52. Law of the Land

February 2, 2008

Las Vegas Convention Center

The NSSF held 2008’s SHOT show in Vegas, but as always, many of the industry reps in attendance were familiar faces from back home, in Connecticut’s “Gun Valley.” This year, the Sturm & Ruger booth housed something really special: a brand new configuration for their famous Mini-14 rifle. And it was no minor change; Bill Ruger — the man who in 1989 had signed the letter urging limits on magazine size as the key to effective gun control — had died six years before, and it seemed some of his philosophy had gone with him.

For decades, the Mini-14s coming down the assembly line at Ruger’s factory all had wooden stocks, and a short magazine that held only five rounds. Plenty for anyone sniping varmints on the ranch. But the model unveiled at the SHOT show that year came standard with two 20-round magazines. And it had a black, synthetic stock. In fact, the only non-black surface found anywhere on the gun was the “grip cap” on the underside: there, embedded, was a shining, gold-colored National Rifle Association medallion. Sturm & Ruger president Stephen Sanetti — who himself wrote the “Bill Ruger letter” in 1989, saying that AR-15s were a “military look-a-like” and “this is not Sturm, Ruger’s market” — now said, “It is very important that we, as an industry and as individuals, support the efforts of the NRA-ILA as they work to protect our Second Amendment rights. A portion of the sales from each Special Edition NRA Mini-14 will go to the NRA-ILA to support their ongoing efforts.”

A month later, Sanetti announced he was leaving Ruger. He had started his career at the company in the 1970’s, defending them from product liability lawsuits, and more recently, he was the mastermind of the company’s strategy to counter the municipal suits of the late 1990s. That war was over, and he had helped win it for the gun industry. Now, he was headed to Newtown, as the new President of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

April 6, 2008

San Francisco, California

At a private fundraising event, presidential candidate Barack Obama was holding a Q&A session. Someone asked him which areas of the country his campaign was going to have to work hardest to win; he gave a lengthy answer, explaining how the collapse of manufacturing had impacted small towns in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania over generations, and that voters there were going to be skeptical about government promises of universal health care. But the part of his reply that would make headlines that week came at the very end:

…the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations…

Obama’s description of gun owners (not to mention the religious) as “bitter” sparked outrage, in the very states he was already acknowledging would be tough for him to win. His campaign stumbled, badly.

May 16, 2008

Kentucky International Convention Center — Louisville, Kentucky

A crowd of 66,229 gun owners, along with thousands of dealers and manufacturers, were gathered for the NRA’s 137th Annual Meetings and Exhibits. The theme that year was “Celebration of America’s Values.” One of the honored guests was an executive from Ruger, who posed for photos with the head of the NRA-ILA as he handed the lobbyists a check for $125,000 — the first donation funded entirely from the sales of their Special Edition NRA Mini-14s.

With the arrival of another presidential election, the NRA was gearing up for war once again. This time, they would do it mostly without the aid of their allies in Newtown — at the NSSF’s 2007 meeting, their Board of Governors had voted to dissolve the Heritage Fund. The war chest that beat the mayors, and dragged the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act over the line, had lasted ten years, but now it had served its purpose.

The NRA was more than capable of filling the enthusiasm gap. They caste Senator Obama as even more of a threat to freedom than Bill Clinton had been; worse than Nazi-helmet-wearing storm-troopers. “Never in NRA’s history have we faced a presidential candidate — and hundreds of candidates running for other offices — with such a deep-rooted hatred of firearm freedoms,” wrote Wayne LaPierre to the NRA’s membership. Obama would be “the most anti-gun candidate ever,” whose secret plan would be to ban all handguns, along with any gun used for self or home defense. Period.

Obama’s actual stance on guns was less clear, but seemed to stop well short of that; earlier in the campaign, from a church on Chicago’s South Side, he did denounce an “epidemic of violence that’s sickening the soul of this nation.” He had two proposals to address the problem: reinstate the federal Assault Weapons Ban “and make it permanent,” and then close the Gun Show Loophole. At the very least, he did seem intent to resume progressing down the path that the Clinton administration had laid down eight years before — though of course, hoping for better fortunes.

* * *

Despite all the guns on display at the NRA event, attendees were not actually allowed to come to the convention center armed on that day. There were rows of metal detectors at the entrance, and security was beefed up by the presence of the Secret Service: a senator from Arizona was there to give a speech, and — unlike Obama — he was already his party’s presumptive nominee, seeking to hold the torch being handed off by the outgoing Bush administration.

In his NRA speech, the senator from Arizona took a jab at another recent statement Obama made, when Obama’s primary opponent said his “bitter clingers” remark showed he was “out of touch.” In response, Obama had implied she was being a hypocrite, acting “like she’s on the duck blind every Sunday, packing a six-shooter.”

When Obama’s rival from Arizona recited that line, it was met with laughter from the NRA audience. He added, “Someone should tell Senator Obama that ducks are usually hunted with shotguns.”

While the NRA’s claims about Obama’s anti-gun agenda were based on thin evidence, the difference between Obama’s position on guns, and his opponent’s, was evident in their voting records: the senator from Arizona had voted in favor of the PLCAA in 2005. Obama had voted against it.

Even so, Obama’s opponent that year wasn’t quite the hero of the NRA, either: while he had voted against the assault weapons ban in ’90s, he then voted to close the gun show loophole. He had expressed support for “smart gun” technology, and trigger locks. As a result, Wayne LaPierre seemed inclined to hold back on supporting any candidate that year; he was considering simply going anti-Obama.

