Following the model of George H. W. Bush, Donald Trump is taking a major step toward becoming a one-term president. Bush thought he could become more popular by betraying his promises to defend the Second Amendment. Trump now feels the same; according to the New York Times, he has ordered his staff to work with Senate Republicans to pass a major gun-control package that would set the stage for gun confiscation.
Bush’s Good Talk and Hostile Action
Let’s remember how gun control worked out for George H. W. Bush. Like Trump, Bush had a long record of supporting some gun control; that record was part of the reason he lost the Texas Senate race in 1970 and the presidential primaries in 1980. Also as with Trump, the campaign that won Bush the presidency was strongly pro–Second Amendment: Shortly before running for president in 1988, Bush joined the NRA. His acceptance speech at the Republican Convention touted his devotion to gun rights. In a September 1988 public letter to the NRA, he promised to oppose gun bans and other forms of gun control.
Bush won the general election in a landslide against the inept Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, who as governor of Massachusetts had declared that only the police and military should have guns. Bush’s victory margin was so large that the pro–Second Amendment vote was not essential. Gun voters did, however, amplify Bush’s win by carrying him to victory in states such as Pennsylvania, Montana, and Maryland.
Bush’s campaign promises apparently meant little to him. A few weeks into the Bush presidency, the administration was set back on its heels by the Senate’s rejection of Secretary of Defense John Tower. Some conservative activists had raised concerns that Tower had a drinking problem, and that was the end of the nomination. So the White House cast about for what they thought would be a popular issue, and they chose gun control.
In Stockton, Calif., a seriously mentally ill career criminal had murdered elementary-school children in a schoolyard. If California had had a functional criminal-justice system, the criminal would have been behind bars and receiving mental-health treatment.
Bush denounced what he called “automated attack weapons” — that is, guns with a military appearance. Although the guns looked like machine guns, they functioned differently, with a much slower rate of fire — the same rate as common handguns. But Bush couldn’t be bothered to know the difference between reality and appearance, and neither could many other politicians and the media. The same is true today.
Using administrative authority, Bush banned the import of so-called “assault weapons” — almost all of which actually had well-established use in hunting and target shooting. In the courts, the Bush administration’s lawyers insisted that individuals had no Second Amendment rights. Bush’s Department of Housing and Urban Development urged local public-housing authorities to prohibit tenants from owning firearms in their homes. Bush promoted an early version of what would later become the 1994 Clinton-Biden crime bill, including a ban on many ordinary firearms. The leading Republican supporter was South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, the longtime segregationist and opponent of civil liberties.
In 1991, Bush soared to 89 percent popularity after winning the First Gulf War against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. (At the time, few people realized that Bush’s decision to let the tyrant stay in power would set the stage for more terrorism and another war.) Yet Bush had few accomplishments on the domestic side. He had already violated his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge — and was perhaps surprised to find that the people who hated him before he broke his promise hated him just as much afterwards.
In search of a domestic accomplishment, Bush again proposed a grand bargain: He would sign a crime bill with gun control if the bill would also eliminate the exclusionary rule for firearms seized as evidence. That rule, created by Supreme Court decisions starting in 1914, prevents the courtroom use of evidence that is obtained through illegal police conduct. The Bush proposal would have allowed government agents to break into someone’s home with no warrant, no probable cause, and no exigent circumstances, ransack the home to look for a gun, and then use evidence of the seizure in court against the individual. Too bad for the Fourth Amendment.
Perhaps Bush’s opposition to judicial controls on law-enforcement misconduct was not surprising. Under his administration, federal law-enforcement agencies — including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — had become notorious for legally unjustifiable and excessive violence, often with deadly consequences for the victims. Then as now, most federal agents were decent people, but the Bush administration from the top down encouraged the recklessly violent ones.
In September 1992, the National Rifle Association declined to endorse Bush for reelection. Instead, the association concentrated its resources on candidates in other races who had kept their promises. Bush lost handily to Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, in part because Bush’s conservative base had realized that while Bush talked like a Texan, he governed like a northeastern aristocrat.
The Clinton administration did everything it could to promote gun control, including winning enactment of a gun ban as part of its 1994 crime bill. (The one that most Democratic presidential candidates today accurately denounce as a disaster for civil rights.)
