During President Clinton’s November 9, 1994, news conference, the White House press core dropped its usual pose of “objective, tough reporting” and adopted more of a “what’s next, boss?” bleat. Not surprisingly, some of the very first questions put to the leader of the new Irrelevant Party dealt with the future of gun control.
Was all the “progress” we were making on gun control going to grind to a halt, or did the Republican landslide spell the repeal of the Brady Bill? “Not to worry,” a concerned President Clinton assured them. After chewing his lower lip for a moment, he explained that one of his top aides took it upon himself to read the Constitution last night and therein found a clause about something called a “veto.” The old dogs explained the concept to the young pups, and the White House press core went back to doing what anv group of dogs docs best.
The most annoying aspects of the pre-’89 discussions of gun control were the disingenuous arguments made by both sides. The antigun lobby generally adopted a crime-control argument. They argued that law-abiding gunowners must accept some “reasonable” restrictions or inconveniences in order to prevent guns from “falling into the hands” of criminals, children, or the Christian right. The anti-gun control camp fell into the trap of allowing the other side to frame the debate. What resulted was an endless discussion about the predicted effects on crime of a given piece of proposed legislation. The anti-gun control side would always win the formal debate by pointing out the obvious—criminals, by definition, do not obey the law. They would then go on to compare Vermont, a state that enjoys no gun control laws and almost no crime with some hellhole like the proposed state of New Columbia, which, as currently constituted, has the most restrictive gun laws in the country and one of the highest rates of violent crime on earth.
Unfortunately, the antigun lobby did an excellent job of numbing the hearts and minds of the electorate. They would smile and say that even if a particular law does not solve “all the problems of guns in our society,” it is still a good thing if it saves “even one child’s life,” and—after all—”what harm could it do?” The obvious answer, that gun control erodes the power to resist domestic tyranny—as in the case of Nazi Germany—was rarely made because most “gunnies” were reluctant to oppose either the establishment or law enforcement. After all, the “gun lobby” was, and is, made up of tens of millions of Americans who considered themselves to be the Establishment. Profoundly patriotic, pro-military and pro-law enforcement, these good folks had a hard time even conceiving of an argument that postulated a scenario in which they were at such odds with their own government that they would need their Second Amendment freedom to resist domestic tyranny.
In the absence of any philosophical base, opposition to such “reasonable” gun control laws as national waiting periods and various back-door registration schemes made one seem “irresponsible,” “out of touch with the majority of gun owners,” and in need of neurosurgery to correct the disorder. The exchange went something like this: “Why does anyone need an assault weapon, why not just ban them?” “Because, Mr. Donaldson, since you can’t define an assault weapon, you might end up banning legitimate hunting guns.” “We don’t need to define them, Mr. Gun, we’ll make a list.”
Shortly after George Bush took office, the Stockton Schoolyard mass murder occurred. While this sort of horrible crime had happened before (and since), this particular incident occurred at a time when the California Attorney General was pushing for a state ban on “assault rifles.” The antigun types in the media wasted no time in making this a national issue, and President Bush wasted no time in showing the electorate what he was made of. Despite the fact that he sought and received both the support of gunowners and the endorsement of the NRA during the election—without which, I’m told by my Republican friends, he would have lost to Mr. Dukakis—he went back on his word and, at the suggestion of a “conservative” Beltway think tank, banned, by executive order, the importation of a list of foreign-made semiautomatic “assault” rifles. A power his office was granted by President Nixon’s 1968 Gun Control Act, which then-congressman Bush voted for.
In a direct sense, President Bush’s ban did not affect most gunowners. The guns in question were arcane semiautomatic versions of European battle rifles that had, up until the time of the ban, been gathering dust and losing value on distributors’ shelves, like Fabrique Nationale FAL’s, Heckler & Koch 91 ‘s, and Steyr AUG’s. Guns of this ilk, and their lower-cost domestic equivalents, had not sold well since the enthusiasm for the “survivalist” movement, spontaneously started during the Carter administration, fizzled out at the beginning of the Reagan presidency. Far from being criminals’ “gun of choice,” “assault” rifles did not even warrant mention in the FBI’s 1988 Uniform Crime Report. In fact, the report shows that in 1988, more people were punched to death than killed with rifles of any kind, let alone “assault” rifles.
