Topping last week’s legal stories was the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonald v. Chicago, holding that the Second Amendment — which the Supreme Court just two years ago interpreted to protect an individual right to own a gun — also protects the individual right to own a gun against state and local interference.
Many people were unimpressed, regarding this as a statement of the obvious. Others — like Rush Limbaugh — were alarmed, noting that what should have been an obvious statement of a right specifically protected in the Constitution nonetheless made it by a bare 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court.
Both of these views have their merit, but because I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, let me offer a positive lesson from this experience, one with relevance for today’s motivated Tea Party activists and depressed conservatives and libertarians alike. Because the story of the Second Amendment, and of gun rights generally, over the past two decades is a story that offers hope for those interested in protecting and restoring liberty in all sorts of areas.
Nowadays, it’s hard to find a Democrat outside of the party’s deepest-blue sanctuary cities who will argue against private ownership of guns. Even Al Sharpton reports that 90 percent of his talk show listeners are happy with the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of an individual right to arms. But less than 20 years ago, it was a different story altogether.
President George H.W. Bush talked about gun rights, but didn’t much mean it. His successor, President Clinton, was even more negative.
Gun control was on the march, gun control proponents said it was only a matter of time before America joined other “civilized” countries by banning the private ownership of firearms, and laws at both the state and federal level were getting tighter. Morton Grove, Ill., had banned handguns, and had seen that ban upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals. (The Supreme Court declined to hear the case).
In 1994, House Speaker Tom Foley stopped the clock when the time for voting ran out on the Assault Weapons Ban, allowing the whips to round up a couple of votes and let the bill pass. The Assault Weapons Ban was seen by many — among both its proponents and its opponents — as a step toward a complete gun ban.
There was much gloom and doom talk among libertarians, conservatives and gun rights supporters generally. This was it. We were on the slippery slope to tyranny. But then something happened: People stopped talking, and started acting.
In November 1994, the Democrats lost big in Congress, a defeat that Clinton himself attributed to the passage of the ban and the way it energized gun rights activists to vote, donate and campaign. Speaker Foley lost his seat, along with Rep. Jack Brooks, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee that produced the bill.
In each election thereafter, the gun issue hurt the Democrats, and Democratic politicians learned to avoid gun control bills if they wanted to keep their seats. When the Assault Weapons Ban expired, there was no significant support for renewing it.
Meanwhile, activists and scholars began looking at the Second Amendment more closely. A Supreme Court opinion endorsing an individual-right view of the Second Amendment seemed nearly impossible in 1998; in 2008 it happened.
Two years later, the court has extended it to the states. The massive campaign by gun control groups — and their media allies, who were legion — to “de-normalize” gun ownership, and present it as something dangerous, deviant and subject to regulation at the whims of the government, has failed, with the Supreme Court explicitly saying that gun ownership by private citizens is a fundamental part of our system of liberty.
So in little more than 15 years, we’ve seen an amazing turnaround on an issue where the “establishment” side had broad support from politicians (in both parties, really) and almost universal support from the media. Gun control now is nearly dead as an issue, and the “establishment” view that the Second Amendment didn’t protect any sort of individual right, but merely a right of states to have national guards, did not get the support of a single Supreme Court justice.
So what’s the lesson for today? It’s that activism matters.
Now the issue on which activists differ from the establishment is the size of government. Politicians (in both parties, really) are pretty happy with big government. In this, they have the near-universal support of the media (now using covert e-mail lists to agree on how to slant their stories).
But if people care about shrinking government as much as gun rights activists care about protecting the Second Amendment, then this situation, too, can see a turnaround.
For the sake of the country, it had better.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, hosts “InstaVision” on PJTV.com.