The anti-gun-control people use a lot of arguments that are pretty fragile, but one or two that aren’t. My least favorite argument in the entire armamentarium of polemics is Slippery Slope. That is the line used so extensively by the ACLU to protect its children—pornography, the extirpation of religion in any public situation, abortion rights. That line of reasoning tells you (to repeat an illustration frequently made) that if you disallow Deep Throat, the next thing you know, you’ll be banning Ulysses. The gun lobbyists insist that if you ban the AK-47 you’re going to end up banning the .22 rifle.
Now the National Rifle Association people are quite right to be suspicious of the designs of gun-controllers. It is absolutely true that there are people around who, if they had the power, would gladly disarm every American household. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California admitted as much when commenting on the 1994 gun-control act: “If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them, Mr. and Mrs. America, turn them all in, I would have done it.” And the Washington Post, supporting the 1994 ban on assault weapons, said pretty much the same thing. “No one should have any illusions about what was accomplished [by the ban]. Assault weapons play a part in only a small percentage of crime. [The ban] is mainly symbolic; its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control.”
When President Clinton, reaching for a symbolic gesture after the slaughter of the children in Jonesboro, Arkansas, promulgated his ban on the importation of 58 different kinds of “assault weapons,” that shot triggered thunderous volleys of the customary rhetoric on both sides. If you scrape away the fustian you can make out what both sides are saying. The ostensible argument is over the uselessness of an assault rifle for sports or hunting. The other side is full of statistics on the infrequency of the use of rifles, let alone assault rifles, in violent crime. But what they are really arguing about is the use of automatic rifles for killing people intentionally.
The Tennessean, for instance, commending the ban, states in its editorial, “Lawmakers should not be fooled. Guns that have no purpose but to kill people are not sporting weapons. No sportsman should support the importation of such guns.”
Should we care if a million or two assault rifles are ordered and oiled and occasionally fired on the range?
The NRA answers that the armed services use fully automatic weapons (machine guns), while weapons of the kind that have been banned are semi-automatic. Then, “Throughout American history, most firearms…used by the Armed Forces were first used by civilian gun owners, including semi-automatic firearms.” And then to the heart of the NRA’s case: “…firearms that might be defined as ‘military’ would be protected by the Second Amendment, which guarantees that the people may be armed to protect life and liberty, not merely to engage in ‘sport.’” The NRA cited the famous Miller decision of 1939, which, although it authorized the illegalization of sawed-off shotguns (shotguns having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length), acknowledged that “the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense” and that “when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves.”
Something has to give here. Assault-gun collectors aren’t arming to face an invasion of chipmunks. Should we care if a million or two assault rifles are ordered and oiled and occasionally fired on the range? The statistics, as acknowledged by the Washington Post, are pretty reassuring: The rifles aren’t used, except in statistically negligible cases, for the commission of crime. Where they are used, more modest weapons would have served about as well.
We are left with a constitutional impasse. The Second Amendment can be made to sound as if it authorized any weapon. Common sense would seem to compel a different reading of it in a nuclear age. There is probably a Supreme Court test ahead of us, which will take on the Miller decision and restore constitutional literacy to a nation benumbed by the contradictions.
— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and editor of National Review.