Prohibition was kneecapped by Americans' widespread refusal to stop
producing, selling, and drinking booze. Millions of Americans smoked
marijuana decades before majority sentiment creeped toward legalizing
the stuff. Gays and lesbians not only surreptitiously lived and loved
righteously) stomped cops who raided the Stonewall Inn, ultimately
precipitating liberalization. And restrictions on exporting encryption
printing it on T-shirts as an act of civil disobedience.
But in the wake of Omar Mateen's bloody rampage in Orlando, gun
control advocates think that overcoming the passionate opposition of
firearms owners and imposing a ban on a difficult to define class of
"assault weapons" is a swell idea whose time has come. This
prohibition will somehow be different.
"Those who defend the easy accessibility of assault weapons should
meet these families and explain why that makes sense," President Obama
tut-tutted last week. But the moralizer-in-chief failed to make sense
himself, calling for the outlawing of a category of devices that
doesn't really exist.
"The term assault weapon itself, of disputed origin, is a thorn in the
side of gun enthusiasts, who point out that the differences between
'assault weapons' and other semi-automatics are largely cosmetic and
don't increase the gun's lethality," explains Slate senior editor
Rachael Larimore, in a piece taking the media to task for reporting
and editorializing on guns without getting the facts straight.
"Because these guns are really just ordinary rifles, it is hard for
legislators to effectively regulate them without banning half the
handguns in the country (those that are semiautomatic and/or have
detachable magazines) and many hunting rifles as well," adds UCLA law
professor and gun control advocate Adam Winkler, who has actually done
Winkler also emphasizes why gun owners are so hardened in their
opposition to further legal restrictions: "Gun control advocates
ridicule the NRA's claim that the government is coming to take away
people's guns, then try to outlaw perhaps the most popular rifle in
Gun owners' response is best summarized by one of their more popular
slogans of recent years: "Molon labe." Usually translated as "come and
take them," that was Spartan King Leonidas I's legendary response to
the Persian demand that he and his men surrender their weapons before
the Battle of Thermopylae.
That gun owners mean what they say in the "assault weapons" context
can be inferred from the 5 percent compliance rate achieved by New
York's recent registration requirement for such firearms. Or from the
15 percent compliance rate in neighboring Connecticut.
In 1990, even before opposition had become so hardened, California
experienced similar resistance to its original restrictions on
"As a one-year registration period draws toward an end on Dec. 31,
only about 7,000 weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in
the state have been registered," The New York Times reported.
When New Jersey went a step further and banned the sale and possession
of "assault weapons," 947 people registered their rifles as sporting
guns for target shooting, 888 rendered them inoperable, and four
surrendered them to the police. That's out of an estimated 100,000 to
300,000 firearms affected by the law. The New York Times concluded, a
bit drily, "More than a year after New Jersey imposed the toughest
assault-weapons law in the country, the law is proving difficult if
not impossible to enforce."
Some advocates of restrictions will object that they "don't want to
new ones. That narrative becomes complicated when officials like New
York Governor Andrew Cuomo muse that "Confiscation could be an
But let's go with it. So, the government somehow defines "assault
weapons" in a meaningful way and bans sales of new ones. How is that
going to be effective given the millions of disfavored weapons already
in circulation? That includes roughly 8 million AR-15-style rifles
not like they're going anywhere. Plenty of 19th century firearms are
still in working condition.
And their numbers will increase, even if commercial production and
sales are outlawed. People have been 3D-printing AR-15 lower receivers
(the parts legally classified as a firearm) for years. More durable
receivers are CNC-milled by hobbyists from partially finished blanks
as well as raw blocks of metal. These techniques were developed in
anticipation of the laws now proposed, with the specific purpose of
rendering them impotent.
Molon labe, remember?
So, a United States the morning after, or a year after, or a decade
after a successful effort to ban "assault weapons" will not be the
scene of the "domestic disarmament" favored by prominent communitarian
sociology professor Amitai Etzioni. It will be more like
Prohibition-era America, but with hidden rifles substituting for
stockpiled hooch and 3D printers standing in for moonshiners' stills.
And probably a bit more tense.
Those defiant gun owners will also be included in the jury pools
chosen to sit in judgement of unlucky violators scooped up by law
enforcement. That situation will likely replicate the difficulty
prosecutors had in getting convictions of Prohibition scofflaws in the
1920s and marijuana law resisters today. "[I]f juries consistently
nullify certain types of criminal charges (charges for possession of a
small amount of marijuana, for example), this can render an unpopular
law ineffective," wrote John Richards at the LegalMatch blog after a
jury couldn't even be seated in Montana.
"If you pass laws that people have no respect for and they don't
follow them, then you have a real problem," Connecticut Sen. Tony
Guglielmo (R-District 35), told the Hartford Courant when large
numbers of state residents flipped the bird to lawmakers and defied
the new gun law.
Well... yes, you do. And like their restriction-inclined predecessors,
gun controllers will have quite a mess on their hands.
Photo Credit: Martin Laco Photography/flickr
J.D. Tuccille is a former managing editor of Reason.com and current
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