Gun control supporters have lately used the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s signing of the Brady Act into law as an excuse to repeat their demand for “universal” background checks. Even though most people who commit crimes with guns defeat the Brady Act by getting their guns by theft, on the black market, or from straw purchasers, anti-gunners have portrayed the law as having saved countless lives.
Nevertheless, the gun ban movement is altogether ignoring two other significant anniversaries associated with its efforts.
Last month marked the 40-year anniversary of the founding of the National Council to Control Handguns, which in its early days openly admitted that it supported banning the private possession of handguns. It has since been renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and while its handgun banning rhetoric is more muted, its goals are still to ban guns by any means necessary.
Since the group’s formation, Americans have bought over 60 million handguns, bringing the total to somewhere around 100 million; 32 more states have adopted Right–to-Carry laws, bringing the total to 42; and, contrary to the group’s predictions, the nation’s murder rate has decreased to a 49-year low. That’s not much for anti-gun rabble-rousers to celebrate.
The other anniversary relates to something with a more contemporary significance. On Saturday, it will have been 25 years since the late-Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) introduced the first federal legislation in anti-gunners’ war against the most universally useful firearms of all time: general-purpose semi-automatic rifles, such as the extraordinarily popular AR-15.
The bill was S. 386, the “Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989,” and it came as no surprise. The previous year, Josh Sugarmann had advised gun control supporters to start attacking the rifles to boost their efforts to ban handguns. Mr. Sugarmann is a former staffer with the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, as well as Amnesty International. At the time, he had formed his own little anti-handgun group called the New Right Watch, which he later renamed the Violence Policy Center.
As Sugarmann put it, “assault weapons [will] strengthen the handgun restriction lobby. . . . It will be a new topic in what has become to the press and public an ‘old’ debate. . . . Handgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. . . . Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.”
To the dismay of anti-handgun activists everywhere, Metzenbaum’s rifle-focused bill didn’t pass. President George H. W. Bush firmly opposed a ban on American-made rifles (although he later ordered that importation of over 40 models of foreign-made semi-automatic rifles be suspended, pending a new review of their eligibility for importation under the Gun Control Act’s “sporting purposes” test).
Metzenbaum’s bill would have banned the manufacture of the AR-15, various other firearms, and magazines holding more than 10 rounds, regardless of the firearm for which they were designed. Furthermore, S. 386 would have required owners of banned firearms to register those that they already had and allowed the Treasury Secretary and Attorney General to designate other detachable-magazine semi-automatic firearms as “assault weapons.” In these ways, the bill was even worse than legislation Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sponsored five years later, which ultimately became the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban of 1994.
Metzenbaum’s bill was extreme, to be sure, but he was typical of most radical gun control supporters; ignorant of basic facts about guns but still self-righteous and indignant about them. In November 1993, when “assault weapons” were being debated in the Senate, Metzenbaum said, “I don’t know much about the weapons” but “they look quite ominous. We have pictures of them.”
He wasn’t kidding about the “pictures.” In putting together his bill that year, Metzenbaum’s staffers had flipped through an issue of Gun Digest and written down whatever names they saw printed beside “ominous-looking” guns. Indeed, because the book had mislabeled one rifle, the bill even ended up proposing to ban a gun that didn’t exist. The media, who would have ridiculed any pro-Second Amendment senator for a comparable error, let Metzenbaum slide without comment.
Metzenbaum’s bills and a bill authored by then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) in 1989 were used as the starting point when Feinstein put together the language of her gun ban. Feinstein proved just as zealous and poorly informed as her fellow gun control supporters. A police officer from the Los Angeles Police Academy told NRA-ILA that Feinstein had visited the academy, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission. Nevertheless, she rejected information that officers at the academy gave her concerning the infrequent use of “assault weapons” in crime and the foolishness of categorizing rifles according to whether they have a flash suppressor, bayonet mount or other external attachment.
Proving the officers right and Feinstein wrong, at least 730,000 AR-15s (sans flash suppressors and bayonet mounts) were manufactured and bought during the 10 years that Feinstein’s “ban” was in effect. Meanwhile, the nation’s murder rate plummeted anyway. Later, an independent study for Congress determined that the supposedly-banned firearms had not been used in much crime in the first place. Thus, over Feinstein’s tiresome protestations, Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004.
Since Metzenbaum introduced S. 386, Americans have bought about four million additional AR-15s, raising the total to about five million, and an uncountable number of their components and accessories. Gun controllers have continued to insist that AR-15s and similar rifles are the “weapon of choice of drug dealers” and “not useful” for self-defense. Yet most AR-15s are carbines configured for defensive applications, while also useful for target practice and a variety of shooting sports, such as “3-Gun” and the NRA’s new National Defense Match. For some 20 years, longer-barreled AR-15 rifles have dominated NRA and Civilian Marksmanship Program service rifle competitions, including those held during the annual National Rifle Trophy Matches and National Rifle Championships. These days they are also used for hunting everything from deer to coyotes to prairie dogs.
Over the last 25 years, gun control supporters have told more lies and spread more misinformation and disinformation in the context of the “assault weapon” issue than perhaps on any other gun control issue of our time. But the American people aren’t stupid, and they aren’t buying it. Today, general-purpose semi-automatic rifles are going strong. In particular, the AR-15 has become the 21st century version of the 1898 Mauser–the platform upon which the most versatile defensive, hunting and target shooting rifles are built.
Nothing is set in stone, of course. If President Obama was able to replace even one of the five Supreme Court justices who sided with the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller, gains that took decades to achieve could evaporate almost overnight. The Court’s statement that the right to keep and bear arms applies to all defensive arms that are commonly used for lawful purposes could be swept aside, banning handguns might be constitutionally permissible, and the Second Amendment could be reinterpreted as something that protects nothing more than a “right” of National Guardsmen to be issued guns while on-duty.
On the other hand, if everyone who owns a gun the prohibitionists have proposed to ban over the last 40 years votes for pro-Second Amendment candidates this November and in 2016, we will continue to deny gun control supporters the celebrations which have thus far eluded them.