Michael Bloomberg Sacrificed Civil Liberties on the Altar of Public Safety

Michael Bloomberg has been taking flak from progressives lately because of his longstanding, enthusiastic support for New York City’s “stop, question, and frisk” program, a position he renounced just a week before he officially entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The former mayor’s support for stricter gun control laws, by contrast, is not very controversial among Democratic voters, although it reflects the same troubling readiness to sacrifice civil liberties on the altar of public safety.

During Bloomberg’s administration, the annual number of SQF encounters septupled, from fewer than 100,000 in 2002 to more than 685,000 in 2011. Nearly nine times out of 10, the pedestrians stopped, questioned and frisked by police were black or Hispanic.

SQF’s racially disproportionate impact has always been one of the main objections to it.

Until recently, Bloomberg argued that the strategy’s purported effectiveness in reducing gun violence justified the burden it imposed on young black and Hispanic men.

Now Bloomberg says he was wrong to credit SQF with reducing New York’s homicide rate, which continued to fall as the number of stops plummeted after 2011. He also wants Democrats to believe he has finally taken to heart the complaints of innocent people hassled by police for no good reason — complaints that in 2013 led a federal judge to conclude that SQF violated both the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Bloomberg never offered a credible defense of SQF’s constitutionality. To the contrary, he implicitly admitted that New York police officers were routinely flouting the Fourth Amendment.

The point of stopping and searching pedestrians, Bloomberg said, was not seizing illegal guns (which police almost never found) but deterring young men from carrying them. According to the Supreme Court, that is not a constitutionally permissible aim, since police may detain someone only if they reasonably suspect he is engaged in criminal activity and pat him down only if they reasonably suspect he is armed.

Bloomberg overlooked such niceties, he says, because “I was totally focused on saving lives.” The same tunnel vision is apparent in his gun control platform.

Bloomberg wants the federal government and all 50 states to enact “red flag” laws that suspend people’s Second Amendment rights when they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Such laws raise many serious due process concerns, including vague standards, a lack of legal representation for respondents, and the automatic issuance of ex parte orders that deprive people of their constitutional rights without giving them a chance to rebut the allegations against them.

Bloomberg wants to ban so-called assault weapons, an arbitrarily defined category that includes some of the most popular rifles sold in the United States. Yet the Supreme Court has said the Second Amendment protects the right to own firearms “in common use” for “lawful purposes,” a description that clearly applies to the guns Bloomberg considers intolerable.

Bloomberg wants to require “background checks for all gun sales,” a policy aimed at enforcing legal restrictions on gun ownership that have little or nothing to do with public safety. If the system he favors works as intended, it will unjustly and irrationally stop millions of harmless people — including cannabis consumers and people who committed nonviolent drug felonies or underwent involuntary treatment for suicidal impulses decades ago — from exercising the constitutional right to armed self-defense.

Bloomberg wants to create a federal “permit” for gun purchases, which is constitutionally analogous to requiring that people get the government’s permission before they buy books, express their opinions online or start a prayer group. Such permits would be a vehicle for enforcing the current rules, the new ones Bloomberg favors, and whatever restrictions politicians dream up in the future.

As with SQF, Bloomberg simply assumes these policies will reduce gun violence, and he does not even consider whether they are constitutional. To him, that question is irrelevant when you are “totally focused on saving lives.”

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.