Last week Americans were shocked and saddened by another mass killing, this one near a college campus in California. We all feel deep sympathy for the families of the victims.
As usual, many people responded to this shooting by calling for new federal gun control laws, including the mental health screening of anyone attempting to purchase a firearm. There are a number of problems with this proposal. Federally-mandated mental health screenings would require storing mental health records in a government database. This obviously raises concerns about patient privacy and doctor-patient confidentiality, as well as the threat of identity theft. Anyone who doubts that these are legitimate concerns should consider the enormous privacy problems with the Obamacare website; some have even suggested that healthcare.gov be renamed indentifytheft.gov.
Giving government the power to bar some Americans from owning guns by labeling them as "mentally ill" could easily lead to serious abuses. Even authors of mental health manuals admit that mental health diagnoses are subjective and can be based on "social constructions." Thus, anyone whose behavior deviates from some "norm" could find himself deprived of his second amendment, and possibly other, rights.It is certain that giving increasing federal power to bar citizens from owning guns is not only a clear violation of the 2nd amendment, but also generally unwise policy and anti-freedom. On the other hand, the entire point of the federal system and its clear demarcation of powers and its delineation and enumeration of rights is to give the states and people the ability to experiment on how to balance the tradeoff between securities and freedoms. As such, it is entirely legitimate for state governments to limit the sale and usage of firearms, should they so choose. States can also choose to collect data and screen for the mentally unstable and bar them from gun ownership, if they so choose. If citizens of the states don't like the regulations and rules imposed by the states on gun ownership, they can move to a different state, or attempt to elect politicians who more accurately reflect their civic desires.
While the right of gun ownership is absolute, there is absolutely nothing that precludes anyone from voluntarily giving up their rights in exchange for belonging to an organized community. Indeed, the inability to properly understand and extend this concept is a blind spot of many libertarians. It is intellectually easy for libertarians to understand this general principle when it comes to, say, work contracts. If, for example, an employer mandates someone to adhere to a dress code as a condition of employment, virtually every libertarian would say that an employer is withing his rights to make this a condition of employment and that prospective employees would have to choose whether to give up their right to choose how to dress in exchange for the benefits of working for a particular employer. Alternatively, prospective employees could attempt to negotiate different terms of employment, which the employer could accept or reject.
In like manner, a collective entity like the state can decide, if it so chooses, to regulate the behaviors of its citizens. And, like the employees in the above example, citizens are free to move out of the boundaries of the state if they decide that they do not like the bargain the state is making with them. Alternatively, they could attempt to bargain with the state. As long as the state allows current citizens to leave or elsewise renounce their citizenship, the social contract is pretty much akin to a business contract, and in neither event would anyone's rights be denied. (As a caveat, a state that denies citizens the right to renounce their citizenship is certainly trampling on the rights of citizens, and the social contract is void. This is not currently the case with the United States, though.)
What seems to be misunderstood about the US constitution is that many believe it to be something other than a document that prescribes the limits of a specified form of governance. Basically, it puts limits on the social contract of the federal government. The federal government is simply an entity designed to provide some degree of governmental and social cohesion for a limited number of states. The limits of the federal government, as prescribed by the constitution, exist to delineate what is the realm of the feds and what is the realm of the states. The federal government has the authority to subjugate the states in a specified number of ways, and it is up to the states to accept or reject the terms the fed offers.
While libertarians often tend to have a decent understanding of contract theory in general, they seem increasingly ignorant of social contract theory. Liberty is fundamentally the right to do whatever you choose, insofar as you do not infringe upon the rights of others to do the same. This right to choose, however, can be voluntarily given up for any reason. Furthermore, liberty does render contracts null and void. If you agree to not own a weapon as a condition of employment, your rights are not trampled upon. If you agree to not own a weapon as a condition of belonging to a social club, your rights are not being trampled upon. If you agree to not own a weapon as condition of being a citizen of a state your rights are not being trampled upon.
The fundamental problem with the federal government trying to limit gun ownership is not necessarily that they are trying to have people not exercise a right; the problem is that the federal government is not keeping its contractual obligations. The federal government is contractually obligated to refrain in any way from infringing upon the people's rights to bear arms. State governments, in contrast, are not (though some states do constitutionally obligate themselves from infringing on this right).
The bigger problem with modern libertarian thought is that it is, for the most part, communistic and progressive, about which more anon. The basic mindset of modern libertarian thinkers appears to be that of a two-year-old brat, in that they want all the upside in life (security, money, etc.) without any of the downside (restrictions on behavior, etc.). This is wishful thinking at its finest, and is incredibly ignorant to boot.