If legislators paid more attention to mail from their constituents, they might write better laws.
Lobbyists control money and votes, and sometimes they even have something to say that's worth listening to. Polls can also be useful guides to public opinion, albeit they never explain why people responded as they did. Letters are much more enlightening. Letters deal with nuances that lobbyist ignore and statistics can't describe.
A recent poll on handguns might serve as an example. It found that 70 percent of us think the only effective way to control handgun legislation is twice as likely to attract votes as lose them.
The survey showed that 70 percent of us favor a ban on small, cheap guns known as Saturday night specials. Even a complete prohibition against all handguns is favored by 32 percent.
The headlines on these stories usually say, "Majority Favors Gun Controls." The impression is created that most Americans support a ban on the private ownership of handguns. And perhaps they do. But my mail indicates otherwise.
Most of my correspondents do see a need for handgun controls, and they recognize the futility of trying to establish such controls through disparate state, county or municipal regulations. Inasmuch as we have no border guards checking for contraband at country or state lines, only federal legislation can offer any hope of being effective.
However, my readers are not of one mind about what kinds of controls are needed. There is general support for record-keeping requirements that make it easier for the police to trace the ownership of weapons. Some want rules that cover dealers and sales, some want all weapons registered, some would register only handguns.
Many readers think a prohibition against Saturday night specials would also be an effective control, possibly because they feel that such a law would keep guns out of "the wrong hands." Others say this is nonsense. A gun is a gun, regardless of price, caliber or point of origin. Inveighing against Saturday night specials is like inveighing against sin, and does about the same amount of good.
The Second Amendment says, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." However, this basic right to own guns has been subjected to many regulations and limitations that have been upheld by the courts. For example, one limitation on our right to "bear" arms is the requirement that the weapon must be visible - not concealed.
Our most vocal defender of well-regulated militias is the National Rifle Association, which opposes just about all gun laws except those that grant tax subsidies and other benefits to the NRA.
When it is proposed that guns should be registered, just as marriages, ham radios and automobiles are, NRA members warn that registration would lead to confiscation. "If a dictator took over this country, the first thing he would do is confiscate our guns - and the registration lists would tell him where to look for them." One is left to wonder about the millions of gun owners who are already identified in hunting license records.
The letters that reach me indicate most Americans want to make it as difficult as possible for criminals to obtain guns. Readers say they would be willing to give up their own handguns if they could be assured that criminals would also be disarmed. But no such assurance can be given them.
If the private ownership of handguns were banned, honest citizens would turn in their guns. Criminals would not. It would take the police decades to strip criminals of their guns. The majority of those who write to me are therefore unwilling to support a total ban on handguns.
Registration, yes. Regulations that dealers must obey, yes. Rules covering transportation, importation, sale and use, yes. Laws forbidding gun ownership to juveniles, convicted felons and those with a history of mental or emotional defects, yes. Confiscation of existing weapons, no. Prohibition against keeeping "defensive" weapons in homes and business establishments, no. After all, if only 32 percent favor a total ban on handiguns, 68 percent do not.
Polls are fine, as far as they go. But when "there ought to be a law" and the issue is how that law should be worded, nothing beats tuning in on what the voters are saying.