Several recent events have renewed the debate over gun control: Mass shootings in North Carolina and other parts of the country earlier this year; the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence assessment in April claiming restrictions on firearms ownership and use could fuel “right-wing extremism”; and President Obama’s comments in Mexico suggesting that a tougher assault weapons ban in the U.S. could deter Mexican gang violence.
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced “Blair Holt’s Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act of 2009,” a bill to prohibit a person from possessing a firearm unless that person has a license, the license is verified, and the dealer records a tracking number. Under H.R. 45, the U.S. attorney general would also be required to create and maintain a database of every firearm sale or transfer.
Rush introduced a similar bill in 2007, H.R. 2666, which had 15 co-sponsors, all Democrats. Among them were Illinois Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, now Obama’s chief of staff, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
Much of the debate over gun ownership rights has focused on crime reduction or prevention and whether tighter restrictions are needed. Anti-gun activists blame violent crime on high levels of gun ownership, claiming that guns do not make Americans safer.
But a 2006 study of crime statistics and gun laws in more than a dozen countries and the U.S. published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy dispels the notion that “more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death.”
“Many high gun ownership nations have much lower murder rates,” the researchers reported. Don Kates, an American criminologist and constitutional lawyer, and Dr. Gary Mauser, a Canadian criminologist and academic, found that “the long-term macrocosmic evidence is that gun ownership spread widely throughout societies consistently correlates with stable or declining murder rates.”
Constitutional scholars say the debate over gun control often ignores the true purpose for the Second Amendment; namely, that Americans have the right and the means to defend their liberty from a tyrannical government. Thus, any legislation that infringes upon this right is unconstitutional.
Last June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller affirmed the right of individuals to bear arms and held that it was unconstitutional for the District of Columbia to impose a total ban on an entire class of arms or to require a trigger-lock mechanism for long guns.
The court did not, however, say that the Constitution prohibited any restrictions on firearms ownership. So the ruling has energized legislators on every side of the gun-control debate. Along with H.R. 45, other bills have been introduced recently in Congress and in the North Carolina General Assembly seeking either to limit or strengthen gun rights.
In Congress, hate crime, child protection, and violence reduction bills that would restrict gun ownership further are currently in committee. Among them are H.R. 256 and H.R. 257. On the other hand, several bills supporting or affirming gun rights and states’ rights regarding gun legislation are also pending, including H.R. 197 and S. 371.
Proposed legislation in the 2009-10 Session of the North Carolina General Assembly reveals a similar pattern.
One of North Carolina’s staunchest supporters of gun rights is Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, who has sponsored a bill to prevent the seizure of lawful firearms in an emergency (H.B. 257) and co-sponsored H.B. 269, a bill that would allow concealed carry of handguns in federal, state, and municipal parks.
Cleveland is also a co-sponsor of H.B. 270, enabling concealed handgun carry in restaurants, and H.B. 1133, allowing citizens to transport and store locked firearms and ammunition in their motor vehicles and in parking lots.
“Two of the bills have passed the first reading in committee, and one has been sent to a subcommittee for revision,” said Cleveland, a 25-year veteran of the Marine Corps. “Sadly, many Americans are uninformed about why the Second Amendment exists, which is to prevent our government from becoming tyrannical.”
Thomas Jefferson said as much when he wrote, “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
In June 1788, Patrick Henry asked: “Where is the difference between having our arms under our own possession and under our own direction, and having them under the management of Congress? If our defense be the real object of having those arms, in whose hands can they be trusted with more propriety, or equal safety to us, as in our own hands?”
Like the U.S. Constitution, North Carolina’s constitution affirms the right of the people to bear arms, as the state Supreme Court concluded in the 1921 decision State v. Kerner.
“The maintenance of the right to bear arms is a most essential one to every free people and should not be whittled down by technical constructions,” the court ruled.
Should new gun-control restrictions become law, today’s jurists will be asked to determine whether those limits amount to unconstitutional “technical constructions” on the right to bear arms.
Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.