Foes of abortion and foes of guns have a similar problem: The Supreme Court, which says government cannot ban either one outright. What to do? Increasingly, the two advocacy movements are resorting to a similar solution: targeted regulation.
Abortion opponents started the trend and have it almost down to a science. Instead of trying to restrict abortion itself, they seek to impose rules that either raise barriers to individuals, such as waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds, or crack down on clinics.
The latter tactic has spread like a fungus across the South, where states are adopting regulations, ostensibly for safety, so stringent they are forcing clinics to close. The rules include building codes like those here in Virginia, which stipulate such fine-grained details as hallway widths and parking-space counts. Another common approach requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Those sound like common-sense measures that nobody but a pro-abortion extremist could find objectionable. Shouldn't EMTs be able to wheel a gurney down a hallway if something goes wrong?
The practical effect on abortion safety, however, is immeasurably minute. As Tarina Keene of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia noted recently, the rate of complications from abortions is considerably lower than the rate for "other common outpatient surgical procedures like biopsies, colonoscopies, [and] even oral and laser eye surgeries."
As Keene and other supporters of abortion rights note, the real purpose of such rules is patently obvious: to make abortion less available. The pro-life activists who agitate for such rules often suggest otherwise, claiming—as the Family Foundation of Virginia's Victoria Cobb did recently—that their sole concern is patient safety. If that were so, then one would expect them to seek similar regulation for other outpatient facilities, but they never do.
Sometimes abortion foes will drop the pretense. Tanya Britton, a board member of Pro-Life Mississippi, did so recently when she explained the goal behind a push to pass an admitting-privilege regulation. "These incremental laws are part of a greater strategy to end abortion in our country," she said. "It's part of it, and one day, our country will be abortion free."
All of which brings us to Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has unloaded a set of regulations meant to govern gun stores. You couldn't legally own a handgun in the Windy City until 2010, when the Supreme Court struck down Chicago's ban on handgun ownership. Chicago responded to that ruling by passing a ban on the sale of guns within the city limits. A federal judge found that unconstitutional, too. He gave the city six months to adopt a different ordinance.
The new rules—modeled on those adopted as part of a legal settlement in New York—will achieve much the same result. Gun shops could locate only in certain commercial areas, and never within 500 feet of a school or park. That effectively bans them from (yes, really) 99.5 percent of all real estate in the city. In addition, shops would have to videotape transactions. Customers would face a one-gun-a-month limit, a 72-hour waiting period for pistol purchases, and a 24-hour wait for long-gun purchases. Shops would be audited, employees subject to background checks, and more.
Proponents claim the measures are just "sensible gun-safety laws." That seems highly dubious. Before that ban, 80 percent of the guns the police recovered in criminal investigations came from nearby suburbs, or from out of state. And if the new rules take effect? Eighty percent of them will continue to come from outside the city limits. The rules promise to have about as much impact as those signs declaring certain areas "drug-free school zones."
Yet Chicago clearly wants to do through zoning and similar means what it could not do directly: make it prohibitively difficult to buy a gun legally in the city. It's doing precisely what abortion opponents are trying to do in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and other states. If Chicago succeeds, you can bet that other cities will embrace the same tactics.
But it might not succeed. As The New York Times noted recently about the targeted regulation of abortion providers, "legal experts say the legislation is raising a fundamental question: At what point is access to abortion so limited that it violates the right to the procedure" granted by the Supreme Court?
In 1992 the high court upheld certain restrictions on abortion, such as waiting periods and parental consent, but stipulated that states could not impose an "undue burden" through regulation. The proliferation of regulations governing admitting privileges, building standards, and so forth is testing precisely what that term means. No similar court ruling has forbidden states or cities to impose an undue burden on gun rights. But proposals like Chicago's could produce one.
And that would be a good thing. Regulations are problematic enough when they are written for legitimate reasons, such as preventing fraud and ensuring clean drinking water. Perverting their purpose to undermine constitutional rights is a dark, dishonest, and sinister game—no matter who plays it.