Port: Fargo Democrat’s gun seizure bill smacks of pre-crime

Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. - In 1956 Philip K. Dick invented the term precrime. In his story "Minority Report," it is the name of a government agency which seeks to imprison people before they commit a crime.

Life imitates art.

The North Dakota Legislature is considering HB1537, introduced by Rep. Karla Rose Hanson (D-Fargo), which would establish a process through which law enforcement and/or friends and family can petition the courts to seize a person’s firearms.

This person would have to be adjudicated by the courts to be a danger to themselves or others.

The courts would be allowed to keep weapons away from this individual for up to a year, though they’re able to review the case and renew the prohibition.

The person losing their civil right to keep and bear arms does not actually have to break any laws for this to take place. Others need only say the person is dangerous, putting that person in the position of preserving their rights only by convincing a judge they are not dangerous.

Hanson has built a coalition of supporters around her legislation which includes some law enforcement officials, the teacher and public worker union, and even some Republican lawmakers. That coalition is touting itself as a sort of bipartisan consensus.

Yet when I asked her during a podcast interview this week whether she had reached out to any gun rights groups for their input she acknowledged that she hadn’t.

Hanson and her supporters say this legislation provides for an appropriate level of due process, which is important since the Fifth Amendment requires due process before we can be denied liberty or property, and this proposal would allow the courts to do both to gun owners.

When most of us think of due process it’s the courts adjudicating a given person’s guilt or innocence in the face of an accusation of law breaking. A guilty finding then justifies things like incarceration and the removal of other rights, including gun rights.

But in this instance Hanson’s coalition says due process is the courts deciding someone might commit a criminal act, and thus must be denied their rights.

Think of this in the context of another constitutional right.

In 1919 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Schenck vs. U.S., upheld criminal convictions of anti-war activists under the Espionage Act because their speech - handing out pamphlets to military-age men telling them to resist the draft - was supposedly a threat to the country.

Put another way, the courts denied them their rights not because they had committed what reasonable people would consider an actual crime but because the government deemed them too dangerous to exercise those rights.

Thankfully, the most odious aspects of the Schenck precedent have since been overturned.

I am sympathetic to what Rep. Hanson and her coalition is trying to do - I am as against suicide and school shootings as anyone else - but this legislation is far too cavalier in its treatment of our rights.

We should be held accountable for what we do. Not what we might do.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.