While President Bush’s advisors may have correctly assessed that the number of guns directly affected by the import ban was minimal, this singularly stupid act of betrayal galvanized America’s gunowners. For the first time, gunowners were forced to consider the purpose and scope of the Second Amendment and the role of the free armed citizen—the “well regulated militia”—in maintaining a free society. Americans had always kept fighting guns. In fact, the federal government, through the office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship, was historically the largest supplier of fighting weapons and training to the citizenry. Several million semiautomatic rifles, carbines, and pistols were transferred from the military to the individual citizens who make up the militia through the DCM program. Yet now the American gunowner was being told by the leader of the very government he had always felt loyal to that ex post facto he was a potential threat to the security of his country. Terms of disarmament to be discussed.
Of course, not all the diverse factions that make up the “gun lobby” were instantly purified and united by President Bush’s little “Pearl Harbor” attack. For example, at the time, many skeet and trap shooters adopted a “go ahead and ban them” attitude toward the abolition of semiautomatic rifles. Hunters got snared in the “legitimate sporting purposes” trap, and no one seemed to want to defend those little bullet hoses known optimistically as “assault pistols.” The gun-grabbers wisely stayed well away from any mention of banning handguns, a failed concept that cost them mightily in the 70’s. Instead, in a stroke of true polemic brilliance, the gun-grabbers created a new category of hate gun, the assault weapon.
Like pornography, an assault weapon is both indefinable and awkward to defend. As a military or firearm “term of art,” there is no such category as “assault weapon.” Unlike an assault rifle (a rifle capable of fully automatic fire and chambered for a reduced power round), there is simply no such thing as an assault weapon, and that’s the beauty of the concept. No one would think he owns one, and the weak sisters in the gun lobby would be as reluctant to defend something branded an assault weapon as they were to block the ban on bogus “Cop Killer bullets.” Like the “Saturday Night Special” nonsense, a huge number of guns could be incorporated into the definition of an assault weapon. Better yet, the definition could be left open-ended; individual guns could be declared to have no legitimate sporting purpose by an impartial government agent like Janet Reno. Fortunately for the Republic, this strategy backfired as more and more gunowners realized that Howard Metzenbaum and company considered their grandfather’s Model 12 shotgun an assault weapon. Finally, gunowners began to unite, drawn together by the realization that the icon of the left, Mao Tsetung, was correct about at least one thing: all power does flow from the barrel of a gun. The leaders of the gun control movement had always known this, and like all tyrants, had nothing less than total disarmament in mind.
Behind the seemingly benign facade of crime control, the leaders of the antigun movement have always sought the eventual prohibition of the private ownership of firearms. Michael Beard, founder of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, has assured us that in his Brave New World, gun ownership will be permitted, at the local state-run shooting range. Nearly 20 years ago in the New Yorker, Handgun Control Incorporated founder Pete Shields was frank about the necessity for “incremental” steps to the ultimate goal of “total gun control.” At a party celebrating the passage of the Brady Bill, Sarah Brady was asked what she would do now that her work was done. Not to worry, she assured the questioner, “we have many other things to do.” And indeed, Brady II was wheeled out the next day. It included, among other things, a requirement that any gunowner who possessed more than 20 guns or 1,000 rounds of ammunition or primers, obtain an “arsenal license” from the BATP”. The license would allow this federal revenue collection bureau to “inspect” your home twice a year to insure compliance.
Successful domestic disarmament requires a carefully incremented approach. The steps should be designed to sell the concerned citizen on the benevolence of the program while capitalizing on the fact that most people are physical and moral cowards. He should feel good about voluntary compliance. “Giving up this little freedom is a small price we must pay for ‘security’ in the modern world.” The public will be taught that nothing really bad happens after compliance. As their fears are assuaged, they will become increasingly apathetic even in the face of ever more restrictive legislation. One should keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the legislative effort must be the compilation of a list or database linking gunowners with their guns. The creation of The List will help insure compliance with the final step, as the national police authorities will be able to encourage voluntary compliance by requiring individual citizens to produce specific weapons or face incarceration. This will also decrease the likelihood of a significant number of weapons remaining in the hands of citizens, where they might embolden their owners actually to resist future plans for their safety and welfare.
The BATF and the Carter White House attempted to create a National Gun Registration by issuing new regulations. However, since 1978, the Treasury appropriations bill has declared: “That no funds appropriated herein shall be available for . . . expenses in connection with consolidating or centralizing . . . the records or any portion thereof, of acquisition and disposition of firearms maintained by Federal firearms licensees.” These records are the “yellow forms” you filled out when you bought your family AR-15’s last year. Each year, the BATF has attempted, unsuccessfully, to strike this provision and get permission to computerize the sale records of dealers. In 1986, Sec. 926 of the 1968 Gun Control Act was amended to prohibit “records required to be maintained under this chapter or any portion of the contents of such records, [being] recorded at or transferred to a [federal or state] facility . . . nor that any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions be established.”
