Gun Rights on a Roll

Thanks to conservative gains in the 2002 elections, and increasing Democratic reluctance to embrace gun control, gun rights have made significant advances on the state and federal levels over the last two months.

In addition to House passage last month of a bill immunizing gun manufacturers from lawsuits based on criminal misuse of their products (see HUMAN EVENTS rollcall, May 5), several states have passed similar bills or are working on them in their legislatures. Meanwhile, five states have passed laws this year making it easier to carry concealed weapons, and three others have taken legislative steps toward gun rights legislation (see map, page 8).

Of even more concern to gun owners, though — and perhaps more critical to the outcome of the 2004 election — is the looming fight over the federal ban on so-called “assault weapons.” Despite President Bush??¢â???¬â???¢s recent promise to sign an extension of the ban, 2nd Amendment activists are confident it will die in September 2004, when it automatically sunsets.

Cosmetic Gun Ban

The ban, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) in 1994, was given a ten-year expiration date as part of a compromise to secure the votes needed for passage. As a part of President Clinton??¢â???¬â???¢s signature “crime bill,” the law banned specific guns not because they were more dangerous than other guns, but because they had cosmetic features characteristic of military weapons.

For example, a bayonet mount and a protruding pistol grip are enough under the law to classify a rifle as an “assault weapon” if it accepts detachable magazines. The rules for classifying pistols as “assault weapons” are similarly cosmetic.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer confirmed for HUMAN EVENTS last Wednesday that Bush would sign a bill extending the gun ban. “That is the President??¢â???¬â???¢s position, and the stand that he took in the 2000 campaign,” said Fleischer.

But Chuck Cunningham, the National Rifle Association??¢â???¬â???¢s director of federal affairs, said that a bill renewing “the Clinton gun ban” will not get anywhere near Bush??¢â???¬â???¢s pen.

“The difference would be that there??¢â???¬â???¢s no Clinton, there??¢â???¬â???¢s a Republican President, and the Republicans control both houses of Congress,” said Cunningham. “That on its face should be proof of what an uphill battle the other side has.”

“I think we??¢â???¬â???¢ll have the votes to stop it from being re-enacted or expanded,” he said. He also pointed out that the fight on this issue, like federal legislation in 1999 to regulate gun shows out of business, will help strengthen the NRA at the grassroots “by providing a dragon to slay.”

NRA board member Grover Norquist agreed.

“The people who remember how people vote on gun control are the people who hate gun control,” said Norquist. “It will remind people that it matters who is in the House and Senate, and it will energize our base.”

Other activists and congressional sources agreed that a bill to renew the gun ban would be dead on arrival in the House, and maybe in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the both the federal and state level are going out of their way to distance themselves from the gun control lobby.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — an unabashed liberal on most issues — has made a point in his presidential campaign of his support for gun rights, citing this as evidence he is moderate enough to win a general election.

Rep. Harold Ford (D.-Tenn.), a rising Democratic star, was among 63 Democrats who voted for the NRA-backed bill immunizing gun manufacturers against lawsuits. “I??¢â???¬â???¢ve come around to the point that [I believe] you can??¢â???¬â???¢t go regulating a legal enterprise out of business,” Ford told HUMAN EVENTS. Ford did not forget to point out that he is an avid hunter.

In the Senate, the same bill is co-sponsored by Minority Whip Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), Blanche Lincoln (D.-Ark.) and Byron Dorgan (D.-N.D.), who all face re-election this cycle. Even more surprising is the list of Democrats who have not declared either way on the bill. It includes stalwart liberals such as Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.), Jim Jeffords (I.-Vt.) and even Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.).

Eric Howard, spokesman for the pro-gun-control Brady Campaign, would not comment on rumors that Daschle has warned his group not to expect his support when the bill comes up for a vote. Daschle will very probably face a competitive re-election battle next year against former Republican Rep. John Thune.

Political Momentum

Governors in Minnesota, Colorado and New Mexico have all signed laws this year requiring local authorities to issue concealed weapons permits to any sane, law-abiding citizen who applies (see chart). These laws bar local authorities from maintaining de facto gun bans by arbitrarily refusing to issue permits. Democratic Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia also signed a bill pre-empting all local gun control laws.

One or both houses of the state legislatures of Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio have already passed bills making it easier for more people to carry concealed weapons, and New Hampshire, Nevada and Wisconsin are expected to act soon on bills that will ban lawsuits against gun makers in state court.

On the other side of the issue, only one state — Illinois — is expected to pass major anti-gun legislation this term.

Howard tried to put a good face on the Democratic defections. “I don??¢â???¬â???¢t think it??¢â???¬â???¢s fair to say that everybody??¢â???¬â???¢s running from this issue,” he said.

Rep. Danny Davis (D.-Ill.), a liberal gun-control champion, was more blunt. “I think that Democrats — or if you want to say people who are thought of as more progressive — have allowed themselves to be out-worked, out-strategized,” he said.

Indeed, Republican congressional sources say conservatives can only benefit politically from more votes on gun issues this term.

“The 2nd Amendment is just such a powerful issue,” said one House aide. “It??¢â???¬â???¢s a great time for it.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), a leader on gun rights issues, outlined the dilemma of gun control advocates in keeping Democrats on the reservation. “In 2002, you had the Dingell race,” he said, referring to the primary between Democratic Michigan Representatives John Dingell, who supported gun rights, and Lynn Rivers, who did not. Dingell won by an 18-point margin.

“Dingell ran on it and did well, and in a Democratic primary,” said Flake. “There??¢â???¬â???¢s been a realization on the part of the Democrats that they??¢â???¬â???¢re not getting the traction here that they thought they did before, or that they perhaps did before.”