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Are gun owners an endangered species?

By John Nowacki
web posted September 17, 2001

The Second Amendment may be the most maligned amendment in the Bill of Rights, but as last year's election showed, support for the freedom it guarantees continues to remain strong. Not only did the advocates of gun control find themselves without momentum, but supporters of Second Amendment rights also played a crucial role in helping George W. Bush to win the presidency. Even so, the rights of law abiding gun owners remain under attack--and not just here in the United States.

In July, the United Nations held a conference on the "Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons In All Its Aspects," a meeting intended to produce binding agreements restricting the free ownership of firearms. While the vague term "illicit" implied that the conference would focus solely on things like smuggling, the conference was aimed at impacting the legal ownership of guns, as well. Under the guise of dealing with a narrow problem, the anti-gun groups behind the conference were preparing a very broad assault on gun rights generally. Fortunately, the U.S. delegates--Undersecretary of State John Bolton and Rep. Bob Barr--took a firm stand on the issue of protecting the rights Americans enjoy and held the conference in check.

In Australia, gun control laws enacted in the last few years restrict firearm ownership even beyond the licensing and registration schemes that country already had in place. Moving beyond attempts to ban handguns, Australia outlawed many hunting rifles and shotguns, and the government conducted a turn-in program that led to the destruction of about 660,000 firearms.

As Australia was disarming its law-abiding citizens, its incidents of violent crime increased significantly--for example, the number of shootings in this year has increased over last year's figures. But with a long trend of increases in many types of violent crime, Australian gun control advocates insist that the country has become a safer place. Meanwhile, the government of one Australian state has announced a mandatory audit of registered gun owners, to make sure they surrendered everything they were supposed to.

Another nation with very tough gun controls is Jamaica. While that country has one of the world's highest murder rates, its black market remains an open and easy place to find a gun. And again, it's the disarmed, law-abiding citizens who suffer. There is a legal way to obtain a firearm--but it's a long and tortuous process; one police commissioner pleaded for security firms and average citizens to be patient while the police determine if they are among the 1 percent or so of Jamaicans "worthy" to receive a gun permit.

Canada went from requiring handgun registration to requiring a permit to buy a firearm to prohibiting compact, .32, and .25 caliber handguns altogether. All gun owners must be licensed, the police can search homes without warrants while looking for unregistered firearms, and armed self-defense is frowned upon. Canada determined in 1977 that protection of property isn't a valid reason to get a firearm, and in an odd coincidence, half of that country's burglaries take place in occupied homes (in the United States, that figure is 10 percent).

One of the hallmarks of these drives toward complete or nearly complete gun bans is incrementalism, starting off with registration and working up to warrantless searches. Sounds impossible . . . but it happened in our neighbor to the north.

In the United States, the enemies of the Second Amendment remain as determined as ever to restrict Americans' right to keep and bear arms. When the Justice Department announced that it would not hold on to information from instant background checks--in effect creating a de facto gun registry--they were outraged. Influential newspapers like the Washington Post still editorialize about what a wonderful world it would be if we would just ban all handguns. And Senator Charles Schumer announced that in order to prove that he merits confirmation, a judicial nominee would have to explain to the Senator his understanding of the Second Amendment, especially as it relates to gun licensing and registration.

The last election taught the anti-gun groups a lesson: if they come across too heavy-handed, they'll lose public support. That's why they're retooling themselves, putting on a new façade. Handgun Control is now the innocuous-sounding Brady Campaign. The overt emphasis is now on "gun safety." And so on.

Their goals, however, remain the same--and they understand the value of incrementalism. Apparently, they've also learned a lesson from the likes of Australia, Jamaica, and Canada. Those who value the freedoms guaranteed by the Second Amendment should learn it, too. ESR

John Nowacki is deputy director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Law and Democracy.

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