The last time Congress enacted gun control legislation was in 1994. It was a Democratic Congress which passed the bill and a Democratic president who signed it. That fall, the Republicans gained 52 seats in the House, gaining control of that body for the first time since the 1950's. The GOP won control of the Senate, too, picking up nine seats. In 2000, while everybody focused on the Florida ballot fiasco as the reason for Al Gore's loss in the presidential race, Florida wouldn't have mattered if Gore had won his home state of Tennessee, and West Virginia, which had gone Democratic in every election since 1960 except for the Nixon and Reagan landslides in 1972 and 1984. Opposition to gun control was viewed as the major reason for Gore's loss in those states.
That, as they say, was that. Seung-Huyi Cho gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2006. Jarold Laughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson in 2011, killing six, including a Federal judge and a nine-year old, and wounding a U.S. congresswoman and a dozen others. Last year James Holmes walked into a theater in Aurora, Colorado, and sprayed the crowd with a rife holding a 100-round capacity drum, leaving a body count of an even dozen, and several score more wounded. On each occasion, there was some clucking of tongues that something needed to be done about this, but talk is all it turned out to be.
And then Adam Lanza walked into a Connecticut elementary school and slaughtered twenty children and six adults, and that was just enough to restart the conversation about gun control. But there are a number of events which have occurred since 1994 -- political, practical, and legal, -- that make passage of a major gun control bill problematic.
First there's the political. The National Rifle Association, the major lobbying group opposed to gun control, is the 800-pound gorilla in Washington. The gun rights supporter is the prototypical single issue voter, and the NRA's ability to knock off candidates who get low grades on its gun rights chart is legendary. Whether it is still deserved is another matter; this past election cycle it achieved one of the lowest success rates of any lobbying group, with less than 1% of the $11 million it spent on campaign contributions being "effective," i.e., resulting in victory for the candidate it supported or loss of the candidate it opposed. That's a little misleading; $9 million of that was spent in the presidential race, and while the NRA came a cropper on its expenditures in other major contests -- it didn't pick a single winner in six key Senate races -- its losses in those races can't be ascribed to a turnaround of opinion on gun control. The $349,332.61 it spent on Republican Richard Mourdock's race for the Senate seat in Indiana, for example, went down the toilet because of Mourdock's bizarre views about abortion (a rape resulting in pregnancy is "God's will") rather than his opinion on popular access to AK-47's. Nothing in the Democrats' current movement toward gun control legislation, which the latest hearings would indicate is halting at best, would lead one to believe that they've concluded the NRA is a paper tiger.
Then there's the practical problem. It would be nice if proponents of renewal of the assault weapon ban could show that homicides decreased after passage of the ban in 1994, then went on on the upswing again when the ban expired ten years after that. They can't; the fact is that so-called assault weapons play a small role in homicides in this country. Indeed, there's good cause to believe that gun control is to liberals what capital punishment is to conservatives: something which they fervently believe will have an effect on crime, a belief which is wholly unencumbered by any empirical data to support it. Twenty-five years ago, the vast majority of states banned carrying a concealed weapon. Now, only Illlinois has a flat prohibition, with 40 states allowing anyone who gets a permit to carry one. Despite the predictions of opponents of those laws, it hasn't resulted in Wild West shootouts; the homicide rate has continued to drop over that time, now approaching levels last seen during the Kennedy administration. Chicago and Washington, D.C., have some of the strictest gun control laws of any city in the country, yet also one of the highest homicide rates.
That's not to suggest that any measures are inevitably doomed to fail. A crackdown on firearms dealers in the 1990's, reducing their number by about 75%, eliminated many of the small neighborhood dealers, who did little more than make guns in the inner city more accessible to gangbangers, and substantially reduced the number of illegal guns on the street. Australia's experiment with gun control proved quite successful. After a shooting spree at a tourist spot in Port Arthur killed 35 people in 1996, the country passed sweeping legislation banning semi-automatic rifles, and buying back 650,000 which were already owned. Australia had experienced 11 mass killings in the decade before that; it hasn't had one since.
Whether that's even possible in this country is exceedingly doubtful. Keeping citizens from buying any gun they want is problem enough; getting (or forcing) them to surrender guns they already have is a complete nonstarter. That brings us to the constitutional problem. Australia doesn't have a Second Amendment. We do, and while that was, at least to liberals, the bastard stepchild of the Bill of Rights for a long while, it's not that way anymore. The Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, clearly spelled out that the Second guaranteed an individual right to bear arms. While those two decisions were limited to ownership and possession of guns in the home, the 7th Circuit last November, in a decision I discussed here, held that the right also extended to carrying a gun in public.
One might have thought that this would actually make it easier to come up with sensible firearm regulations. After all, the bugaboo of the gun rights crowd was confiscation: the idea that any firearm regulation inevitably led down the slippery slope to an outright ban on guns, leaving the government with the sole monopoly on force. Heller and McDonald, at least theoretically, removed that from the equation: there was no way a ban would be constitutional.
As one can surmise from reading political forums or blogs, or even news reports, it hasn't worked out that way. Gun and ammo sales have spiked to record levels since Sandy Hook, prompted by fears that Barack Obama, intent on seizing dictatorial powers, is going to take away everybody's guns.
Heller and McDonald were actually fairly limited, with Scalia's majority opinion in each indicating that regulations directed at who could carry weapons, and even what kind of weapons and where they could be carried, were permissible. From the looks of it, don't get your hopes up that Sandy Hook has reopened new opportunities for intelligent discussion as to exactly what kind of regulations those should be.