Unfortunately, the government is not obeying the law. In the spring of 1994, BATF Special Agent Pat Hynes gave ABC Day One host Forrest Sawyer a tour of their new West Virginia records center. “Right now, there’s 20 million [out of business gun dealer] records here,” he said. “We’ve already computerized 60 million.” When Representative Istook asked Treasury Undersecretary Ron Noble about it, he confirmed that the BATF was computerizing records “by the semi-truck load.” He assured Congress that this was perfectly legal because these were not dealer records but former dealer records. Keep in mind that the version of the Gun Ban recently passed by the Senate included mandatory registration.
While the American gunowner was coming to grips with the magnitude of the threat posed by pending legislation in Washington, two outrages, perpetrated by the federal government, turned out to provide the rallying cries of the populist revolution: Ruby Ridge and Waco. Both of these incidents began with the BATF. In the case of Randy Weaver, he was “created” by a BATF snitch and his Agent Handler. When he refused to work for the bureau as an informant, he was entrapped into shortening the barrel of a shotgun to a length that required payment of a federal tax. The revenue agents then went on to describe Weaver as a probable bank robber and contract killer who was planning to kidnap some children from a nearby boarding school. The bungled BATF raid on David Koresh and his followers was also based on a tax deficiency. In each case, innocent people lost their lives, and in each case, the elite paramilitary arm of the FBI was brought in to “resolve” the crises, as they did, right on national TV.
Rightly or wrongly, a large number of gunowners saw their future in the ashes of Waco. They saw a militarized national police force running amuck with no one in the mainstream media crying foul, no congressional oversight and no prosecution, either federal or local, of the parties involved. They believed Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks when, during the first House Waco hearings, he told the head of the BATF that he’d have killed the Branch Davidians sooner. They believed Diane Feinstein when she said on 60 Minutes that “If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate for an outright ban [on guns], picking up every one of them, Mr. and Mrs. America turn them all in, I would have done it.”
Gunowners finally figured it out and began to act. Following the passage in May 1994, by a one-vote margin, of the gun ban in the House, millions of Americans started stocking up on semiautomatic rifles, pistols, magazines, and ammunition. I got calls from several right-wing academics who had never owned a gun before, but were going to get one now and wanted some advice on what to buy. My advice was pretty straightforward: anything you can find and as much as you can afford. Good equipment was in short supply because the word was out—the British were coming, again.
The much-maligned militia movement, for the most part, did not exist prior to the passage of the federal gun ban. In the eyes of a majority of the American people, the federal government had broken the social contract and violated the Constitution. A significant percentage of these patriots apparently intended to exercise the Jeffersonian mandate to resist injustice and, if attacked, water a few trees. These same people forgave, for the moment, the Republican duplicity in the passage of the Crime Bill and voted solidly Republican last November.
Some conservatives disagree with Speaker Gingrich on any number of topics, but no one would deny his political shrewdness. Mr. Gingrich not only understands the political appeal of the gun issue, but he, unlike most Republicans, actually understands the significance of the Second Amendment:
The Second Amendment to the Constitution has nothing to do with deer or duck hunting. It has nothing to do with target practice or owning collector’s weapons. The Second Amendment is a political right written into our Constitution for the purpose of protecting individual citizens from their own government. The lesson of the English Civil War and the American Revolution was that political freedom is ultimately based on the courage and preparedness of those who would remain free. If the Lexington and Concord minutemen had not kept weapons, they could not have fired the shot heard ’round the world. If the American colonists had not been trained in how to shoot and fight, they could not have become American citizens. The history of the last quarter- century has been a brutal reminder of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Poland and Hungary were disarmed, and when their citizens tried to rebel, they had no weapons with which to defend their country or their freedom. Afghanistan was an intensely armed country, on the other hand, and the Soviets found it impossible to break their spirit of freedom. Those who believe in the right to bear arms felt more than vindicated by the remarkably different results in the struggle for freedom between armed and unarmed populations.
The political battle today is between the Tory Republicans and their new populist rivals. Clearly, the Tories control the money and the “conservative” print media. On the other hand, the populists have a lock on the grassroots side and control the swing vote that put the Republicans in power. If the Tories can keep from alienating the populists with schemes for National ID cards and by opposing serious hearings on Waco and Ruby Ridge, we might keep this powerful coalition together.