“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” declared “Beto” O’Rourke at a Democratic party presidential candidate debate in September. Compelling Americans to surrender their so-called assault weapons is “the newest purity test” for Democratic presidential candidates, according to the Washington Post. O’Rourke and other Democratic presidential candidates, including Cory Booker, Kristin Gillibrand, and Bill de Blasio (now withdrawn from the race, as are Gillibrand and O’Rourke) have all endorsed mandatory buy-backs of assault weapons. Though such proposals are momentarily politically profitable, they could start a cascade of public-policy dominoes that ends in civil war.
When Australia and New Zealand mandated buy-backs of assault weapons, most gun owners ignored the decrees despite politicians repeatedly ratcheting up their threats. Similar noncompliance to laws requiring surrender or registration of assault weapons has occurred in California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and elsewhere.
Congress passed an assault-weapons ban in 1994 that lasted for a decade. The original assault-weapons ban protected Americans from being shot with rifles that included features such as grenade launchers, bayonet lugs, or other detailing whose primary impact was to fuel the phobias of gun haters.
Shortly after the 1994 ban was passed, a Washington Post editorial admitted, “Assault weapons play a part in only a small percentage of crime. The provision is mainly symbolic; its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control.” Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, in an article headlined, “Disarm the Citizenry. But Not Yet,” explained the “real logic of the ban”: “Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation.” Krauthammer, who was revered by much of the nation’s mainstream media, trumpeted his support for “real steps” on gun control including “the banning of handguns.”
There is not a clear, consistent definition of “assault weapon” but most politicians are using vague terms that could include more than 10 million firearms. Almost all the ban advocates favor prohibiting rifles built on the AR-15 design. Though these firearms have been endlessly demonized, they are involved in a very small percent of homicides. All types of rifles account for only 3 percent of homicides, and AR-15-style weapons are only a small fraction of the rifle-related homicides.
But that doesn’t matter to politicians who are crusading against guns the way Temperance activists crusaded for Prohibition a hundred years ago. Assault-weapons laws resemble hate-speech laws. Hate-speech laws usually begin by targeting a few words that almost no one approves of. Once the system for controlling and punishing “hate speech” is put into place, there is little or nothing to stop it from expanding to punish more and more types of everyday speech. Similarly, once an assault-weapons law is on the books, there is little to prevent politicians from vastly increasing the number of weapons banned under the law.
Revving up the rhetoric
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Cal.) has been among the most outspoken anti-gun politicians. Swalwell says the government should first offer a buy-back for retroactively banned weapons and then forcibly confiscate them one by one if necessary. Swalwell declares that his “mandatory national ban” of assault weapons is “bold and … it rightly treats gun violence as a life-or-death matter.” A Twitter critic summarized Swalwell’s pitch: “We’re not taking anyone’s legal guns, we’re just changing the law so the guns are illegal and then we will take them.”
When a conservative activist suggested that gun grabbers wanted a war, Swalwell replied, “And it would be a short war, my friend. The government has nukes. Too many of them. But they’re legit.” Swalwell did not specify how many bombs he would be willing to drop to end violence. His anti-gun zealotry made him an instant hero, persuading him to briefly run for the Democratic nomination for president.
Other Democratic candidates have also warned of the grave perils facing anyone who would resist a government-disarmament command. Former Vice President Joe Biden scoffed in September, “If you want to protect yourself against the federal government, you’re going to need at least an F-15” fighter jet.
But Americans resisting mass gun confiscation will not need to defeat the feds. They would merely need to wait until government agents commit horrific blunders that turn millions more Americans against Washington. That pattern has repeated itself in American history in federal gun crackdowns gone awry.
And if the government attempts seizures?
In clashes between government agents and citizens, weaponry is not destiny. In August 1992, in the initial firefight at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, a camouflaged team of U.S. marshals with submachine guns was routed by a 14-year-old boy with a Ruger Mini-14 and a 25-year-old guy with a 30.06 rifle. False statements by federal officials during and after the siege at the Weavers’ cabin helped destroy the credibility of the criminal prosecution of the survivors the following year.
In February 1993, an assault by more than 70 federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents was routed by the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, despite the ATF’s having automatic weapons and being supported by National Guard helicopters flying over the Davidians’ home. The ATF never sought to peacefully serve a search warrant on David Koresh and his followers. Instead, the agency’s code name for the attack was “Showtime” and local television stations had been alerted ahead of time to cover the glorious assault.
