By Robert M. Hausman
National Gun Control Now a Lost Cause
“The history of gun control is a series of lost opportunities,” lamented Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, to the Legal Times, as the serial killer continued his reign of terror in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area last fall. “We’re in a very precarious situation. When something truly horrible like this happens and the gun control movement offers limited responses, it reinforces the idea that gun control can’t solve anything.”
To Sugarmann and the VPC (which does not want to be labeled as a pro-gun control group), the shootings should have sparked loud calls for a re-examination of the role of guns in American society. Instead, he watched chatter over the supposed need for a national database of ballistic information. He felt it was a manifestation of how the gun control movement has lost its footing.
The modern gun control movement began in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Following the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The 1970’s witnessed the formation of the National Council to Control Handguns (later Handgun Control Inc.) and the Coalition to Ban Handguns. While things looked promising for these groups and others like them, what they didn’t realize was that the gun control movement had already reached its peak.
It was in the year 1977 that the Institute for Legislative Action branch of the National Rifle Association was formed and Gun Owners of America was soon begun as well to counter the growth of the anti-gun movement.
In the 1980’s two events critically altered the gun debate. The first was the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. While it first seemed the shooting would work in favor of gun control, the opposite occurred as Reagan later diffused its impact by joking about it.
“That knocked the ground out from under us,” recalls Michael Beard, then executive director of what was called the Coalition to Ban Handguns. “After Reagan’s shooting, we realized we were pushing the wrong agenda. It was our lowest ebb. It became clear that going after a single instrument was not going to cut it.”
The second event was the 1982 state initiative in California to ban the sale of new handguns. It failed, making the gun control groups seem out of step. Beard’s organization changed its name to the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence. Last year, Handgun Control, Inc. followed suit, altering its name to the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
The 1980’s also saw the Second Amendment rights argument come to the forefront of both the political and academic spheres. Polls increasingly showed that Americans believed gun ownership was a constitutional right, paying off pro-gun groups’ efforts handily. “You just can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Beard admits. “People began to believe in the Second Amendment.”
With the rise of crack cocaine in major cities, the focus began to turn to the use of illegal guns by drug criminals. “It became a defensive battle,” Sugarmann reflects. “In the 1980’s the focus went from gun control to stopping gun violence.”
Gun Control = Political Cyanide
Today, talking about the need for more gun control by politicians is considered to be political cyanide. “The people who say ‘ban all guns’, just raise money for the NRA,” says Second Amendment attorney, Stephen Halbrook.
This was made clear in 1999 following the Columbine school shootings in Colorado. Despite an intense effort, no major gun legislation was passed, not even a proposed closing of the fictitious “gun show loophole.” After this, the gun control movement repackaged itself as a “gun safety” movement. An example is the newly formed Americans for Gun Safety, whose deputy communications director, Caleb Shreve, says they are not overtly out to ban guns. “The idea of eliminating guns is unrealistic,” Shreve says. “You’re not going to get rid of guns when half the households in America have one.”
The 2000 election of President George Bush and his choice of John Ashcroft as attorney general sealed the gun banners’ fate. Especially when Ashcroft’s Justice Dept. pronounced its belief that the Second Amendment applied to individuals, not just states’ National Guard units.
Gun control groups have shifted to state level efforts, particularly on filing tort litigation against the industry through municipal and individual plaintiffs. “There are things that litigation can accomplish that legislation can’t,” says Jonathan Lowy, a Brady Center attorney. “It’s the only way on a national level to put pressure on the industry to make its products safer.” But legislation in Congress to grant the industry relief from such suits stands a good chance of passage and President Bush is likely to sign the bill as he signed similar legislation while serving as governor of Texas.
The author publishes two of the small arms industry’s most widely read trade newsletters. The International Firearms Trade covers the world firearms scene, and The New Firearms Business covers the domestic market. Visit www.FirearmsGroup.com. He may be reached at: FirearmsB@aol.com.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N7 (April 2003)