Not being a lawyer, this question will exist more as a philosophical one, much as we treated it on Saturday’s Northern Alliance broadcast. Mitch Berg and I debated the efficacy of gun-free zones in the wake of the Omaha mall shooting that left nine people dead, but before the two shootings at New Life church facilities that left eight dead. In at least the first shooting, the perpetrator conducted his murder spree in a commercial facility whose owners had marked it as a gun-free zone, a designation that keeps concealed-carry licensees from bringing their weapons into the building. We both wondered if that decision opened the owners to legal liability for forcing people to disarm themselves without having enough security to protect them.
D.J. Tice, one of the more thoughtful columnists at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, listened to our show and found the argument intriguing. He wondered, though, why we don’t believe in liability for not banning smoking, a rather strange argument:
Granting, for the sake of argument, the Lottian view that gun-free status makes a place of business more dangerous for its patrons, this lawsuit theory seems a surprising position for conservatives to take, since they presumably are defenders of private property rights.
Doesn’t a property owner have a right to ban guns from his property, even if it is unwise to do so? And aren’t those who believe such a ban puts them at risk free not to enter his property? Aren’t customers assuming any risk, and waiving any right to recompense, when they knowingly and voluntarily enter a gun-free zone?
The situation seems roughly comparable to the debate over bar and restaurant smoking bans. Conservatives as a rule argue that smoking bans are improper because a property owner should be able to decide whether to allow smoking or not. People who fear secondhand smoke need not work there or take their leisure there — or so the conservative line usually goes.
By and large conservatives can be expected to respond with disdain to the idea of lawsuits based on harm from voluntary exposure to secondhand smoke.
Tice misunderstands a couple of points. First, I’ve never said I oppose lawsuits over second-hand smoke; I oppose government mandates that ban smoking over the objections of private ownership. Second, as one of Tice’s commenters at the Strib notes, people have chosen not to shop in “gun-free zones”, including Mitch — which is why there are fewer of them in Minnesota now. I would heartily encourage people to make their choices for retail business contingent in part on whether the owner bans legal licensees from carrying their weapons inside the store while putting up signs that announce to people that everyone inside is disarmed.
Mostly, though, I wonder at Tice’s odd equation of second-hand smoke and gunshot wounds. I suppose a lawsuit over the former might make a lot of sense for someone who exposed themselves for thirty years to second-hand smoke through their job, but the first question I’d ask as a juror is why the plaintiff didn’t change jobs. One exposure to second-hand smoke doesn’t create health problems in any measure to anyone except asthmatics. One exposure to hot lead will kill a person, or at the least seriously wound them.
Private property owners should have the right to set the terms of entry to their property. Neither Mitch nor I demanded that Nebraska or Minnesota force property owners to allow guns on the premises when carried by license holders. Places like the Omaha Mall have the right to deny entry to people carrying weapons, even when completely legal and certified by the state. They should face the consequences of that decision, however.
For the record, I don’t have a concealed-carry license, nor do I own a pistol. Neither do I fear those who do. The “gun-free zone” signs only show the baseless fear and vapidity of the property owners, and do nothing to keep criminals from doing as they please. If anything, those signs alert those with malicious intent where they can find the least amount of effective resistance. I’d rather shop at places where the owners allow a little more ambiguity, even if I don’t carry a weapon myself.
One thought on “Do Gun Free Zones Create A Legal Liability?”
Every time there is a tragedy involving a gunman shooting innocent people, whether at a mall in Omaha or a Mega-church in Colorado, the ensuing commentary offers a rehashing of all the usual, tiresome debating points that we have all
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