Don't Take Your Guns to Town

Will Attorney General Eric Holder respect the Second Amendment?


"As President, I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun-owners, hunters, and sportsmen. I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne." That was Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on June 26, 2008, responding to the Supreme Court's landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down Washington, DC's draconian handgun ban and held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms—not a collective one.

"I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals," Obama went on, "but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures."

While it wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the decision, Obama's statement was an improvement over his previous equivocations. But that line about Chicago and Cheyenne definitely stood out. Chicago, after all, has a gun ban in place that's just as constitutionally dubious as the one struck down in Heller. Indeed, Alan Gura, the attorney who successfully argued Heller before the Court, is now working on the challenge to the Windy City law.

So last week's announcement that President-elect Obama has tapped outspoken gun control advocate Eric Holder to serve as his attorney general should come as something less than a complete shock. Holder, who served as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton and as acting attorney general under President George W. Bush (a position he held until John Ashcroft was confirmed), has pushed for sweeping and restrictive gun control measures throughout his career while also endorsing the now-discredited collective rights interpretation of the Second Amendment. Obama's selection of Holder raises some serious concerns about his administration's commitment to upholding the entire Bill of Rights.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, Holder took to the pages of The Washington Post, where he played on the public's newfound fear of terrorism to lobby for additional gun show regulations. But as National Review's Jim Geraghty recently pointed out, of the two "terrorists" that Holder claimed were stalking America's gun show circuit, one was eventually acquitted of supplying guns to terrorists (though not of the separate charge of weapons smuggling), while the other, a man named Ali Boumelhem, didn't buy so much as a camouflage vest at a gun show. Since he had a felony record he let his brother do the shopping. In Holder's mind, that's a "loophole" that needs closing, but as Geraghty notes, "background checks like the one Holder was calling for would not have stopped [it], since the straw purchaser (the surrogate for the real buyer) is chosen because he has a clean record." Unless Holder wants to forbid gun sales to people with disreputable family members or friends, it's hard to imagine how any law could prevent this situation.

More recently, Holder was one of thirteen former Justice Department officials to sign an amicus brief on behalf of the D.C. government in the Heller case. That document, which endorsed restrictive gun control measures and cited rare and sensational events like the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings as evidence of "the deadly toll that firearms exact," also made the case for the collective rights interpretation that has now been rejected by both the Supreme Court and leading liberal legal scholars.

What does all this mean for Eric Holder's Department of Justice? Nothing good, says Second Amendment scholar and Independence Institute Research Director David Kopel. As Kopel told me via email, under the leadership of Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, "the DOJ used the U.S. Attorneys offices for the aggressive prosecution of gun owners and sellers, often on flimsy charges. We may expect many more such prosecutions under Holder." Moreover, Holder's turf now includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, which was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department after 9/11. That's one tool that Reno didn't have in her kit. "Now that the Bureau is part of DOJ," Kopel explained, "Attorney General Holder will have great power to force the imposition of onerous new regulations on firearms sales, on firearms stores, and on manufacturers."

Attorney General John Ashcroft, of course, famously attacked critics of the government's anti-terrorism policies for chasing "phantoms of lost liberty" and giving "ammunition to America's enemies." Let's hope that Second Amendment supporters won't be chasing as many "phantoms" once Eric Holder inherits the Bush administration's sweeping law enforcement powers.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at reason.

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  1. Will he respect the second amendment? He’s already attacked it! What a silly question.


  2. Obama wants to make the scary-looking-guns-ban permanent. So, no he won’t respect the 2nd amendment.

  3. What’s needed is one U.S. Senator needs to have to courage of former Senator Jesse Helms and put a hold on the nomination of Eric Holder.

  4. I welcome a free and open black market for guns in the U.S.

  5. But will Holder, [. . .], respect the Second Amendment?

    Is Global Warming caused by humans? The answer to both is . . .

  6. The NRA did their level best to keep Obama from becoming president. How odd, then, that he isn’t consulting them on his choice of A.G.

  7. Why wouldn’t the NRA want to keep Obama from becoming President? He wants to turn their membership into criminals and confiscate their property by force of arms. What should they have done? Endorsed him so he’d be be more gentle to gun owners when he anally raped them?

  8. I enjoy watching your hysteria, but consider this: Obama hasn’t announced any policies and hasn’t taken office yet. He’d be foolish to ignite a 2nd amendment firestorm that has nothing to do with the platform he ran on. The NRA and firearms dealers are taking advantage of the situation to start a gun-rights and gun-buying frenzy, that’s all.

  9. I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.

    And I know what works in Illinois may not work in Alabama.

