Sunday, July 11, 2010

Law-Abiding Citizen? Maybe Not.

The expression 'law-abiding' or 'law-abiding citizen' has been in common use since 1859, at the least. It's often used as shorthand for a productive, non-criminal, tax paying member of the public.

But being a 'law-abiding citizen' is harder than you think. Current laws, regulatory agency rules and other restrictions with the force of law upon a citizen are profoundly, almost overwhelmingly, lengthy and complex. Let's look at some examples:

The federal tax code, formally known as 'Title 26' of the United States Code, is actually a complex of law, regulatory interpretation and addendums, all of which makes the task of estimating the total size of the tax code in itself a difficult proposition. That's right, it's hard to even find out how big it is. One U.S. Representative is on record as stating, "
"The income tax code and its associated regulations contain almost 5.6 million words -- seven times as many words as the Bible. Taxpayers now spend about 5.4 billion hours a year trying to comply with 2,500 pages of tax laws...."
If correct, (and I haven't been able to find any refutations or challenges to that quote) this means that the average citizen is subject to about 2,500 pages of laws before we even move on from the tax code. And while much of that code is directed towards corporations and businesses, you have to know it to know that. And many of us, particularly the employed, will never be able to peruse such a document in our spare time.

While this might not seem particularly earth-shaking news, I'll point out one simple fact that may disturb the average 'law-abiding citizen'; you don't really have any idea if you're law-abiding or not. How can you, if you can't possibly know the law?

Another shining example of a law that can't really be understood by the average citizen is regulation 922(r) of the U.S. Code, which regulates the importation and ownership of certain types of firearms.

922(r), as we will refer to it, runs to just over 8,700 words, or about 15 pages in 12 point font. It defines, among other things, what firearms can and cannot be legally possessed, and violation of it is not a trivial matter; most sanctions contained within it are federal felonies, carrying prison terms of a year or more. It's not jaywalking, by any means.

So can we assume that this voluminous, very serious law about a serious subject is clear and forthright? No.

As an example, one provision makes it legal to own a gun which is completely identical to another, except for the country of origin of some of its small internal parts, parts which would only be visible when the weapon has been completely and thoroughly assembled far beyond what the average owner would ever attempt. Further, it does not require that you be the person who configured the gun that way; simply owning a gun with parts from the wrong country in it makes you a felon.

Now keep in mind, we're talking about identical guns here-identical down to the last pin. The only difference is where that part was made. Imagine it this way; you go to buy a reconditioned vacuum cleaner at a shop, or perhaps on Craigslist. You look it over, it works fine and the price is right, so you decide to buy it. When you do, the seller grabs you and arrests you; it turns out he was a federal agent trying to find someone looking to own an illegal vacuum.

At trial, the government presents a small internal part of the vacuum cleaner, and shows through some means that the part was made in England, not the U.S. And based on that, you're sentenced to several years in prison. As astonishingly bizarre as this sounds, it's absolutely the case with 922(r) and the guns it regulates. And yes, people are going to prison because one small part or other was made in the wrong country. And those who aren't going to prison are working very, very hard just to remain 'law-abiding citizens.'

Another law that makes criminals of thousands of people each day is Chicago's knife ordinance, which makes it illegal to carry a knife with a blade more than two inches in length anywhere in the city. That's right, something as innocuous as this in your pocket will make you a criminal in this city of two million. So are you still so sure that you're really a law-abiding citizen? And what does it mean to be 'law-abiding' when it's impossible for us to know even a fraction of the laws we're subject to?

America was founded on the premise that the people formed the government, that whole, "of the people, by the people, for the people" thing you may dimly recall. But the simple fact is that today, even a lawyer can't possibly know the laws thoroughly.

The larger question is this; do we really want a country with laws so voluminous, so complex, that we can't understand them? And are you willing to go to prison because of it? Because people are....

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