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Gunning for Hysteria

In the anti-gun lobby’s utopia, the world would be a scary place.

Mr. Kopel is the research director for the Independence Institute
February 23, 2001 9:20 a.m.

Mr. Kopel is the author of All the Way Down the Slippery Slope: Gun Prohibition in England and Some Lessons for Civil Liberties in America

here really are some anti-gun lobbyists (including Sarah Brady) who do not want to take away every single gun in the United States. In their utopia, they can accept people owning guns for sporting purposes. Does this mean that gun-rights groups should relax, and go along with the anti-gun lobbies' proposals for more "moderate" controls?

Not exactly. Because when you examine what even the moderates in the anti-gun movement want, their wish list of restrictions looks pretty extreme.

One of the longest-held objectives of the anti-gun lobby is a ban on so-called "Saturday Night Specials."

Exactly what these folks consider a "Saturday Night Special" is pretty elastic. During the 1970s, the anti-gun lobby backed congressional legislation that would have outlawed two-thirds of all handguns by calling them "Saturday Night Specials." In other words, most medium to small handguns would be banned.

Handgun Control, Inc.'s "Brady II" bill would ban as a "Saturday Night Special" any gun whose barrel and grip combined did not measure more than 10 inches.

At this point, the anti-gun lobbies diverge. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (formerly the National Coalition to Ban Handguns) would call for outlawing all other handguns, except for the police and military (since the government, unlike ordinary people, can be trusted with dangerous weapons).

Handgun Control, Inc., the larger and more powerful lobby, would not (under its present leadership by Sarah Brady) call for banning all of the large handguns that would still be available for sale.

Many large handguns would, however, face prohibition by being labeled "assault weapons." Based on congressional legislation that HCI has supported, an unelected federal bureaucrat would have the unilateral authority to outlaw any and every self-loading firearm including rifles, shotguns, and pistols. (The 1994 federal "assault weapon" ban does not go so far.)

At HCI's urging, New Jersey Governor James Florio successfully pushed for legislation that outlawed many .22 and CO2 pellet guns as "assault weapons." (The pellet gun ban was thrown out by a federal court, based on a federal law that forbids states and cities to outlaw air guns.)

Besides banning most medium to small handguns, and many

When you examine what even the moderates in the anti-gun movement want, their wish list of restrictions looks pretty extreme.
self-loading guns, the anti-gun lobbies have also tried to prohibit the Glock pistol, supposedly an "undetectable plastic gun." One lobby even called it a "Hijackers Special" that was "tailor-made for terrorism." The large numbers of police officers who carry the Glock would probably disagree.

Besides "bad" guns, ammunition for "bad" guns is also on the prohibition agenda. Former Senator Pat Moynihan (D-NY) got a great deal of support, in certain quarters, to get rid of all ammunition in .25, .32, and 9mm caliber models. Moynihan eventually offered a "compromise" of proposing an immense punitive tax on politically incorrect calibers of ammunition, rather than banning them entirely.

In lobbying for gun bans, the anti-gun lobbies have supported legislation such as New Jersey's and New York City's, which have no "grand fathering" to allow current owners of the newly illegal guns to continue to posses them. These laws require owners to turn their guns over to the government for no compensation; recalcitrant gun owners are subject to severe jail or prison sentences.

Once all anti-gun lobbies' current prohibition initiatives are exhausted, there would still be many guns theoretically available for possession. Large caliber, expensive revolvers (and perhaps a few semiautomatic pistols) would still be permitted (at least under the HCI scenario). So would most rifles and shotguns which required manual re-chambering.

At that point, some of the folks in charge of the present anti-gun lobbies would probably want to call it quits on gun banning.

The lobbies would, however, still favor further controls on all the remaining guns: All firearms would be registered. Issuance of a license to possess any type of gun would be within the broad discretion of local police administration. Possession of a gun would require a mandatory safety course, a waiting period, a background check for as long as it took for the police administration to satisfy itself about you, and, of course, a hefty fee paid by gun buyers to support all this bureaucracy. Private gun transfers would be illegal.

Under Mrs. Brady's "needs-based licensing," the police would give gun permits to people who wanted guns for "sporting" purposes, but not to people who wanted guns for protection. Possession of a gun in a home would be allowed only if the gun were so "securely" stored that it would be impossible to use in an emergency. When guns were accidentally misused, or stolen and used by criminals, the owner of the gun would be subject to lawsuits and to criminal penalties.

Carrying any kind of gun for defense would be illegal without a license; a license would be impossible for ordinary citizens to obtain; and persons who carried without a license would spend a mandatory year in prison.

The mandatory sentence against carrying without a license would be modeled on Massachusetts' Bartley-Fox law, which was the first of its kind in the nation. The first prosecution under Bartley-Fox was of an old woman who was passing out religious literature in a rough part of Boston.

Under such a law, it will still be possible to buy one or two guns over the course of one's life, and use them for sports. Persons willing to navigate through a bureaucratic maze could generally own guns that the anti-gun lobbyists consider "particularly suitable for sporting purposes."

The folks with the best chances of obtaining guns under the "reasonable" controls supported by the anti-gun lobbies would be wealthy, well-educated people, since they would have the resources to slog their way through all the paperwork, fees, and hassle.

A necessary consequence of anti-gun lobbies' success would be that the number of gun owners would drop dramatically. Currently, about one in two households possesses a gun. That number would be decimated, as gun ownership was restricted to highly motivated sportsmen willing to stumble their way through an administrative labyrinth.

With the above strict federal legislation as a baseline, states and cites would be free to add further restrictions. The preemption laws in most states which forbid cities and counties from enacting gun prohibitions would be repealed.

Cities would be free to enact laws like Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban. When the D.C. law is criticized for contributing to the high crime rate there, HCI defends the prohibition, and says that the problem is caused by other areas which have not enacted sufficiently severe laws.

Even if all the gun controls actually did work, and gun crime almost disappeared, the anti-gun lobbies would probably not abandon their campaigns. These campaigns have little do with actual use of guns in crime. After all, so-called "assault weapons" are used in about 1% of gun crimes, yet the lobbies run fraudulent public-relations campaigns asserting that "assault weapons" are the weapon of choice among criminals.

As long as any guns exist, there will be, at least occasionally, infamous crimes committed with guns. Accordingly, there will always be fertile fund-raising and media opportunities for anti-gun lobbyists specializing in the manufacture of hysteria.

While the current leadership of the anti-gun lobbies might not favor actually prohibiting and confiscating every single gun, their successors might feel differently. After all, when all the "moderate" controls are achieved, and they fail to reduce gun crime, the logic for total prohibition will seem inescapable.

In Britain, 80 years of severe gun controls have nearly obliterated the ranks of gun owners. Yet, while gun crime is relatively low in Britain (and was even lower before the gun controls were enacted), occasional gun crimes furnish a pretext for an outcry for the abolition of all guns. Britain began this century with widespread civilian gun ownership, no gun controls, and virtually no gun crime. Britain will have ended the century with the tiny ranks of gun owners just a step away from full prohibition.

The British gun owners got themselves in their predicament by accepting more and more "moderate" proposals for control. The sum of these "moderate" proposals made gun ownership difficult for most people, and has left the remaining gun owners with too small a mass to be a strong political force. Will American gun owners follow the same road to self-destruction in coming decades by accepting the "moderate" proposals of the anti-gun lobbies? 


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