A well regulated militia
Now that President Obama has put forward his proposals on gun control, the issue has entered the arena of legislative politics with all its complications. Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, finds himself at the center of it.
And he does so by his own choice. It was his decision to stay as chairman of the Judiciary Committee rather than accept the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. That decision was a major disappointment for Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who had expected to become chairwoman of Judiciary.
For Feinstein gun violence is a matter of bitter experience. She was the member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who had the unhappy duty of announcing to the public in 1978 that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been murdered by an unhappy former supervisor, Dan White.
Now Feinstein has introduced a bill that would ban the sale and manufacture of 157 types of semiautomatic weapons.
News reports suggest she knows it is an uphill road, owing to the power and influence of the gun lobby and widespread reluctance among senators to embrace expansive gun regulations.
Leahy has introduced his own bill that is seen as more likely to succeed. It would expand background checks and take steps to curb trafficking.
Leahy is at the eye of the storm, with gun control advocates worried that he will go too slow and gun rights advocates worried that he will go too far. He has been outspoken on behalf of Obama’s actions, and he will convene hearings next week.
Scheduled witnesses include Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association; James Johnson, police chief for Baltimore County, Md.; Capt. Mark Kelly, co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions; Nicholas Johnson, law professor at Fordham University; and Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum.
It appears Leahy intends to get something done, though it remains to be seen whether he can muster enough support to guarantee passage for Feinstein’s bill.
Meanwhile, in Montpelier the politics of gun control reflect a near-unanimous unwillingness to take on the issue. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said that gun violence requires a national solution and that it is futile for individual states to attempt a patchwork of remedies. Sen. Philip Baruth, a Democrat from Chittenden County, had other ideas and introduced a bill banning assault weapons — the kind of bill, presumably, that would please his liberal constituents in Burlington.
But the legislative leadership is far from eager to take up gun control, which would become a highly charged distraction, and so Baruth, who is now Senate majority leader, succumbed to pressure and took the unusual step of withdrawing his own bill.
Baruth’s zigzag is revealing about the power of the gun issue. It is arguable that Vermont sportsmen would understand that high-powered semiautomatic weapons with large ammunition clips have no use in hunting deer but that they do represent a threat to human safety. But pressing that point in the Legislature would require taking on the NRA and the dust and noise it is always able to kick up.
Central to confronting the gun lobby is the matter of individual selfishness. Gun aficionados zealously defend their right to choose whatever firearm they like to stock their gun racks or to take to the rifle range. And yet stacked up against their freedom to buy the weapon of choice is the welfare of the community, not because most gun owners are going to do harm but because unregulated commerce stands to place dangerous weapons in the hands of the wrong people.
If our lawmakers can determine that restrictions on certain weapons or forms of ammunition would enhance the safety of our children, what is it but selfishness for a gun lover to say his choice must not be abridged? Well-tailored gun regulations ought to appeal to the patriotic instincts of gun collectors.
After all, the Second Amendment refers to a “well regulated Militia.” Let us regulate it well.