The Bush administration recently surprised and angered many pro-gun conservatives by announcing its support for an assault weapons ban passed in 1994. The law contained a ten-year sunset provision, and is set to expire in 2004 unless reauthorized by Congress. A spokesman for the administration stated flatly that the President "supports the current law, and he supports reauthorization of the current law."
Perhaps this should have surprised no one. President Bush already stated his support for the ban during the 2000 campaign. The irony is that he did so even as the Democratic Party was abandoning gun control as a losing issue. In fact, many attribute Gore's loss to his lack of support among gun owners. The events of September 11th also dealt a serious blow to the gun control movement, as millions of Americans realized they could not rely on government to protect them against terrorism. Gun sales have predictably increased.
Given this trend in the American electorate away from support for gun control, the administration’s position may well cost votes in 2004. The mistaken political premise is that while Republicans generally support gun rights, so-called "assault weapons" are different and must be controlled. The administration clearly believes that moderate voters from both parties support the ban. "Who could possibly need such weapons?" is the standard question posed by gun control advocates.
Few people asking that question, however, know much about the banned weapons or the Second amendment itself. The law in question bans many very ordinary types of rifles and ammunition, while limiting magazine capacity for both rifles and pistols that are still legal. Many of the vilified "assault rifles" outlawed by the ban are in fact sporting rifles that are no longer available to hunters and outdoorsmen. Of course true military-style automatic rifles remain widely available to criminals on the black market. So practically speaking, the assault weapons ban does nothing to make us safer.
More importantly, however, the debate about certain types of weapons ignores the fundamental purpose of the Second amendment. The Second amendment is not about hunting deer or keeping a pistol in your nightstand. It is not about protecting oneself against common criminals. It is about preventing tyranny. The Founders knew that unarmed citizens would never be able to overthrow a tyrannical government as they did. They envisioned government as a servant, not a master, of the American people. The muskets they used against the British Army were the assault rifles of the time. It is practical, rather than alarmist, to understand that unarmed citizens cannot be secure in their freedoms. It's convenient for gun banners to dismiss this argument by saying "That could never happen here, this is America" -- but history shows that only vigilant people can keep government under control. By banning certain weapons today, we may plant the seeds for tyranny to flourish ten, thirty, or fifty years from now.
Tortured interpretations of the Second amendment cannot change the fact that both the letter of the amendment itself and the legislative history conclusively show that the Founders intended ordinary citizens to be armed. The notion that the Second amendment confers rights only upon organized state-run militias is preposterous; the amendment is meaningless unless it protects the gun rights of individuals. Georgetown University professor Robert Levy recently offered this simple explanation:
"Suppose the Second amendment said 'A well-educated electorate being necessary for self-governance in a free state, the right of the people to keep and read books shall not be infringed.' Is there anyone who would suggest that means only registered voters have a right to read?"