In the midterm elections, the Democratic Party gained control of New York’s state Senate from the Republicans, thus giving the Dems unified control of the governor’s mansion and state legislature.
It also gives extra energy to a gun-control bill introduced on November 30 by state Sen. Kevin Parker, who represents Brooklyn for the Democratic and Working Families Parties. It’s not quite as bad as a Black Mirror episode or reports out of China about using social media as a means of social control, but it’s inching in that direction. (Side question: How did someone not start a social media platform called Panopticon?)
The bill would mandate that “prior to the delivery of any rifle or shotgun sold by a licensed dealer to any person, the purchaser shall consent to have his or her social media accounts and search history reviewed and investigated by the police authority of the locality where such sale is made.” The legislation says cops should check out three years of activity on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram and includes three years of searches on Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Parker introduced the legislation after the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pennsylvania on October 27. Although a number of accounts have said permit seekers would have to fork over their actual passwords to law enforcement, Parker says he is agnostic on that question.
Following the typical script of panic-driven legislating, Parker stresses the “newness” of social media:
“We’re in a new age with new technology, and we need new rules,” Parker said. “So we need to begin a conversation about the way that we monitor social media and use that in the context of giving out dangerous weapons that can in fact hurt or kill people.”
When asked whether his law threatened various constitutional limits on government power, he responded:
“Ask the families of the people who were murdered in Pittsburgh if they thought it would be too far to make sure that that murderer didn’t get his hands on a dangerous weapon.”
Of course, any such legislation will face any number of challenges on First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment grounds. There is also a nearly endless litany of common-sense complaints: Why is any of this necessary, especially to exercise a constitutional right? Why only Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram and three search engines (not to give him any ideas, but if I were Parker, I’d try figuring out how to corral DuckDuckGo, a search engine whose selling point is privacy, into the matter somehow). Does Parker understand that histories can be altered or deleted?
At the state level, New York already has very restrictive gun laws, with all counties and municipalities adding relatively tougher conditions to the owning and carrying of handguns. Throughout the state, handguns and carry permits are done on a “may issue” basis rather than the less-restrictive “shall issue” standard (basically, in “shall issue” jurisdictions, the default setting is that an individual has a right to own whatever he wants unless his record indicates a problem; “may issue” rules give greater discretion to law enforcement to deny permits). Given the relative lack of regulation on long guns in New York, Parker’s law might actually have a bigger effect on people buying rifles and shotguns than those seeking handguns.
The good news is that the bill doesn’t currently have a sponsor in the state assembly and thus has no chance of moving forward at the current moment. The bad news? It may well get a sponsor.
More importantly, it represents that direction in which the country seems to be headed: toward a “mother-may-I” world, in which some authority must always be consulted with before we are able to get on with our lives. After decades of filling up prisons and criminalizing more and more parts of everyday life, we seem to be correcting course by pushing for criminal justice reform, an end to the war on drugs (or at least on weed), and getting rid of mandatory sentencing run amok. But in other ways—and I think Parker’s proposed law speaks to this—some of us are trying mightily to control and regulate so many aspects of our lives, regardless of the efficacy of any particular restriction, or the violence it does to basic norms of individual freedom.