After each of those initial debacles, the FBI came in and made the situation far worse. FBI snipers at Ruby Ridge were given an unconstitutional “if you see them, shoot them” rule of engagement that resulted in the killing of Vicki Weaver as she stood in her cabin door holding her baby. At Waco, the FBI launched a tank and gas assault that included firing pyrotechnic grenades at the Davidians’ ramshackle dwelling; the subsequent fire left 80 people dead.
In both cases, the feds were spooked by popular resistance. At Ruby Ridge, the FBI and their law-enforcement allies were becoming encircled by armed private citizens, many of whom opposed the feds. Attorney General Janet Reno declared that the “first and foremost” reason she approved the final FBI assault at Waco was that “law-enforcement agents on the ground concluded that the perimeter had become unstable and posed a risk both to them and to the surrounding homes and farms. Individuals sympathetic to Koresh were threatening to take matters into their own hands to end the stalemate and were at various times reportedly on the way.”
Any firearms crackdown will be applauded by politicians and activists who hate gun owners as much as they hate guns if not more. Fair play is irrelevant when officialdom is saving humanity — especially women and children. The same politicians and media outlets who portray practically every privately owned firearm as a school massacre in waiting will scorn the rights of government victims.
Many rural gun owners are as unlikely to surrender their guns as they are to give up their Bibles. Escalating government force will create martyrs that multiply resistance. The British government’s heavy-handed repression of all Bostonians for a “tea party” by a smattering of activists helped turn the 13 colonies against King George. Any vigorous attempt to forcibly commandeer millions of weapons will result in clashes that the government will sometimes lose — especially given the record of police who either freeze up or cower in crisis situations, such as the Parkland School shooting, the Las Vegas Mandalay Hotel carnage, and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre.
Any attempt to enforce widespread gun confiscation will require suspending Americans’ constitutional right to trial by jury. An Idaho jury found Ruby Ridge defendants not guilty: “Government witnesses cause case to collapse,” a Washington Post headline later declared. In 1994, a Texas jury rejected charges that Branch Davidians were guilty of murdering federal agents in a verdict the New York Times described as a “stunning defeat” for the feds. Juries in Montana, for instance, might resist convicting firearms violators the way that Massachusetts juries in the 1850s often refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Juries would not defer to the assertion of federal agents whom some people viewed as the equivalent of foreign invaders.
The First Amendment could be another gun-grab casualty. During the final day at Waco, the FBI continually broadcast “this is not an assault” as its tanks collapsed 20 percent of the Davidians’ home. The videos of the FBI tank assault swayed far more Americans to completely reject not just the federal claims on Waco but to question whether the entire government had far too much power for the safety of American citizens. Almost everybody with a cell phone has a video camera within reach, and film clips of federal agents smashing into homes and assailing defiant citizens would be more incendiary than any presidential tweet. Such optics will prove disastrous unless the government can prevent uploading any such videos to the Internet. If the government seeks to preemptively prevent exposures of its enforcement campaign, then it will lose the support of vast numbers of Americans who are not gun zealots.
Congress and their bureaucratic allies cannot count on local officials to carry out Washington’s commands. Sheriffs in New York state, New Mexico, and Colorado have already publicly refused to enforce what they consider unjust gun laws. The only way to carry out mass seizures of weapons in many parts of the nation would be by declaring martial law. But that would be perilous because many National Guard members might refuse to carry out orders, especially after enforcement efforts killed innocent civilians. Losing the loyalty of the troops would be the final straw to cause confiscation to collapse — but not until vast damage had been done to the government and private citizens. The more force the U.S. government uses, the more certain it is that federal credibility will collapse.
A ban on assault weapons would be only the first domino to fall — the “stepping stone,” as the Washington Post admitted decades ago. After an assault-weapons ban fails to end shootings, advocates will demand that all semi-automatic firearms be prohibited and confiscated. (The vast majority of rifles sold in recent decades have been semi-automatic.) And if such a ban was proclaimed and still failed to end violence, then politicians would of course have no choice but to confiscate all handguns. Each failed government intervention would provide the pretext for politicians to redouble their repression of Americans.
Citizens should remember that the government that claims a right to seize their firearms also denies that it has any legal obligation to protect individuals from violent criminals. Almost no one is holding politicians advocating mass gun confiscation liable for the carnage their proposals would produce. Instead, gun-ban proposals are being treated as moral imperatives or viewed as a chance for national atonement. Unfortunately, politicians can win votes in primary elections for championing policies that would ravage much of the nation.
This article was originally published in the December 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.
James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Freedom Frauds: Hard Lessons in American Liberty (2017, published by FFF); Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.