At a press conference yesterday where he announced the arrests of more than 700 people connected to Mexican drug cartels, Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated the Obama administration's support for reinstituting a federal "assault weapon" ban. The Democratic Party considers the law—which covered 19 models by name, along with other guns that had certain "military-style" features (such as pistol grips and bayonet mounts) and magazines holding more than 10 rounds—the very model of reasonable gun control. Its 2008 platform called for bringing back the ban, and Obama has repeatedly voiced support for it. Both he and Holder say they are confident it would pass constitutional muster even after last year's Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms.
On the face of it, Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller suggests Obama and Holder are right. He implied that the Second Amendment would allow the government to ban possession of "dangerous and unusual weapons," in contrast with weapons "in common use." But it is difficult to argue that the guns covered by the "assault weapon" ban were especially "dangerous," since they were selected mainly based on scary looks, as opposed to features that make a practical difference in the hands of criminals. Furthermore, many arguably were "in common use"; certainly magazines holding more than 10 rounds were (and are).
As I've argued, the very arbitrariness of "assault weapon" bans invites further gun control, because they are designed not to work as advertised. "I think [a federal assault weapon ban] will have a positive impact in Mexico, at a minimum," Holder said at the press conference. ABC News explains that "Mexican government officials have complained that the availability of sophisticated guns from the United States [has] emboldened drug traffickers to fight over access routes into the U.S." The linked story makes a passing reference to "high-powered assault weapons" (a misleading description, since the guns that fall into this arbitrarily defined category are not, as a group, more powerful than the guns that don't). But the story is mainly about America's allegedly lax gun laws, the reason "U.S. gun stores and gun shows are the source of more than 90 percent of the weapons being used by Mexico's ruthless drug cartels." An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives tells ABC, "It's virtually impossible to buy a firearm in Mexico as a private citizen, so this country is where they come." So a conversation that starts with banning guns that are (erroneously) identified as especially "dangerous and unusual" very quickly turns to the ease with which "private citizens" can obtain guns of any kind.
TalkLeft notes that the Obama administration, while seeking to ban "military-style" guns, seems bent on increasing the use of the actual military to wage the war on drugs, especially along the border with Mexico. Before he does that, our president might wan to consult with former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who understands that the war on drugs creates the very conditions of violent disorder that are cited to justify escalating it.
In terms of drug policy, there was at least one positive sign at Holder's press conference. Asked if the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is part of the Justice Department, would continue the medical marijuana raids that Obama promised to end during his campaign (a promise a White House spokesman recently said he intends to keep), Holder replied:
What the president said during the campaign, you will be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing here in law enforcement. He was my boss during the campaign, he is formally and technically and by law my boss now, and so what he said during campaign is now American policy.
Update: LarryA notes that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, perhaps cognizant of what happened to Democratic members of Congress the last time around, is less than enthusiastic about Holder's call for a new "assault weapon" ban:
"On that score, I think we need to enforce the laws we have right now," Pelosi said at her weekly news conference….
That phrase is the stock line of those who don't want to pass new gun control laws, such as the National Rifle Association.
[Thanks to John Kluge and Tom Angell at LEAP for the links.]