How Gun Control Lost

The long road to D.C. v. Heller


Thomas Jefferson once wrote, pessimistically, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." He would probably not have been surprised to see the proliferation of gun control laws in our time. But he might not have anticipated that the water would run back uphill.

Thursday's Supreme Court decision affirming that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to own firearms for self-defense was a vindication of those who have long argued that position. But it was an even more stunning defeat for advocates of gun control, who not so long ago seemed to have history, law, and public sympathy on their side. Back then, they couldn't have dreamed that the Supreme Court would say, "You know what? The National Rifle Association is right."

In the 1980s and 1990s, as violence raged at epidemic levels, the preferred remedy of policymakers was to restrict the manufacture, sale, and ownership of firearms. Washington, D.C. had banned handguns in 1976, and in 1982, Chicago did likewise, prompting several of its suburbs to follow suit.

New York required anyone who wanted a handgun to acquire a special permit, which was expensive and hard to get. Meanwhile, the federal government and several states outlawed "assault weapons"—semiautomatic guns with a military appearance.

It looked as though ever-stricter gun control was the wave of the future. But the future had different ideas. What happened? Three main things:

Gun control didn't work. In the 1990s, despite its draconian ban, Washington became the murder capital of the United States. Chicago's homicide rate, which had been declining in the years before it banned handguns, climbed over the following decade. Gun control didn't work.

During the time the federal assault weapons law was in effect, the number of gun murders declined—but so did murders involving knives and other weapons. When the law was allowed to expire in 2004, something interesting happened to the national murder rate: nothing.

Laws allowing concealed weapons proliferated—with no ill effects. In 1987, Florida gained national attention—and notoriety—by passing a law allowing citizens to get permits to carry concealed handguns. Opponents predicted a wave of carnage by pistol-packing hotheads, but it didn't happen. In fact, murders and other violent crimes subsided. Permit holders proved to be sober and restrained.

People elsewhere took heed, and today, according to the NRA, 40 states have "right-to-carry" laws. As those laws have spread, the homicide rate has fallen sharply from the peak reached in 1991.

The Second Amendment got a second look. In 1983, a San Francisco lawyer named Don Kates published an article in the University of Michigan Law Review arguing that, contrary to prevailing wisdom in the judiciary and law schools, the Constitution upholds an individual right to keep and bear arms.

Numerous legal scholars, spurred to examine the record, reached the same surprising conclusion. Before long, even some liberal law professors were coming around.

In 2000, Harvard's Laurence Tribe published a new edition of his influential constitutional law textbook, asserting that the Second Amendment had an undeniable meaning: "The federal government may not disarm individual citizens without some unusually strong justification consistent with the authority of the states to organize their own militias. That assurance in turn is provided through recognizing a right (admittedly of uncertain scope) on the part of individuals to possess and use firearms in the defense of themselves and their homes…"

The majority opinion last week, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, drew heavily on this stack of scholarship to argue that the framers did not limit the right to the context of service in a state militia. Without the stimulus provided by these contrarian thinkers, the decision would never have come to pass. And the Second Amendment would have remained what it was for so long: a curious irrelevancy.

Instead, the right to keep and bear arms has finally taken its rightful place with our other fundamental liberties. It may be the natural course of things for government control to expand and freedom to shrink. But as Jefferson knew, America was founded to reverse that process.


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  1. OK, maybe Chapman doesn’t suck all the time.

  2. I think this was a pretty good summary article.

    Also, I think Chapman has been having a series of above his average quality articles lately. Has anyone else noticed this?

  3. Maybe our relentless criticism had an effect? Probably not.

  4. This was so obvious, even Chapman couldn’t screw it up

  5. Was pointed out to me over the weekend, there was a SCOTUS case around 2002(?) where they said that the right to arms was an individual right. One just a few years before that too (may hav been a lower federal court).

    Anybody remember these?

  6. I’m not sure how this shrinks government, exactly. Not a penny less will be spent at the federal level because of this decision, and since they failed to address incorporation, I imagine some states will be scrambling to draft legislation that will make access to self-defense and anti-tyrrany tools more difficult and expensive.

  7. I’m not even sure if Chapman reads this blog. He’s a syndicated writer and these articles appear in the Chicago Tribune as well.

  8. This omits the fact that violent crime was declining when California, Illinois, and New Jersey enacted gun controls and started the ball rolling. Violent crime exploded after gun controls; up 93 percent in the first six months in New Jersey; and then GCA68 sent crime rates soaring. A friend who keeps track of such things says homicides went from 6,900 in 1962 to more than 34,000 in 1972. And really did not start coming back down until Florida passed its CCW law.

  9. ago seemed to have history, law, and public sympathy on their side.

    This is an inaccurate statement, Steve.

    They never had history on their side, and they had very little public sympathy on their side. The only thing they had was the law.

  10. Guy, I’m looking for a senatorial meeting that happened in the late eighties where it was declared an individual right. Will post if I find it.

  11. Wow, I found it. Faster’n I thought. All hail teh innernets:

    From this, comes one of my favorite English Common Law quotes keeping and bearing regarding arms in the home.

    “In 1503, Henry VII limited shooting (but not possession) of crossbows to those with land worth 200 marks annual rental, but provided an exception for those who “shote owt of a howse for the lawefull defens of the same”.

  12. Don’t forget the effect Michael Bellesiles in undermining the collective rights movement.

  13. I have the Privilege to drive a car, and, therefore, I require a license. If I now have a Right to “bare arms”, then why do I need a license? Think we just lost some of the “Right”?????

  14. tio2-

    My arms are bare right now! No one told me I needed I license. Will we ever be free?

  15. Gun Control has failed miserbly in halting crime but as usial the liberal left-wing media and liberal politcians ignore the facts so they can make big time headlines in some trash news paper or magazine

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