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A Standard for Regulating Private Property October 1, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Regulation, RKBA.

I actually found a reasonable person who is more libertarian than me. (I would almost call him an anarchist, but he chafes at that term, and he does reason from Natural Law, so I’ll say he’s libertarian.) While discussing the legitimacy of registering and licensing motor vehicles traveling on public roads, I found myself referring back to ideas I initially expounded on the subject of private weapon ownership.

I think I have a cleverly simple regime for regulating dangerous devices of every kind — so simple that it could satisfy both the most coddling regulator and (maybe even) the more die-hard libertarians.

The interesting thing about this subject is that the nature of the question has changed substantially over the last 200 years. When the great thinkers of the eighteenth century were addressing natural rights, an individual man could not himself wield much more power than could be exercised through a steel blade, flintlock firearm, horse, or barrel of black powder. An accident or aggression by an individual could only result in very limited damage to the lives and property of others. In contrast, modern motor vehicles and high explosives enable an individual to exercise destructive power far out of proportion to anything a man can naturally repay.* Hence the demands on government to restrict the rights of individuals to own dangerous and destructive property.

Our present government takes an ad hoc approach to this problem. Passenger cars are regulated in a rather costly and inefficient fashion. And still we find people on the road who probably should not be allowed to drive, or who don’t carry enough insurance to cover the damage they cause in accidents. Meanwhile less dangerous items, like switchblades and certain firearms, are absolutely prohibited from even the most competent private citizen.

From a government perspective it should not matter whether a destructive device is a vehicle or a weapon: The ultimate question is how much damage it could cause if accidentally or intentionally used against another person or his property. Science gives us a useful way of measuring destructive power, and my proposal would be to standardize registration and insurance requirements on this basis.

For example, a young child or certifiably insane person should not be allowed to own or operate any MegaWatt-class device. Any responsible person should be allowed to operate any destructive device so long as they post bond or insurance against its misuse (accidental or intentional). For example, a modern passenger car is roughly a 10MW device, and should require a $100k bond. I was surprised to discover that even many handguns are 10MW devices, but that’s the way the numbers go. Fortunately, we don’t need a separate regulatory regime for higher-grade devices. Commercial trucks and large-bore firearms could rate up to 100MW. Light jets are around 500MW. Grenades and pyrotechnics are up to 1 GigaWatt. Heavy jets are up to 50GW. Detonators might be effectively TeraWatt devices, since many common chemicals can be detonated in large quantities. I don’t particularly like the way these numbers pan out, since our present regulatory regime leaves plenty of loopholes. But at least this would offer a consistent and principled basis for regulation, instead of political caprice.

*I know I’m crossing thin ice here, since one of the classic objections to the Second Amendment is that the Founding Fathers didn’t contemplate modern weapons. Suffice it to say that this argument is meant to help libertarians accept a basis for government regulation, not to provide an argument for discriminatory regulation. If you don’t believe that human beings have a natural right to keep and bear arms for the individual defense of life and property, then I just hope you always end up on the short end of the Nanny State.


1. Mark Cancemi - October 5, 2007

I agree that we should have rights to bear arms, absolutley.

But the failure in your argument about buying a bond to inhibit aggressive use of cars, planes, tranes,… is that islamofascists are very well funded, and they don’t care if they die while killing you. Loss of their own property, money, and life is secondary to killing infidels and achieving martyrdom.

2. federalist - April 2, 2009

An Illinois politician actually proposed requiring firearms owners to carry a $1MM bond. Though the proposal was quickly abandoned, Glenn Beck and Stephen Halbrook criticized the idea — largely because self defense is a human right and it is no more reasonable to condition it on the ownership of insurance than it is to condition free speech on having insurance against defamation.

3. federalist - February 8, 2013

Mandatory liability insurance of guns is making a resurgence. James Taranto reviews current proposals and counterpoints.

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