Gun Control

Will Pandemic Fears Grease the Way for Authoritarian Gun Controls?

Lawmakers are peddling restrictions on self-defense and other rights to a frightened public.


Draconian bills to restrict self-defense rights have a life of their own in Congress. There's always one lurking in the background, individually unlikely to become law, but ready to be deployed if a suitable high-profile crime or convenient crisis emerges to ease its passage. And that brings us to the "Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act of 2020," a far-reaching bill hovering in the legislative shadows as the COVID-19 pandemic fuels fears around the globe and breaks down barriers to authoritarian measures.

Introduced in the Senate and the House at the end of January by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), the bill would impose federal licensing for guns and ammunition, require universal background checks, ban so-called "assault weapons," outlaw normal-capacity magazines, regulate DIY firearms, and otherwise impose the full wish list of restrictions sought by those who envision armed government ruling over disarmed subjects.

With its massive intrusions into rights deeply cherished by much of the population, the proposed law is a recipe for massive noncompliance, confrontations between people and enforcers, and deepened political divisions. It's also exactly the sort of legislation that is usually dead on arrival, killed by opponents in Congress. But these aren't normal times. Officials with fever dreams of expanded power thrive on the fear generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As the coronavirus pandemic brings the world to a juddering halt and anxious citizens demand action, leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance," The New York Times warned on March 30.

"The laws are taking swift hold across a broad range of political systems—in authoritarian states like Jordan, faltering democracies like Hungary, and traditional democracies like Britain. And there are few sunset provisions to ensure that the powers will be rescinded once the threat passes," the Times added.

The restrictions described in the article are wide-ranging, covering everything from detaining people, to surveillance, to censorship of speech aimed at politicians and policies.

In the U.S., the Department of Justice floated the idea of indefinite detention—holding people without trial until such time as the emergency ends, if ever. California Gov. Gavin Newsom speculated about the possibility of martial law "if we feel the necessity." Washington D.C.'s Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to arrest anybody who ventures from home for an unapproved reason (and toss them in a virus-ridden jail). And jurisdictions across the country have ordered gun stores—among other "nonessential" businesses—closed for the duration of the crisis (although Los Angeles County and New Jersey are among those that walked back the orders under public pressure and threat of legal action).

These overreaching public officials are enabled by fear.

"All animals experience fear—human beings, perhaps, most of all. Any animal incapable of fear would have been hard pressed to survive," wrote economic historian Robert Higgs in 2005. The author of Crisis and Leviathan (1987), a book-length examination of how bad times drive government to grow in power and scope, Higgs added: "The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature. They exploit it, and they cultivate it."

That's exactly the playbook followed by Warren and Johnson in selling their gun control bill. They play to the fear many members of the public have of dangers beyond their control, and their desire to be "saved" from peril.

"Sweeping Bill Implements a Series of Common-Sense Reforms to Address Deadly Crisis," Warren's and Johnson's joint press release trumpeted on January 30, before the COVID-19 pandemic was more than a glimmer in most government officials' eyes. "This big, bold proposal—which combines and builds upon a number of common-sense measures introduced by my colleagues in Congress—would treat the epidemic of gun violence in the United States like the public health crisis that it is, help protect our children, and make our communities safer."

The press release describes a country rife with violence "in homes and on sidewalks, in schools and supermarkets, in places of worship and workplaces," with the risk especially great for kids. It invokes very scary stuff—deliberately so—in an effort to manipulate the public into supporting greater restrictions on personal liberty.

What Warren and Johnson don't address in their marketing efforts for authoritarian legislation is that "violent crime declined 3.3 percent between 2017 and 2018" according to FBI descriptions of the latest statistics. Or that "the two most commonly cited sources of crime statistics in the U.S. both show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since it peaked in the early 1990s," as Pew Research noted last fall.

Nor do Warren, Johnson, and their colleagues discuss the inevitable resistance their proposed gun controls will meet—as such laws always do—from the gun owners at whom they're targeted. Banning private sales is entirely beyond reach when Connecticut and New York can't even get people to comply with registration.

The lawmakers also ignore the ultimate cost in liberty and lives from attempts to enforce such restrictions on the unwilling.

Instead, what the lawmakers emphasize is a frightening yet bogus "crisis" involving a made-up "epidemic"—and they managed to do so in promotion of their bill just as a real crisis-sized epidemic rolled into our lives.

That doesn't mean that the "Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act of 2020" will pass, but it does mean that this is the right moment for authoritarian laws and practices of all sorts. It also means that this particular legislative monstrosity is being sold in precisely the most effective way for such a moment.

As I write, Columbia Law School is holding an online conference on "states of emergency and government powers in and after the pandemic" that asks "are governments overreaching?" The clear answer would appear to be a resounding "yes" across the board. At risk are rights regarding economic freedom, speech, due process, and—if Senator Warren and Rep. Johnson have their way—self-defense.

Pushing back against bills like the "Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act of 2020" isn't important just for self-defense rights; it's a necessary part of a larger campaign to put governments on notice to stop exploiting fear and crises to expand their power.