As election night approached, however, and the polls stayed uncomfortably close, Wayne relented, and the NRA threw the might of their Political Victory Fund behind the senator from Arizona. His choice of Vice President, most of all, sealed the deal: she was the Governor of Alaska, a proud hunter, and a lifetime member of the NRA. Besides, the senator from Arizona was reliable where it counted; at the time, the NRA’s primary objective was getting Washington D.C.’s gun ban stricken down by the Supreme Court, and he was one of 55 senators — a majority — who had just signed a “Friend of the Court” brief for that pending case, formally arguing that D.C.’s handgun ban was, in light of the 2nd Amendment, “unreasonable on its face,” and unconstitutional.

The NRA didn’t always get involved in presidential elections. It was Wayne’s call to make; he had been the public face of the organization ever since Charlton Heston had stepped down in 2003, at age 78 and in poor health, battling Alzheimer’s disease.

Just a month before the 2008 convention, Heston had passed away. He did not quite get to see it himself, but he had led his flock to the promised land.

June 26, 2008

United States Supreme Court — Washington, D.C.

The plaintiff was a security guard from Washington D.C., where handguns had been banned for 20 years. He carried a pistol when he was on the clock, protecting a judicial building across from the Senate, but he wasn’t allowed to buy a handgun of his own, to protect his apartment in the D.C. suburbs, across the street from a notoriously dangerous public housing project.

He applied for a gun permit anyway, just to get the legal ball rolling, and sued Washington D.C. on 2nd Amendment grounds when his application got rejected.

Though the NRA did not support it initially — seeing the security guard’s plight essentially as competition for their own, similar case — once it became clear that the Supreme Court was going to rule on Heller vs. District of Columbia, there was no ignoring its significance: it would be the defining court decision on private gun ownership, the biggest firearm-related ruling in a generation. It would finally settle the debate over what, exactly, the Second Amendment was really supposed to protect.

The structure of the Amendment’s language was key to how the court would interpret it:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Its phrasing was notoriously awkward; the court ruled that the first clause was a preface — it gave a reason (security of a free state) for enabling something (militias). The actual right came in the operative clause, and was distinct: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” was protected, by itself. The ruling justice even gave a rewording of the Second Amendment, as it might be written today: “Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

After conducting a review of colonial history, to interpret the amendment’s key terms in the way they were intended to be understood at the time, the court came to their 5-4 decision — and the gun advocates’ prayers were answered. “Putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation,” the court declared.

The majority opinion then turned toward specifics — what were “arms”? Exactly what guns did Americans have an inalienable “right” to possess? Just muskets?

The court said “arms” meant the same thing it meant in the 18th century, and cited a definition from a 1771 dictionary: “any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.”

This did not mean, as some “borderline frivolous” theories said, that only weapons like those available in the 18th century were protected. “We do not interpret constitutional rights that way,” the court reminded. Just as freedom of speech is protected in modern forms of media, even though the founding fathers may not have envisaged cable television or the internet, and just as police using special cameras to scan heat signatures in a citizen’s home were still conducting a “search” that would require a warrant, the right to bear arms extended to “all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.” Arming oneself with a gun meant “being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.”

Heaving reached that point, it was then obvious that handguns would be protected — that’s what Heller wanted to possess in his home, after all. But if that was the minimum protected… what was the maximum? A machine gun? A tank? An atom bomb?

The question was partly answered by the prefatory clause, as it served to “announce a purpose” — the guns in question were supposed to at least be sufficient to be deployed by a “well-regulated militia.” Therefor, there was still another debate that the court had to settle: what was a “militia?”

Some gun-control advocates argued that it actually meant the military, and thus the 2nd Amendment did not guarantee individual rights after all; the court found otherwise. It all came down to preventing the federal government from being able to suppress dissent — even a rebellion, if it came to that — in the states:

The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.

Still, although the “citizen militia’s” access to firepower was protected so that they could fight back against a federal army, this did not, in the court’s reading, ensure civilian access to military weaponry, or any other already-restricted class of firearms. “The term [arms] was applied, then as now, to weapons that were not specifically designed for military use and were not employed in a military capacity,” the court ruled.

Militias were not standing armies, but just regular citizens with everyday, lawful guns — thus, “arms” simply meant whatever firearms they would have on-hand, for whatever legitimate non-military purpose they intended, be it hunting animals or protecting their property: the shotgun behind the front door. “It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large,” the court conceded. “Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.”

The ruling didn’t necessarily mean the end of gun control legislation; the Supreme Court even explicitly left some avenues open:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited… The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

Finally, that the right to bear arms was constitutionally protected did not mean that it was without consequence. “We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country,” the court wrote, “and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution.” These groups had options, the court had hinted — but certain things were now off the table, specifically, “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home”:

Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.

With that, the security guard had a right to stay armed after his shift was over, and everyone else had the right to keep a gun at home, too. It was in the constitution — and in a sense, always had been. It did not matter how many tragedies it cost, or how powerful the firearms grew to be. Nothing anyone could do, short of repealing the second entry in the Bill of Rights, was ever going to take away America’s guns.

* * *

It would take some time for the gravity of the Heller ruling to sink in, and so gun control did not become a central campaign issue that year, despite the NRA’s efforts. The race was more about the sort of topics Senator Obama had so controversially said were making the Midwest “bitter,” and about bringing “change” to Washington after eight years of Bush. Others attributed the final outcome more to the status of the Iraq war, or simply race, or — after a financial meltdown began with the collapse of Bear Stearns in the spring, and exploded into a big bailout in the fall — the apocalyptic state of the economy.

That November, the nation elected Barack Obama president. Gun sales began to rise at an astonishing rate.