Friday, June 20, 2003
By John Lott, Jr.
Has the gun control issue really disappeared? Some think that Democrats, chastised by the loss of the presidency of 2000 and the loss of the Senate in 2002, have learned the risk of supporting gun control the hard way. Some even argue that there is a more fundamental change in Democratic beliefs on gun control.
Yet, as Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi recently said, Democrats will wait and revisit the guns “when the issue is ripe.”
New regulations are still being put forward, but legislation gets more attention, both from the press and other legislators, when there is a chance it will pass. There is surely no shortage of new gun control proposals at either the federal or state level.
-- Assault weapons ban. In Congress, House Democrats are pushing for a vastly expanded ban (including all semi-automatic shotguns that are widely used for hunting and skeet shooting) and, among other features, gives future U.S. Attorney Generals the ability to ban any semi-automatic rifle they classify as not for “sporting” uses. Senate Democrats propose slightly expanding the ban only because they acknowledge that their most desired legislation would never get passed.
-- Judicial appointments. Just last week Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Republican, nominated by President Bush for a judgeship on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, was criticized by Senate Democrats for supporting a court decision that requires judges to hold a hearing before they can order a person’s gun be taken away.
-- Filibuster. Senate Democrats threaten to filibuster legislation designed to rein in abusive litigation targeting the firearms gun makers. The suits threaten the very existence of gun makers; law suits have already forced several gun manufacturers into bankruptcy, some before they even had their day in court. While moderate Democrats support the bill, most Democratic Senators appear willing to fight against this to the very end.
-- New federal regulations. In June, Sen. Jon Corzine and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, both Democrats, put forward legislation giving the Department of Justice sweeping powers to regulate the design, manufacture and distribution of guns. Just at the end of May, Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed banning large caliber guns and other new rules that regulate who can buy guns at gun shows.
-- New state regulations. From gun storage laws in New York to taxing gun show transfers in Illinois to banning large caliber guns in California to fining parents whose children play with toy guns in Maryland, Democrat state officials across the country are pushing for more gun control laws.
Even Howard Dean the former Vermont governor and most pro-gun rights supporter among Democratic presidential candidates, wants to renew the so-called semi-automatic assault weapons ban as well as regulate gun shows.
Surprisingly, the Bush administration has basically left most Clinton gun control policies in place. True, Attorney General John Ashcroft decided not to keep long-term records of gun sales and President Bush supports important legislation to curb abusive lawsuits. But the Bush administration has taken few other actions. Clinton administration policies have simply been allowed to continue on everything from existing policies banning the importation of guns to no longer requiring that ROTC military training involve how to fire a gun.
Even when it comes to arming pilots the administration has twice thwarted congressional legislation. Now over 21 months after Sept. 11, the administration has dragged its feet so that only 44 pilots out of over 100,000 pilots are allowed to carry guns on planes and there are no additional approvals in sight.
In contrast, at the state level Republicans are slowly but steadily rolling back gun regulations. During the last couple of months, concealed handgun laws have been passed in Republican dominated legislatures in Alaska, Colorado, and Minnesota. In Missouri, final passage is uncertain and depends upon whether the Republican dominated legislature can override the Democratic governor’s expected veto. The only exception to this Democrat/Republican divide was in New Mexico, which also passed a concealed handgun law this year (albeit an extremely restrictive one), and where Democrats completely control the state legislature and governorship.
The lopsided coverage of the costs and benefits of guns in the media and the government ensures that the push for more regulations will not go away. In 2001, the three major networks -- ABC, NBC, and CBS -- devoted about 190,000 words’ worth of national television news stories on gun crimes but not one single story about someone using a gun to defend themselves or someone else. Even those who follow the news the closest are unlikely to know that when surveys of crimes committed with guns are compared with studies of defensive gun use, the best estimates indicate that people use guns defensively to stop crime 4.5 times more frequently than guns are used to commit crime. The only news network that carried any defensive gun stories that year was the Fox News Channel.
Over the last decade it is simply impossible to find one study by either the U.S. Justice Department) or the Treasury that measures the benefits from people owning guns. For example, every year the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms puts out a list of the top 10 guns used in crime, but why not one time put out a list of the top 10 guns used by people to stop crime?
For congressional Democrats, the decision not to push new gun control as a top agenda item is simply because Republicans control both houses of congress. Their strong anti-gun sentiment has not abated. Just two more Democratic senators and 13 more Democratic House members and gun control legislation would go from fond dreams to reality.