The Secret History of the Second Amendment II.

In 1963 and 1965, Senator Tom Dodd of Connecticut introduced bills to regulate the inter-state commerce in guns. They went nowhere. Then, after the death of President John F. Kennedy, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were slain by assassins. In 1968, Congress passed two laws that extended gun regulation. One law raised the age of legal purchase of a gun to 21.[1] The other regulated inter-state commerce in guns, outlawing the mail order sale of guns, and the buying of guns by felons, drug users, and people who had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.[2] There matters rested for almost 20 years. They didn’t do a Hell of a lot of good: in 1981 a crazy person tried to kill President Ronald Reagan.

Between 1968 and 1986, some politically-active gun owners came to believe that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), which enforced federal gun-control laws, had often abused its authority. As a result, some of the restrictions of the 1968 Act were rolled-back by the Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986).[3] One provision of the act barred the federal government from running a registry of owners of non-NFA weapons (machine guns, sawn-off shotguns) sales. Another expanded and clarified the list of people who could not buy guns.

In 1990, Congress passed the Gun Free School Zone Act[4] which barred possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. In cities, schools are everywhere. The law meant to provide grounds for arrest for people in big cities, although—the bureaucratic mind at work—it has also been applied to hunters in New Hampshire. However, in 1995 the Supreme Court overturned this law as unconstitutional. The Clinton Administration then passed a revised Act.

In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill.[5] This law required a background check on gun-buyers and a five day waiting period until a computerized system became available.[6] That system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, came on-line in 1998. It applied to “long guns” as well as hand guns, even though long guns account for only a small fraction of homicides.[7]

In 1994, in reaction to several mass shootings, Congress passed a ten-year ban on the manufacture and sale of “assault weapons.”[8] The law helped to bog down the discussion of what constituted an “assault weapon” by focusing on trivia rather than the key issue of the receiver, which controlled the rate of fire. There matters rested for almost 15 years.

In 2008 and 2010, in two separate cases, the Supreme Court held that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right and that federal law trumps state law.[9] For the moment, at least, the quarrel between “individual right” and “collective right” advocates which opened in Kentucky 200 years before has been settled.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnibus_Crime_Control_and_Safe_Streets_Act_of_1968 So, my folks giving me a gun on my 12th birthday was not illegal. Also, it occurred in 1966, before the law went into effect.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_Control_Act_of_1968 See, also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5IWK9sRYTs

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firearm_Owners_Protection_Act

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun-Free_School_Zones_Act_of_1990

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_Handgun_Violence_Prevention_Act

[6] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haeYj82a9f4

[7] In all likelihood, this drove gun owners wild. It probably made non-gun-owning liberals all warm and gooey.

[8] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Assault_Weapons_Ban

[9] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_v._Heller; andhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald_v._City_of_Chicago. In the McDonald case, the city of Chicago had refused to issue hand-gun permits since 1982, effectively disarming law-abiding citizens, rather than criminals.

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Assault weapons.

In America, a lot of people own guns, but most people don’t own any guns.[1] Therefore, most people get confused by the terminology bandied about in public discourse. Government estimates are that Americans own 310 million guns: 196 million “long guns” (110 million rifles; 86 million shotguns), and 114 million hand guns (pistols). Perhaps 4 million of the “long guns’ are what might be called “assault weapons.”[2] A semi-automatic weapon fires one round each time the trigger is pulled. Semi-automatic weapons are fully legal, whether pistols, rifles, or shotguns. In contrast, an automatic weapon fires continuously as long as the trigger is depressed. So, an automatic weapon is a machine gun. These have been banned since 1934.

There is nothing like war to encourage innovation. One of the weapons that made the First World War so appalling was the machine gun—a heavy weapon served by the crew of three or four. Toward the end of the war, weapons-designers invented single-man-portable machine guns: the Thompson sub-machine gun and the Bergmann machine pistol. Other countries soon followed. Toward the end of the Second World War, the German weapon-designer Hugo Schmeisser (yes, that one) produced the “Sturmgewehr” (“storm rifle”). The Russkies soon adapted this into the AK-47.[3] The US countered with the M-16. Both weapons are “selective fire”: they can fire on either automatic or semi-automatic.

There is a semi-automatic version of the M-16 that is known under the generic label of the AR-15. The civilian version of these weapons still fire at a high rate (up to 50 rounds per minute) and they have little recoil. The latter facilitates a different kind of “gun control” than what liberals have in mind.

Sales of semi-automatic, civilian versions of “assault rifles” have been booming. One type rose from 4,600 sold in 2006 to 100,000 sold in 2010. Part of this reflects a deep distrust of the federal government.[4] “The weapons that would be most suited to overthrow a dictatorial federal government would, of course, be weapons of war, and not sports equipment.”[5]

Homicides rarely involve “assault weapons.” In 2011, there were 323 murders committed with any kind of rifle, but there were 6,220 committed with hand-guns. “Assault weapons” were used in less than half of the “mass shootings” in the last thirty years. On the other hand, some of the most eye-catching mass killings involved “assault weapons”: the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, and the Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, both used civilian versions of “assault weapons.” One estimate suggests that banning assault weapons[6] would reduce the death toll from shootings by as much as 100 victims per year. That isn’t much in comparison to the 11,000 gun homicides a year in the United States. Unless you’re one of the dead or the bereaved.

On one level, the question is how did James Holmes (Aurora, CO), or Adam Lanza (Newtown, CN), or Jared Loughner (Phoenix, AZ) get a gun in the first place? On another level, the question is why people are obsessed by 4 million weapons that caused 300-odd deaths?

The real issue is hand-guns. Who owns them? Why? Would regulation work?

[1] If you just “don’t like guns,” then my tedious explanation is not for you. I understand your emotions, but do not share them.

[2] “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

[3] See: “The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar.”

[4] Which criminalized Japanese ancestry in 1941.

[5] David Kopel, Cato Institute, quoted in “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

[6] As Australia did after one terrible massacre in 1996.