  10. As President, I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding reproducers. I’ll respect Roe v. Wade. But I know what works in San Francisco may not work in Houston.

  11. News flash: “IT” doesn’t work in Chicago. And what works in Cheyenne has never been tried in Chicago.

    Well, hasn’t been tried since Chicago’s been a monarchy/dictatorship under the Daleys…

  12. “I enjoy watching your hysteria”

    Fair enough. Just remember that when you’re fleeing the rioters and are turned away by armed Korean shop owners protecting their own families and businesses. Maybe one will capture your hysteria on cameraphone that day for the rest of us to enjoy on YouTube.

  13. Sure is working in Chicago! Safe and secure! Zer0-Bama is an idiot.

  14. The key phrase in his statement was “I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun-owners…” Once they pass a law that states it is illegal to own a gun of type A, then every owner of a type A gun becomes a lawbreaker. And then will come type B, and type C and so on until the only guns permitted to be owned will be…

  15. “Obama hasn’t announced any policies and hasn’t taken office yet.”

    He put a list of gun control proposals up on his website soon after the election and then promptly took them down.

    One only needs to look at that “wish list” along with his past votes and policy positions to know what he believes intends to do.

  16. As a gun-owner and advocate, Obama does NOT scare me. He’s clearly a middle-ground rationalist, and he has much bigger, meaner fish to fry.

    That said, I’m STUNNED that people think the Heller case was some kind of “victory” for gun owners. In point of fact, Scalia laid the groundwork that will eventually cost us all the right to gun ownership.

    By FAILING to place the emphasis on states rights (which Obama supports), he instead insisted this was an “individual” right. Now, that sounds well and good if you want to stick your head in the sand and pretend your rights are now protected. But the reality is, he threw in a clause that gives any future gun-control power to the FEDERAL–rather than state–Government.

    The section is this: “Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should 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.”

    Now…who do you want to decide on “laws imposing conditions…on the sale of arms”? The lawmakers in Helena and Boise…or the lawmakers in Washington, DC?

    Just remember, when you gun becomes illegal…it was Scalia who made it possible. Not Obama.

  17. “Unless Holder wants to forbid gun sales to people with disreputable family members or friends, it’s hard to imagine how any law could prevent this situation.”

    Of course Holder wants to forbid gun sales to people with disreputable family members or friends. He wants to forbid gun sales to people with reputable family members or friends, too.

    In fact, Holder wants to forbid gun sales to people.

  18. I am one of the millions who have gone out and bought a gun after the election. I feel strongly that I will personally fight to protect the Bill of Rights, especially the first and second amendments. The gun ranges are packed and the stores are running out of ammo because people are stocking up. There will be a revolution if the second amendment is brought up and guess what? The ones with the guns will win! You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead hands if you want it.

  19. Well the simple truth is that it’s too early to tell.

    However the choices of cabinet members do seem to validate the view that Washington “group think” will continue to prevail under Obama, and the Constitution be damned.

  20. I like Steve’s comment about one senator like Helms putting the hold on the nomination.
    I don’t expect it though. When doing the very basic decent thing is characterized as requiring “courage” – it is clear the battle is already LOST.
    I am so sick of the communist twisting of the language and the meaning of the very basics of everything.
    It’s time people started throwing off this communist inspired defeatist language.
    How about ” do we have a single senator from either party that respects the Constitution and the 2nd amendment ” ?
    I’m expecting the answer to be ” No “.
    Especially with republicans who seem to think in error that “since they took a thumping” according to GWB – that they can just hand their representation entirely over to the communists.
    All right, then get yer butt out of the seat, and resign now, you idiots.
    It shouldn’t be just one “courageous senator” – it should be the majority of the Senate standing against a gun grabbing AG – but barring that absolutely crazy dream, how about the majority of the republicans actually DOING WHAT THEY CLAIM THEIR PLATFORM TO BE AND TO STAND FOR –
    and blocking any kookball dem lib gun grabbing piece of crap like the spook up for hire under Obama mentioned ?
    Huh, how about just the very miminum basic that any sane person would expect ?
    We can’t expect even that, can we ?
    Of course not, it takes someone as brave as the hated Jesse Helms – according to common thought…
    What a CRIME – it’s gone buds – it’s over with.

  21. Obama wants to make the scary-looking-guns-ban permanent. So, no he won’t respect the 2nd amendment.

    It should work as well as the ban on heroin did.

  22. So…one more Marxist/Socialist Attorney General spitting on the Constitution..and Janet Reno was a conservative supporter of the Second Amendment?

    Most of us learned the lessons of Ruby Ridge and Waco. This time will be different.

    Give me liberty or give me death!

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