Commentary

Gun Prohibitionists Mostly Misfire

The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will decide the legality of a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia City Council in 1976 banned the possession of any handguns that were not already possessed and registered by residents, and the use of any gun for self-defense. The ban was struck down by a federal appeals court, prompting both the district and a man who sued to overturn it to request the high court to settle the issue.

Handgun bans exist in only half a dozen U.S. cities because, while gun control is sometimes popular, gun prohibition is not.

The citizens of Massachusetts, also in 1976, were asked by referendum whether to ban handguns. The left-leaning state had been the only one to vote for George McGovern in the previous presidential election. The “People vs. Handguns” campaign was “supported by most of the state’s press,” according to Time Magazine. But 69 percent of Massachusetts voters rejected it.

Gun prohibitionists tried again in California in 1982, proposing a “handgun freeze,” allowing current owners to keep their handguns but banning any new acquisitions. The measure was crushed by a vote of 63-37 percent. The freeze’s opponents brought so many additional voters to the polls that they even carried Republican George Deukmejian to a narrow, 1-percent victory over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the governor’s race.

The gun-prohibition movement successfully lobbied the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Ill., to ban handguns in 1981. Chicago itself followed suit in 1983, and the suburbs of Evanston, Oak Park, and Wilmette also enacted handgun bans. The Chicagoland bans got a lot of press, and the national backlash against them was powerful. State after state passed preemption laws, forbidding localities from banning handguns.

Today, 45 states have preemption laws, including California, whose law has stopped two efforts to impose handgun prohibition in San Francisco.

By the early 1990s, local handgun bans had been outlawed almost everywhere in the United States. One of the few states without a preemption law was Wisconsin. Yet even in left-leaning cities in the state, handgun prohibition was rejected.

[The] ban is aberrational not only by U.S. standards, but internationally.”

The Wisconsin gun-ban campaigns did have important consequences. The state Legislature enacted a preemption law.

Since 1974, the leading gun ban group in the United States has been the National Council to Control Handguns, which after two name changes is now known as the Brady Campaign. One of Sarah Brady’s predecessors, Nelson “Pete” Shields, explained the group’s incrementalist strategy to the New Yorker in 1976: “The first problem is to slow down the number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. The final problem is to make possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition — except for the military, police, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors — totally illegal.”

Today, the Brady Campaign denies that it supports handgun prohibition, but the group still lobbies Congress and has fought in the courts to preserve the D.C. handgun ban.

That ban is aberrational not only by U.S. standards, but internationally. In Europe, almost all nations allow the possession of licensed handguns. Of the exceptions — Russia, Luxembourg, England, Scotland and Ireland — all but Ireland have higher rates of murder and violent crime than their neighbors.

Despite the hysterical claims of fundraising campaigns by anti-gun lobbyists, a Supreme Court decision against the D.C. handgun ban would not invalidate the vast number of laws regulating but not banning these weapons in the U.S. Millions of Americans own firearms and use them responsibly, and that right is guaranteed under the Second Amendment. The D.C. handgun ban is a very rare, extreme and unconstitutional prohibition.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute.