In April, the Senate rejected the Toomey-Manchin gun control proposal. In the wake of its defeat many asked why gun owners and their organizations resisted so limited a measure. Granted, it would have had little but symbolic benefit. Its core was to require background checks at gun shows (which Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded involved a whole 0.8 percent of crime guns) and on Internet gun sales (a miniscule proportion, most of which probably go through licensed dealers anyway). But why not accept something so modest, in light of the draconian ideas then being floated as alternatives?
Understanding the rejection requires understanding gun owners' shared experiences. Compromise requires that both parties relinquish something. If your counterpart's position is "give me this now, and I'll take the rest later," there is no real compromise to be had. Over decades, that has been precisely the experience of American gun owners.
Back in 1976, Pete Shields, chairman of what is today the Brady Campaign, candidly laid out the blueprint for The New Yorker:
We're going to have to take one step at a time, and the first step is necessarily — given the political realities — going to be very modest. Right now, though, we'd be satisfied not with half a loaf but with a slice. Our ultimate goal — total control of handguns in the United States — is going to take time. My estimate is from seven to ten years. The problem is to slow down the increasing number of handguns sold in this country. The second problem is to get them all registered. And the final problem is to make the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition — except for the military, policemen, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors — totally illegal.
The group's first target was "Saturday Night Specials," inexpensive small revolvers, alleged to be criminals' preferred gun. When that approach gained traction, Shields shifted to a larger target, claim that criminals were now using "expensive, but small pistols," so all small pistols had to be banned. "Concealability is the key," he now explained.
As the years passed, it became apparent that this was going nowhere; a different first "slice" would have to be found. In 1990, Violence Policy Center (VPC) announced that it had found it. The debate must be switched from small handguns to large "assault rifles."
Handguns, VPC explained, had become a media and political nonissue, while calls to outlaw "assault rifles" would benefit from mistaken impressions, i.e., "the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun." That rifles of all types were involved in about 300 homicides a year was beside the point. The search was for a target of opportunity, not a solution to crime.
The major gun control organizations bought the idea, to the point of changing their names to replace "handgun" with "gun." Pete Shields' group, Handgun Control, Inc., became the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The National Coalition to Ban Handguns became the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence.
The change underscored a lesson gun owners had already learned. Their opponents would go for any target of opportunity—if handgun restrictions didn't fly, try to restrict rifles—and use that as a foundation to take more in the future. Any "reasonable compromise" would simply be a first step in a long campaign to make firearm ownership as difficult, expensive, and legally risky as possible.
Take the example of California. There, 1920s legislation required a permit for concealed carry of a firearm, required dealers to report handgun sales to the state, and imposed a one-day waiting period for handgun sales.
The one-day wait was meant to impede "crimes of passion," but in 1955 it was increased to three days, in 1965 to five days, and in 1975 to 10 days.
Open carry of a firearm was initially allowed. In 1967, open carrying of loaded guns was prohibited. In recent years, open carrying even of unloaded guns was forbidden in incorporated areas. The mere sight of an unloaded gun was apparently too much for the California legislature to tolerate.
In 2001, dealers were forbidden to sell handguns that were not approved by the government, after rigorous laboratory testing, funded by the manufacturer. Every slight variation, even changes in color or finish, required a new certification. The tests actually had nothing to do with reliability or safety, as evidenced by the exemption of law enforcement firearms from them.
Along the way, the state banned "assault weapons," magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and private gun sales that didn't go through dealers. In 1999, "one gun a month" was enacted, for no discernible reason (why would a gun runner pick the most tightly regulated state in the West as his source?)
Today, the weapons regulation portion of the California Penal Code Annotated spans over 1,050 pages, yet at last count 68 more gun control measures are pending in the legislature. No matter how much the advocates of gun control get, it will never be enough.
Or try New Jersey, which requires a license to own guns, plus a separate permit for each handgun. Carrying open or concealed is in practice forbidden (the legal standard for a permit is "urgent necessity"), carrying of hollow-point bullets is subject to complex rules, and magazines are limited to 15 rounds.
That's not enough, apparently, since the New Jersey legislature is considering bills to cut the magazine limit to five rounds, and to require psychiatric evaluations and home inspections before issuance of the firearm ownership license. Recently three legislators had an embarrassing "hot mike" problem after a gun bill hearing, in which someone proclaimed, "We needed a bill that is going to confiscate, confiscate, confiscate."
Or try New York, long considered to have the strictest gun laws in the country, including requiring pistol possession permits (issued at the sole discretion of police, with application fees as high as $340), carry permits limited in some jurisdictions to government officials and celebrities, and a 10 round magazine limit. Then came the Newtown slayings, and the legislature decided it must do something more. The legislation it rushed through reduced the allowed magazine capacity to seven rounds (effectively outlawing the many firearms for which seven round magazines have never been made), required background checks to buy ammunition, and greatly broadened its "assault rifle ban."
New York's Attorney General described this as "modest first step."
So much for compromise.