The Struggle for Sanity on Gun Control

It's a shame when a noble idea like the Second Amendment leads our country down the path to ruin.

In their great wisdom, the founders of this country took every precaution to ensure that their new government would never dare to overstep its bounds. The Anti-Federalists strongly opposed any kind of national authority. Even Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, who supported a Federal government, saw it as a kind of necessary evil. After unpleasant experiences with the British, Americans wanted to ensure that governing powers would never infringe on their personal liberties.

Senators like Ted Stevens of Alaska claim to follow in this tradition. "An armed citizenry," he recently said in The New York Times, "is not going to become an oppressed citizenry." The National Rifle Association constantly employs this rhetoric when it fights restrictions on access to weapons. Stevens' Patrick Henryesque oratory is appealing, but are government agents today so threatening that we need Uzis to fend them off?

Gun control opponents live in a strict constructionalist world that was made obsolete in the 19th century. They claim that according to the letter of the Constitution, the federal government has no right to regulate the sale of arms, except across state lines. Following this reactionary constitutional logic, the entire debate on waiting periods and access to handguns is moot.

But legal scholars no longer read the Constitution in this way. The Supreme Court has limited "rights" that are supposedly fundamental. Even freedom of speech is not absolute. The court has specifically prohibited "fighting words," the case of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater being the least controversial example. The Court has ruled that the public has certain interests which transcend the rights of the individual.

The legal argument regarding federal powers was resolved long ago. Programs like Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society are not explicitly permitted anywhere in the Constitution, but the broader goals of "promoting the general welfare" imply their right to exist. Organizations like the National Rifle Association are fighting on the side of a battle that was lost in antebellum America.

The United States Senate would have made our nation's founders turn in their graves this month. The Brady Bill, a modest gun control measure that mandates a five-day waiting period before any handgun purchase, was the topic of heated debate. After hours of Republican filibustering, it finally passed.

Why did it take so long? Whose interests are Republicans and renegade Democrats supporting when they oppose it? The answer seems clear: their own. If the NRA lined your pocket with much-needed campaign funds in a depressed economy before an election year, you too might echo John Breaux. Before it was clear that the filibuster would be broken, the senator from Louisiana said, "I'm going to do some polling back in Louisiana over the recess."

It's frightening just how great a stranglehold the NRA has had on our politicians. Congress is now considering the first-ever bill to prohibit the sale or transfer of guns to minors. The Senate version of the crime bill finally blocks the sale of Uzi and 18 other semiautomatic weapons capable of feeding 10 rounds of ammunition. But while it prohibits the further sale and manufacture of these 19 killers, the bill excludes 650 other types of hunting weapons from any type of regulation. And guns which have already been manufactured will remain on the shelves for sale. In addition to these loopholes, the crime bill is expected to be watered down even more when it goes into conference at the beginning of next term.

Anyone who needs 10 rounds of ammunition to shoot a deer should choose another form of recreation. The NRA's stubbornness on automatic weapons boggles the mind. Lobbyists trivialize the Second Amendment when they cite it as the basis for a hunter's right to possess deadly weapons. NRA members don't acknowledge that police forces across the country have championed gun control for years. Evidently the only right the NRA truly understands is the right to make a lot of money.

The international arms race has become an issue of the past. Unfortunately, a much greater threat now arises: the arms race within America's cities. Some fight gun control in the name of self-defense, claiming that handguns increase their security. The streets would be much safer if neighborhood gang leaders had to undergo background checks before they walked out with AK-47s.

The most striking feature of the Brady Bill debate has been the NRA's success in convincing us that the bill is a major victory for gun control proponents. By presenting the bill as the single greatest blow to American liberties since the Alien and Sedition Acts, the NRA makes it sound as if the bill's passage was a major advance for gun haters. On the contrary, the bill is only a modest step towards controlling weapon sales.

No private citizen should have access to semiautomatic weapons, whether the waiting period lasts five days or five years. Certain weapons simply have no place in the public domain. But wars must be fought one battle at a time, and the Brady Bill battle certainly can be considered a victory for the forces of sanity and civilization. The Senate should not be congratulated for doing what is right, but the recent progress is encouraging.

Only with an eye to future legislation, however, can Congress receive any credit for what it has done. American constitutional history sends us the clear message that the purpose of the law is more important than the meaning of the law. When the congressional reactionaries realize that fact, a country which once sought to protect its citizens from harm by allowing them to arm themselves will restrict that privilege to achieve the same end.