Congressional Extremism and the Assault Weapon Ban

Congress' far right wing is very comfortable with guerilla tactics. Congressman Hyde's amendment which eventually passed into law as part of the Communications Decency Act was added to the telcom bill as part of a mark-up in such a way that no-one in the House even knew they were voting on it. It was then ramrodded through the Conference Committee without being distributed 24 hours in advance as usual, as Congresswoman Schroeder complained.

The Contract Republicans have now paid off a debt to the NRA by voting to repeal the assault weapons ban. Again, it was done in a hurry, without advance notice, without any hearings whatsoever. Congressman Bob Barr, voice of the gun, was arrogant as usual: we know what the people want, we don't need no filthy hearings. This was an act of kamikaze loyalty: the ban is politically very popular, and its repeal had no chance either of clearing the Senate (where Dole does not want the political baggage it would bring) or of surviving a Presidential veto. What seems to have happened is that the NRA called in a favor, and a bunch of good doggies lined up to obey their master. It was apparently scheduled now with the cynical thought that the somnolent and infantile American people will forget all about it by November; so much for the democratic concept underlying the so-called "Contract with America", which, by the way, said nothing about repealing the assault weapon ban.

Before I go on, let me mention that I know that the assault weapon ban is an illogical and flawed law. I have been sufficiently educated by a number of readers who have written in response to my prior writings on this issue. It outlaws certain weapons based on largely cosmetic features, allowing their manufacturers easily to create new versions lacking these features. The ban was for the sake of appearances, not reality; but it may have accomplished just enough that was substantive--getting a few dangerous weapons off the streets--that it ought to be repealed only when it can be replaced by something substantive. A better law, rather than being directed to "assault weapons"-- an extremely vague, undefinable category--would probably look to semiautomatic weapons instead, and set a standard pertaining to the number of rounds that can be fired over some short time span.

I receive more mail on gun rights issues than on any other topic than the Holocaust. Most of it is from reasonable people who disagree with me and want to discuss things; relatively little is like the moronic letter I received the other day (see the lead letter in this month's letters column) calling me a coward based on essays the correspondent hadn't even read. I believe (reluctantly) that the Second Amendment was intended to grant an individual right to own weapons, and I do not hold with Constitutional revisionists who try to explain this away with the usual "National Guard" arguments. However, I believe--and the Supreme Court has confirmed--that the Second Amendment clearly permits Congress to make some reasoned decisions about what kinds of arms citizens may own. Relatively few people disagree that the line is drawn somewhere-- no-one wants their neighbor owning a SAM or an Abrams tank. It seems clear to me that allowing Americans their rifles and handguns, while mandating a waiting period and a background check, and banning certain fast-firing weapons, is at least the beginnings of a fair social policy.

Politics works best in a democracy when it involves a search for the middle. How can you have your guns while we keep them out of the hands of chaotic young criminals in my neighborhood? There is some process by which we can find a fair solution; the guns recovered from murder scenes in my city were, after all, mostly bought from the gun dealers in your town. NRA-sponsored extremism, echoing in the halls of Congress, denies me any legitimacy at all in this debate; there will be guns in my neighborhood, whether the good people want them there or not; your right to own any sort of weapon, with no government checks or interference, trumps my right to be free of violence. You will never get me to agree that gun control is ineffective, that all weapons are equal, that Colin Ferguson could have done as much damage on the Long Island Railroad with a knife. And you will also never persuade me that gun control in Washington D.C. or New York City must fail, when you are sanctimoniously ignoring the fact that the guns used to murder people there were sold by your next door neighbor.

It is quite apparent to me that the NRA is far to the right of most of its membership. (That is why it lost hundreds of thousand of members last year.) It is beginning to come out of the closet, taking positions very far afield from its original mandate: opposing taggants in explosives; lobbying against provisions in the counter-terrorism act pertaining to deportation of illegal immigrants and fundraising for foreign terrorist groups. Its board of directors includes some wild characters--a former publisher of bomb-making manuals and another man who has called for the murder of Sarah Brady of Handgun Control Inc. It is amazing to me that so many people-- the mass media included--don't see, or at leat don't talk about, the unique and dangerous role of the NRA. We have never had a powerful apologist for violence and terrorism so close to the seat of power. The left has always been the main bogeyman in this country; but the left has always been isolated and weak. Imagine that the Weathermen and Black Panthers had had, in the 1960's, a powerful, wealthy lobby protecting their interests, able to get obedient Congressmen to line up for an unpopular bill, and you will appreciate the full flavor of the reality in which we are living. I believe that within a few years we will see the whirlwind that results from the sowing the NRA is doing today.