February 22, 2017; Reuters
A blow was struck for common-sense gun legislation on Tuesday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Maryland’s ban on assault rifles, ruling that Americans do not have the right to possess “weapons of war.”
Maryland is one of seven states (plus the District of Columbia) that bans assault weapons. Minnesota and Virginia regulate assault weapons, but do not ban them.
As NPQ has previously pointed out, virtually unfettered access to assault weapons across most of the United States is one of the biggest reasons for the astronomical number of yearly American gun deaths. In a study of mass shootings from 1982–2017, Mother Jones found that about half of the weapons used in mass shootings were obtained legally, assault weapons accounted for over 70 percent of the weapons used, and shootings with assault weapons accounted for 82 percent of deaths.
Assault weapons with detachable magazines allow users to fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition per minute, spraying bullets over a large area and causing multiple deaths much faster than anyone can hope to react. As Gail Collins pointed out in the New York Times:
It’s very, very difficult to draw, aim and shoot accurately when you’re under severe stress. It’s one of the reasons that police officers so often spray fleeing suspects with bullets. They can’t hit a moving target, even though they get far more weapons training than your normal armed civilian.
The NRA’s assertion that more guns increase safety is sheer fiction, and dangerous fiction at that. (You might even call it an alternative fact.) Western European countries have strict gun control laws, and the highest death rate, in Portugal, is one-sixth that of the United States. More guns mean more gun deaths—it’s that simple.
As Collins and others have pointed out, the NRA has descended to lobbying for the right to carry guns in churches, in schools, on playgrounds, and in bars (which seems especially problematic). Nearly half of states “now have laws allowing people to shoot anyone they feel is putting them in imminent physical danger, whether they’re at home, in a bar or on the street being hassled by an irritating panhandler.” In 2015, the NRA ran a campaign arguing that guns on college campuses would reduce instances of sexual assault, which they called “Refuse To Be A Victim.” For today, we will skip over the assumption, implicit in that slogan, that people who do not carry guns are choosing to be victims of rape, but it is indicative of the illogical hawkishness with which the NRA campaigns.
The baseline defense for gun ownership is that it is a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, interpretation of this clause changed in 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller to overturn a strict handgun ban. Prior to that case, the court relied on a collective interpretation of the amendment, meaning that it protects “‘a well regulated Militia’ to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state’s right to self-defense,” and does not impede Congress from restricting individuals’ gun ownership.
For a brief period, Congress did indeed federally regulate weapons. In 1994, Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, restricting the “manufacture, transfer, and possession of certain semiautomatic assault weapons” and enforcing a “ban of large capacity ammunition feeding devices.” It also prohibited “the possession of a handgun or ammunition by, or the private transfer of a handgun or ammunition to, a juvenile.”
Unfortunately, the law included a sunset clause, and after Congress declined to renew it in 2004, all of those things—the sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, and the possession of guns and ammunition by children—became legal unless banned by an individual state.
Gallup polls show that 55 percent of Americans support common-sense gun laws, but that hasn’t stopped the NRA from pouring millions of dollars into lobbying efforts against any type of restrictions. The Maryland ban may go to the Supreme Court in another round of appeals, but for now, 55 percent of Maryland’s citizens can breathe a bit easier.— Erin Rubin