Clinton’s overreach on guns played a major role in flipping control of the House and Senate in the 1994 elections, electing the most pro-gun Congress since the early 1920s. As this experience showed, it’s better to be under frontal attack from an overt enemy than to be stabbed in the back by a purported ally.
Trump’s Good Talk and Planned Actions
Trump’s embrace of the Bush model is reported to include support of the Toomey-Manchin bill from 2013. The bill would forbid individuals to sell firearms to each other if the sales took place at a gun show or were advertised publicly; instead, the sellers would have to use gun stores as middlemen. As federally licensed retailers, gun stores must keep records on firearms transactions, and they contact the FBI or its state counterpart for a background check on buyers. All this has nothing to do with reducing mass shootings. From the Aurora theater to Newtown to Las Vegas, the guns used by mass shooters are overwhelmingly acquired by persons who passed background checks, or who could have passed any proposed system of checks. In a few cases, such as the shooting at Sutherland Springs, Texas, the criminal should have been stopped by the existing background-check system but wasn’t, because the relevant conviction had not been reported to the FBI’s National Instant Check System. Since 2008, Congress has enacted a variety of laws to address the problem of incomplete data.
Like Bush and Clinton, Trump is determined to “do something” — even if that something is useless when it comes to preventing mass shootings. A RAND Corporation study evaluated different gun-control laws. According to RAND, which can hardly be accused of being “pro-gun,” the social-science evidence does not provide even “limited” support for background checks, “assault weapon” bans, or other gun control having any effect on mass shootings.
The Toomey-Manchin bill was promoted with the sweetener that it would toughen the existing ban on a federal gun registry and would improve the laws protecting the interstate transportation of firearms. In fact, close reading of the bill showed that it expressly authorized a vast amount of new gun registration and gutted the existing protections for interstate transport for persons who travel to the most restrictive states, such as New York, New Jersey, and Massaschusetts. It would have vastly increased data collection and retention on law-abiding gun owners.
As the Obama administration’s Department of Justice admitted in a 2013 memo, “universal background check” laws are unenforceable without gun registration. Retail gun sales are already registered via record-keeping by the retailer. When a dealer retires, all of his registration records must be delivered to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where they are digitized. (ATF is currently not supposed to make its database searchable by the purchaser’s name.) The purpose of the background-check laws being pushed in Congress and the states is to expand registration by requiring the use of gun stores as intermediaries for transfers between private individuals — even loaning your shotgun to your cousin for a week.
Centralizing registration will be a future demand of the gun-prohibition lobby after Trump surrenders to the current demands. That is what has been enacted in California, where the government now has a comprehensive list of almost all gun owners and their particular firearms — thanks to records created for “universal background checks.”
Once there is registration, the next step is confiscation. Since 1967, all firearms in New York City have been centrally registered. Starting with mayor David Dinkins in the 1980s and continuing ever since, including under the regime of Michael Bloomberg, the registration lists have been used for confiscation, as more and more once-legal guns have been outlawed by the city council or the legislature.
The New York City Administrative Code explains the process in section 10-303.1. When the city council decides that something is an “assault weapon” (a definition that has repeatedly expanded), the police are supposed to mail a notice to the licensed owner of the registered gun. The owner has two choices: 1. “peaceably surrender his or her assault weapon” to the police commissioner, who may destroy it or keep it for police-department use; 2. “lawfully remove such assault weapon from the city of New York.”
After the confiscation process for “assault weapons” was established, a slow-motion confiscation was introduced for more firearms. According to section 10-306, it is illegal in New York to acquire a rifle of shotgun with an ammunition capacity of more than five. Existing registered owners may keep theirs, but may not pass them on to heirs. The only dispositions allowed are surrender to the police, removal from the city, or sale to a licensed firearms dealer.
Central registration lists have likewise been used for confiscation in Australia and the United Kingdom, both touted as models by American gun-control advocates.
Laws to Reduce Mass Shootings
Red-flag laws could stop mass shootings at least occasionally, which is why I testified in favor of such laws before the Senate Judiciary Committee last March. But unless the laws have very strong due-process protections (which the bills being pushed by the gun-control lobbies do not), these laws are easy to abuse. Trump himself demonstrated the problem by claiming that CNN host Christopher Cuomo should be prohibited from owning guns because Cuomo lost his temper and yelled at a lout who was harassing him and his family at a restaurant.
