Kopel is the author of All
the Way Down the Slippery Slope: Gun Prohibition in England and
Some Lessons for Civil Liberties in America
here really are
some anti-gun lobbyists (including
Brady) who do not want to take away every single gun in the United
States. In their utopia, they can accept people owning guns for
sporting purposes. Does this mean that gun-rights groups should
relax, and go along with the anti-gun lobbies' proposals for more
Not exactly. Because when you examine what even the moderates in
the anti-gun movement want, their wish list of restrictions looks
One of the longest-held objectives of the anti-gun lobby is a ban
on so-called "Saturday Night Specials."
Exactly what these folks consider a "Saturday Night Special" is
pretty elastic. During the 1970s, the anti-gun lobby backed congressional
legislation that would have outlawed two-thirds of all handguns
by calling them "Saturday Night Specials." In other words, most
medium to small handguns would be banned.
Handgun Control, Inc.'s "Brady II" bill would ban as a "Saturday
Night Special" any gun whose barrel and grip combined did not measure
more than 10 inches.
At this point, the anti-gun lobbies diverge. The Coalition to Stop
Gun Violence (formerly the National Coalition to Ban Handguns) would
call for outlawing all other handguns, except for the police and
military (since the government, unlike ordinary people, can be trusted
with dangerous weapons).
Handgun Control, Inc., the larger and more powerful lobby, would
not (under its present leadership by Sarah Brady) call for banning
all of the large handguns that would still be available for sale.
Many large handguns would, however, face prohibition by being labeled
"assault weapons." Based on congressional legislation that HCI has
supported, an unelected federal bureaucrat would have the unilateral
authority to outlaw any and every self-loading firearm including
rifles, shotguns, and pistols. (The 1994 federal "assault weapon"
ban does not go so far.)
At HCI's urging, New Jersey Governor James Florio successfully pushed
for legislation that outlawed many .22 and CO2 pellet guns as "assault
weapons." (The pellet gun ban was thrown out by a federal court,
based on a federal law that forbids states and cities to outlaw
Besides banning most medium to small handguns, and many
self-loading guns, the anti-gun lobbies have also tried to prohibit
the Glock pistol, supposedly an "undetectable plastic gun." One
lobby even called it a "Hijackers Special" that was "tailor-made
for terrorism." The large numbers of police officers who carry the
Glock would probably disagree.
you examine what even the moderates in the anti-gun movement
want, their wish list of restrictions looks pretty extreme.
Besides "bad" guns, ammunition for "bad" guns is also on the prohibition
agenda. Former Senator Pat Moynihan (D-NY) got a great deal of support,
in certain quarters, to get rid of all ammunition in .25, .32, and
9mm caliber models. Moynihan eventually offered a "compromise" of
proposing an immense punitive tax on politically incorrect calibers
of ammunition, rather than banning them entirely.
In lobbying for gun bans, the anti-gun lobbies have supported legislation
such as New Jersey's and New York City's, which have no "grand fathering"
to allow current owners of the newly illegal guns to continue to
posses them. These laws require owners to turn their guns over to
the government for no compensation; recalcitrant gun owners are
subject to severe jail or prison sentences.
Once all anti-gun lobbies' current prohibition initiatives are exhausted,
there would still be many guns theoretically available for possession.
Large caliber, expensive revolvers (and perhaps a few semiautomatic
pistols) would still be permitted (at least under the HCI scenario).
So would most rifles and shotguns which required manual re-chambering.
At that point, some of the folks in charge of the present anti-gun
lobbies would probably want to call it quits on gun banning.
The lobbies would, however, still favor further controls on all
the remaining guns: All firearms would be registered. Issuance of
a license to possess any type of gun would be within the broad discretion
of local police administration. Possession of a gun would require
a mandatory safety course, a waiting period, a background check
for as long as it took for the police administration to satisfy
itself about you, and, of course, a hefty fee paid by gun buyers
to support all this bureaucracy. Private gun transfers would be
Under Mrs. Brady's "needs-based licensing," the police would give
gun permits to people who wanted guns for "sporting" purposes, but
not to people who wanted guns for protection. Possession of a gun
in a home would be allowed only if the gun were so "securely" stored
that it would be impossible to use in an emergency. When guns were
accidentally misused, or stolen and used by criminals, the owner
of the gun would be subject to lawsuits and to criminal penalties.
Carrying any kind of gun for defense would be illegal without a
license; a license would be impossible for ordinary citizens to
obtain; and persons who carried without a license would spend a
mandatory year in prison.
The mandatory sentence against carrying without a license would
be modeled on Massachusetts' Bartley-Fox law, which was the first
of its kind in the nation. The first prosecution under Bartley-Fox
was of an old woman who was passing out religious literature in
a rough part of Boston.
Under such a law, it will still be possible to buy one or two guns
over the course of one's life, and use them for sports. Persons
willing to navigate through a bureaucratic maze could generally
own guns that the anti-gun lobbyists consider "particularly suitable
for sporting purposes."
The folks with the best chances of obtaining guns under the "reasonable"
controls supported by the anti-gun lobbies would be wealthy, well-educated
people, since they would have the resources to slog their way through
all the paperwork, fees, and hassle.
A necessary consequence of anti-gun lobbies' success would be that
the number of gun owners would drop dramatically. Currently, about
one in two households possesses a gun. That number would be decimated,
as gun ownership was restricted to highly motivated sportsmen willing
to stumble their way through an administrative labyrinth.
With the above strict federal legislation as a baseline, states
and cites would be free to add further restrictions. The preemption
laws in most states which forbid cities and counties from enacting
gun prohibitions would be repealed.
Cities would be free to enact laws like Washington, D.C.'s handgun
ban. When the D.C. law is criticized for contributing to the high
crime rate there, HCI defends the prohibition, and says that the
problem is caused by other areas which have not enacted sufficiently
Even if all the gun controls actually did work, and gun crime almost
disappeared, the anti-gun lobbies would probably not abandon their
campaigns. These campaigns have little do with actual use of guns
in crime. After all, so-called "assault weapons" are used in about
1% of gun crimes, yet the lobbies run fraudulent public-relations
campaigns asserting that "assault weapons" are the weapon of choice
As long as any guns exist, there will be, at least occasionally,
infamous crimes committed with guns. Accordingly, there will always
be fertile fund-raising and media opportunities for anti-gun lobbyists
specializing in the manufacture of hysteria.
While the current leadership of the anti-gun lobbies might not favor
actually prohibiting and confiscating every single gun, their successors
might feel differently. After all, when all the "moderate" controls
are achieved, and they fail to reduce gun crime, the logic for total
prohibition will seem inescapable.
In Britain, 80 years of severe gun controls have nearly obliterated
the ranks of gun owners. Yet, while gun crime is relatively low
in Britain (and was even lower before the gun controls were enacted),
occasional gun crimes furnish a pretext for an outcry for the abolition
of all guns. Britain began this century with widespread civilian
gun ownership, no gun controls, and virtually no gun crime. Britain
will have ended the century with the tiny ranks of gun owners just
a step away from full prohibition.
The British gun owners got themselves in their predicament by accepting
more and more "moderate" proposals for control. The sum of these
"moderate" proposals made gun ownership difficult for most people,
and has left the remaining gun owners with too small a mass to be
a strong political force. Will American gun owners follow the same
road to self-destruction in coming decades by accepting the "moderate"
proposals of the anti-gun lobbies?