method. (Few things in this world can prevent an individual from taking the ultimate step if she’s truly determined to do so.)

Nevertheless, Donna’s Law will save lives. Similar measures like waiting periods for gun purchases, which are far more invasive because they temporarily prevent mentally healthy people from possessing a firearm, have shown statistically significant reductions in suicide. One study found waiting periods reduced suicides by 11 percent.

That might not sound like a lot, but if that figure was applied to firearm suicides nationwide, we’re talking about 2,500 lives each year—more than two and half times the number of Americans who have died in mass shootings since 1982.

“Libertarian gun control is not an oxymoron,” Vars and Ayres declare, noting that Donna’s Law is politically disarming and was not opposed by the National Rifle Association after being introduced in Alabama.

I’d go further. Donna’s Law has the potential to be the most effective form of gun control— if one wishes to call it that—introduced in modern American history.

Potential Problems

To be sure, there are aspects of the law that are complicated, especially for libertarians.

The policy hinges on government depriving a citizen of a natural right through a third-party by utilizing a federal database. Mission creep and bureaucratic dysfunction pose potential threats. (How long before a citizen finds she can’t get her name off the background check system?)

Then there is the objection that second amendment rights are inalienable, which means, as Murray Rothbard explained, “they cannot be surrendered, even if the person wishes to do so.” The inalienability of rights is explicitly referenced in the Declaration of Independence and is an important part of the American tradition of liberty.

These are important questions to consider.

However, there are time-honored precedents in the Western legal tradition for Donna’s Law, which is similar to the familiar scenario of the deranged man who voluntarily submits himself to the sanitarium, temporarily relinquishing his liberty in the hope he will get well.

For me, two considerations are decisive. Donna’s Law has the potential to save thousands of lives and its success will stem directly from the fact that lawmakers embraced voluntary human action and individual choice, not force and coercion, to address the public health crisis of suicide.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Editor at Large of at the Foundation for Economic Education.