In November 1979, reason ran an excerpt from the book Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. The authors described the illegal surveillance, searches, and raids that would be required for effective handgun control and said liberals were "increasingly coming to oppose the prohibition of handguns for civilians" because of the massive civil liberties violations that would necessarily come with it.
Thirty-six years later, we've recently seen a long lull in major pushes for gun control—a lull that lasted more than a decade. But now liberals are bringing the issue back into the national spotlight. While violent crime has dropped by half since the 1990s, a series of high-profile mass shootings, from the 2012 Newtown elementary school massacre to the 2015 attack at a San Bernardino civic center, have provided the justification.
In January, President Barack Obama announced, in a teary-eyed address at the White House, unilateral measures to tighten federal controls on guns. These included more background check requirements, more blanket psychiatric disqualifications from firearm ownership, and more reporting on lost guns. He also directed federal agencies to find ways to keep their guns from unauthorized use and accidental discharges, acknowledging that the government represents the largest purchaser of firearms in the country.
Democrats have also called for prohibiting people on the no-fly list from purchasing weapons. Though the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is involved in lawsuits on behalf of people wrongly placed on that same list, it left open the possibility that, were it to be "fixed," it would then be OK to use it to restrict people's Second Amendment rights.
The connection between civil liberties–violating policies like "stop and frisk"—popular in New York, Chicago, and other major cities in the 2000s—and the gun control impulses that helped make those policies politically palatable is being downplayed. Recent measures to impose more control on legal firearm owners, such as a requirement that "assault weapons" in Connecticut be registered, have been met with widespread noncompliance. Meanwhile, a new law has gone into effect in California allowing authorities to seize guns from those legally possessing them, without notice, if a judge determines a "potential for violence" based on complaints from family.
In 1979, liberals writing in reason warned how much power—and potential for abuse—government would need in order to effectively ban handguns. In 2016, liberals on Twitter called for a federal crackdown on protesters in Oregon largely because they were armed. Times, it seems, have changed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Civil Liberties or Gun Control?".