With the growing savagery of gun slaughter and the unwillingness of government at any level to do anything, Americans are reaping the fruit of one of the most successfully laid plots in history--the purchase of government by powerful interests and the re-interpretation of 225 years of constitutional law to enrich those interests.
I'm speaking specifically of the National Rifle Association, of which I was once a member, although the purchase of government leaders by other great moneyed interests can be seen everywhere, from Washington to Little Rock.
Let's recount a little history. When the 13 colonies ratified a new constitution to create a strong national government capable of raising a federal army, they adopted the Second Amendment to reassure some states that the federal government would not abolish their citizen militias, which they needed to control slaves, Indians and rebellions or attacks by foreign groups from the western territories.
It said: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The first 13 words spelled out the purpose of the final 14 words.
State militias, sometimes brought into federal service, formed the brunt of American defense until after the Spanish-American War. State militias were then formalized as the National Guard, under mixed state and federal control, and became a reserve military force sometimes deployed in foreign wars. Federal, state and local governments often passed laws regulating the sale and use of guns.
That is how the Second Amendment was viewed by courts everywhere until 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court held, 5 to 4, in District of Columbia v. Heller that it meant more--that people had a right, though not an absolute one, to carry guns into battle outside any formal military force. Even the court's majority said government could regulate their sale, possession and use.
The NRA was founded in 1871 as a sportsmen's club to promote and encourage safe rifle shooting on a scientific basis. It would be another century before it mutated into a radical political organization, basically run by the arms industry.
In 1934, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Act, which limited the size of shotguns used for killing birds. It restricted the shell capacity to three. The same year it passed the National Firearms Act, which banned machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. The NRA opposed neither. Those gun restrictions are still the law.
In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act, which banned the import of military-type weapons and barred dangerous people from having them. Since it banned foreign imports, American gunmakers and dealers (and the NRA) supported it.
The NRA re-organized in 1977 and became a political organization. Its new headquarters emblazoned across its portal the last 14 words of the Second Amendment--but not the first 13. It began to raise money to elect gun advocates and influence legislative bodies. Campaigning for president in 1976, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California gave voice to the new creed: The Second Amendment prohibited any regulation of guns.
By 1993, rising gun violence seemed to require a government study of its causes and how it could be reduced. U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey of Pine Bluff attached an NRA amendment to a government-spending bill, prohibiting the National Institutes of Health or any agency from studying gun violence. Dickey later regretted it and in 2015 pleaded with the House of Representatives to repeal his rider. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tried but was rebuffed by the House speaker, Paul Ryan.
In 1994, President Clinton insisted that Congress pass a law banning the manufacture and use of semi-automatic assault weapons, the kind used in mass killings. It did, but it was to be limited to 10 years. In 10 years, under President George W. Bush, the ban was allowed to expire, and assault weapons flooded the country. Bush also signed an NRA bill giving gunmakers and dealers broad immunity from lawsuits over the misuse of their weapons.
In 1998, after mass shootings, Australia banned certain semi-automatic self-loading rifles and shotguns, imposed strict licensing regulations, and mandated a government buyback of banned ﬁrearms. People sold back 6 million prohibited ﬁrearms and 60,000 non-prohibited weapons. Gun deaths fell dramatically.
In 2008, the Supreme Court rendered the Heller decision. Written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the majority opinion struck down an ordinance by the District of Columbia prohibiting handguns and requiring that lawfully owned rifles and shotguns be kept unloaded, disassembled or else bound by a trigger lock. It said the regulations were too burdensome under the closing clause of the Second Amendment, even though they had nothing to do with a militia. It was the first time in history the amendment had been so construed.
Two years later, the same five justices ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that a corporation had the same fundamental rights as a human and that government could not restrict how and how much they could spend independently to elect or defeat politicians or an issue. It opened the floodgates of "dark money" for corporations, including the NRA, to elect or defeat candidates who might embrace or oppose the group's causes.
In 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a bill banning assault weapons, similar to the congressional act signed by Clinton, but without the 10-year limit. The NRA killed it.
Shortly after the Las Vegas massacre a year ago, in which a gambler with an arsenal of assault weapons with bump stocks and 100-round magazines killed 58 people and injured 851, Pelosi approached House Speaker Ryan about cooperating on a new gun law that would control such weapons. Ryan said he and the Senate majority leader agreed that tax cuts would consume Congress' time and there was no time for gun legislation.
In 2016, the NRA gave notice in its publication The American Rifleman that it was increasing its dues to strengthen its voice in the presidential election. It said the election would determine whether American freedoms and gun rights would end. Gunmakers also made pleas in other publications to support the NRA's political efforts.
Federal Election Commission reports show that the NRA's PAC and the nonprofit corporate divisions spent $54 million in the 2016 elections. They paid rich dividends in federal and state elections. At the NRA's convention in 2017, President Trump declared: "You came through for me and I am going to come through for you." The NRA pledged $1 million to support Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.
Trump displayed some concern about gun violence this spring by signing a bipartisan law allowing a government agency to research gun violence, but without any money--a weak compromise to which Pelosi and Democrats finally surrendered.
Here, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is the NRA spending on politics in 2017-18:
Independent spending: $1,695,741
(For Democrats: 0) (Against Democrats: $416,105)
(For Republicans: $1,414,092) (Against Republicans: $44,591)
Outside spending: $1,894,788.
According to the center, here is the spending on Arkansas' current congressional delegation since their inceptions:
Sen. John Boozman (since 2001) $82,352
Sen. Tom Cotton (2012) $1,968,714
Rep. Rick Crawford (2010) $8,977
Rep. French Hill (2014) $1,089,477
Rep. Steve Womack (2010) $9,500
Rep. Bruce Westerman (2014) $9,504.
Hill and Cotton were the two top recipients of NRA money in Congress last year.
Arkansas does not have readily available records of the political support from the NRA for state officials. Governor Hutchinson, a former hired NRA consultant, has posed for ads with assault-type weapons and was shown shooting a pistol on a ﬁring range with NRA letters in sight.
A candidate for the state Supreme Court displayed his NRA membership in campaign materials. NRA lobbyists are familiar in the legislative halls. It would help if the public knew the nature of their business and their wants.
An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial in April examining new Vermont laws banning bump stocks and improving background checks said people were looking for "common-sense gun laws" and mentioned that the changes were about as common-sense as you could get.
The NRA continues its slogan that the Second Amendment does not allow any person's gun rights to be abridged for any reason. Several weeks ago, an ad in the local papers featured the "NRA Gun of the Week": a short-barreled 12-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip that accepted six shells, very similar to a military weapon used by our special forces.
Nothing will happen until the people find a way to cry out for sensible laws that will reduce gun deaths by mass acts of terrorism and individual acts of homicide and suicide. One way is the ballot box.
Jack W. Holt Jr., 89, is a former Arkansas attorney general and chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, 1985-95.
Editorial on 10/21/2018
Print Headline: The second amendment