Draconian bills to restrict self-defense rights have a life of their own in Congress. There's always one lurking in the background. Left to its own devices, it's unlikely to become law, but it's ready to be deployed if a 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 breaks down barriers to authoritarian measures.
Introduced in the Senate and the House at the end of January by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) 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 would prefer to see an armed government ruling over disarmed subjects.
With its intrusions into rights cherished by much of the population, the proposed law is a recipe for noncompliance, confrontations between people and enforcers, and deepened political divisions. It's also exactly the sort of legislation that is normally dead on arrival. But these aren't normal times. Officials with fever dreams of expanded power thrive on our fear.
"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 restrictions described in the article are wide-ranging, covering everything from detentions to surveillance to censorship. The Department of Justice has floated the idea of indefinite detention, California Gov. Gavin Newsom speculated about the possibility of martial law "if we feel the necessity," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to arrest anybody who ventures from home for an unapproved reason, and jurisdictions across the country have ordered or considered ordering gun stores—among other "nonessential" businesses—closed for the duration of the crisis.
In selling their gun control bill, Warren and Johnson play on public fears and the desire to be "saved" from unseen perils. In a joint January 30 press release trumpeting their gun bill, Warren and Johnson described a country rife with violence "in homes and on sidewalks, in schools and supermarkets, in places of worship and workplaces." They invoked a false "crisis" involving a made-up "epidemic"—just as a real crisis-sized epidemic was rolling into our lives.
That potent combination of real and overblown crises doesn't mean that the "Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act of 2020" will pass, but it does mean that this is a ripe moment for authoritarian 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.
And pushback isn't important just for self-defense rights; it's a necessary part of a larger effort to put governments on notice. They must stop exploiting our fear to expand their power.
This video is based on a column originally published on April 1.
Written by J.D. Tucille. Voiceover by Katherine Mangu-Ward. Motion graphics by Lex Villena.
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