Donald Trump did once propose something that would greatly reduce mass shootings. “I will get rid of gun-free zones,” he promised over and over when addressing the NRA annual meeting in 2016. During the campaign he also promised, “I will get rid of gun-free zones in schools, and — you have to — and on military bases. My first day, it gets signed, okay? My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.”
Actually, he did nothing on the first day, and very little since then — not even on federal property, where many of the gun-free zones could be ended by executive-branch regulatory changes.
The Army Corps of Engineers owns millions of acres of recreational land, and the corps’ regulations ban Americans from possessing defensive arms while visiting or camping on that land. Just before the Ninth Circuit was slated to hear oral arguments in a constitutional challenge to that ban, the Trump administration told the court that the administration was considering changing the regulation. But the regulation was never changed. Instead, the Trump administration issued guidance to citizens to request written individual permission from a district commander to possess a defensive arm.
The gap between Trump’s promises and actions is unfortunate, because the vast majority of mass shootings take place in so-called gun-free zones. As studies of active-shooter incidents show beyond doubt, killing sprees almost always end when the people starting shooting back at the criminal. If law enforcement or security guards are already there, that’s good. But the police cannot be everywhere at once, and the minutes that it takes for the police to arrive are the criminals’ window of time for murder.
Unlike Trump, President Obama actually did get rid of some gun-free zones. In 2009, Obama signed legislation to allow persons to carry arms on the lands (though not buildings) of national parks, national monuments, and national wildlife refuges when in compliance with the host state’s laws for lawful carry. The carry reform was attached to a bill on credit-card reform that Obama favored. Additionally, Obama signed defense-appropriations bills that ended gun registration for military personnel in off-base housing and that allowed licensed handgun carry on-base by some personnel.
Ever since 2015, Trump has always talked big about this support for gun rights. He has one major accomplishment: unsigning the U.N. gun-control treaty that Obama had signed in 2013. He also signed a bill in early 2017 that blocked proposed Obama gun-control regulations.
Gun-rights activists might tolerate Trump’s very high ratio of talk to action. But they won’t tolerate him switching sides.
Arrogance and Ignorance
Donald Trump has flirted with the Bush model before, endorsing gun control in a February 2018 meeting with Senators Feinstein and Schumer. But Trump quickly pulled back. Now he seems more determined, apparently believing that the NRA, which is embroiled in internal conflicts and lawsuits over management issues, is too weak to stop him. Like many New Yorkers, Trump does not realize that the NRA itself is a consequence of American gun culture. If the NRA disappeared tomorrow, American gun owners would spontaneously self-organize in defense of their rights. The same is true for the pro-life movement, the environmental movement, and many others. Strike down their national organizations, and thousands of grassroots organizations will arise to take their place.
The same is not true for the anti-gun movement. There has always been a hard core of anti-gun extremists, exemplified by the 20 percent of persons in opinion polls who want to ban all handguns. But the anti-gun grassroots never did spontaneously self-organize to any significant degree. Today, that doesn’t matter, since anti-gunners are now organized by the best professional organizers that money can buy, thanks to Michael Bloomberg and other malefactors of great wealth. This creates the impression among some politicians that the anti-gun movement is larger than ever before, in terms of voting support. This is not true, but the anti-gunners are now much more visible.
Trump imagines that he will win reelection because the other party’s nominee will be so extreme. He should ask Jimmy Carter about that one. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s ideas were indeed far from the center of gravity of American politics. But the American people were tired of Carter’s weakness, indecisiveness, and incompetence, and by a landslide they decided to give the opposing candidate a chance.
Trump’s personal flaws are different from Carter’s, but more visible. In childish and unpresidential public behavior he far exceeds the previous record-holder, Bill Clinton.
For over three decades I have been in close contact with grassroots gun-rights activists. In 2016 there were a few such activists who genuinely liked Trump; the vast majority viewed him with disgust, based on his character. Yet these same activists worked relentlessly to get gun owners to the polls and thereby carried Trump to narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. If Trump follows through on his plans to betray them, they won’t forgive and they won’t forget.