Newcomers to Arizona, among whom I count myself, are sometimes startled to discover just how liberal are the gun laws in one of the nation’s most conservative states. As long as it’s not concealed, carrying a gun is almost as acceptable to Arizonans as a saguaro cactus—although businesses may ask you to cheek your weapon at the door. Not that that many people actually do walk around carrying firearms in holsters, but you get the picture: little stands in the way of letting gun owners enjoy their constitutionally protected right to bear arms. Except parental permission to carry a firearm.

Anticipating a summer of drive-by shootings, not to mention the tragedies that invariably occur when loaded weapons are left around a house, the city of Phoenix decided last May that it was time—as government is wont to do—to do something. And this bit of governmental micromanagement, despite the hoots of gun enthusiasts, was catching. Once phoenix passed its ordinance requiring teenagers to have written permission from their parents to carry a firearm, a host of other cities in “the Valley,” meaning the Phoenix metropolitan area, also jumped in. So did Tucson, which almost never would do something as distasteful as follow Phoenix’s lead. Such a flurry of antigun activity sent Bob Corbin, formerly Arizona’s attorney general and now president of the National Rifle Association, straight up the wall and then into court, where he recently challenged the parental-permission ordinances as a violation of existing Arizona gun laws.

There the matter will linger for awhile. In the meantime, it’s questionable if the laws are any more than feelgood responses to a societal problem that is rapidly getting out of hand. Almost half of the police officers who patrol beats or work with juveniles in the state’s largest city told a pollster that the Phoenix ordinance was ineffective. One thing’s for certain: the killing goes on.

This morning, my copy of the Arizona Republic told the pathetic talc of a Tempe father who, in a bit of drunken horseplay with his 16-year-old son, shot the boy dead with a 9-mm pistol. The father, sitting in a police car, was quoted as mumbling, “Oh no, my baby, not my baby.” Such a tragedy might have made page one except for one thing: it is getting to be rather common. The really big accidental shooting stories are usually when a 5-year-old discharges a shotgun into a 3-year-old sister’s face.

The public, particularly that segment that writes letters to the editor and calls radio talk shows, is naturally outraged. So besides the parental-permission ordinances, a host of other well-meaning if not well-thought-out proposals have been floated to do something—most notably for gun-safety programs to be implemented in the public schools (a certain waste of already strained school resources and probably about as effective as condom distribution in stemming teenage pregnancies and the spread of AIDS).

Sad as the aforementioned incidents are, the outrage seems misdirected. And so does the response. Even defenders of the parental-permission ordinances admit that what they are really trying to do is halt violence among the proliferating number of gangs usually found in sociologically downscale ethnic neighborhoods. These “gang-bangers,” men-children who kill as part of a ritual of initiation or for whatever reason turns them on, can hardly differentiate a gun from a spray-paint can: both are used as weapons of destruction—push a spray-can nozzle and destroy a neighborhood with graffiti; pull a trigger and destroy a life.

Add these “kids” to the normal assortment of contract killers, drug-runners, outlaw bikers, and general scum who use guns for illegal means and one could naturally wonder what in the world is accomplished by asking some teenager on his way hunting or to target practice whether he has written permission from Mom and Dad to carry his weapon. I laving become a society that now accepts that criminals are coddled, even in some cases demands that they be more coddled, we look for relief by trying to change behavior—our own, that is.

Granted, it seems that a parent wouldn’t object to giving a child permission to carry that firearm out to the rifle range. Sensible? Yes. But without that slip, the kid and the parent both become lawbreakers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to write laws that send criminals who perpetrate firearm-related crimes to prison for a long time, maybe throw away the keys? If we really were so serious about punishing heinous criminals who torture and murder their victims, wouldn’t we quit debating (and endlessly appealing) death-penalty cases and begin the executions? But Americans, even Arizonans, have little taste or conditioning for such Draconian measures. So the gang-bangers, who wouldn’t ask their fathers for written permission to carry an Uzi even if they knew who their fathers were, will go on terrorizing their neighborhoods. And we will go on cowering from them.

I have never owned a gun and never plan to. I have never been hunting and, due to a rather big and easily spooked Labrador retriever with a loud bark and plenty of teeth, I feel safe in my home. Still, in a nation fascinated with the haute couture of designer laws rather than blanket justice, it seems that silly slogan—”when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns”—is on its way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.