A sweeping gun control bill stoking red-state resistance may prove more of a blessing than a curse for Second Amendment supporters.
Since Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, introduced the Sabika Sheikh Firearm Licensing and Registration Act on Jan. 4, news reports have triggered a swift backlash. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cited the legislation in a recent speech, calling for the Lone Star State to declare itself a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” and a similar measure has already been drafted in Alabama.
Lee’s bill would require gun owners to buy liability insurance to the tune of $800 a year; institute a federal firearms registry with stiff criminal penalties for noncompliance; ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition; and require training, licensure and a psychological exam in order to own many common types of semiautomatic rifles.
This Texas lawmaker’s wish list is all hat and no cattle. More than a month after filing the legislation as H.R. 127, Lee hadn’t secured a single co-sponsor. GovTrack’s policy analytics partner Skopos Labs gives the bill a scant 3 percent chance of becoming law.
Despite its lack of traction, the Library of Congress website ranked H.R. 127 its most-viewed bill for the last two weeks. More Americans looked up the proposed gun restrictions than read the House resolution to impeach former President Donald Trump in the days before his Senate trial.
The gun lobby scarcely made a peep when Trump’s Department of Justice enacted a rule banning bump stocks in December 2018, suggesting careful, incremental changes could succeed. But likely alternatives to Lee’s bill are still too extreme.
Caricatured as an affable moderate, President Joe Biden is decidedly left of center on gun laws. A plan on the Biden-Harris campaign website calls for a stricter version of the 1994 assault weapons ban, a limit on magazine capacity, a gun buyback program and an expansion of so-called “red flag” laws that undermine due process.
The president’s sales pitch drips with hysterical language, referring to consumer-grade semiautomatic rifles as “weapons of war.” Guns like the AR-15 bear a cosmetic resemblance to fully automatic military rifles, but that’s where the similarity ends, Campbell University law professor E. Gregory Wallace explains in a Tennessee Law Review article published last year.
“The AR-15’s rate of fire is virtually identical to non-banned semiautomatic handguns, rifles, and shotguns,” Wallace wrote. “Its accuracy is better than some firearms, but worse than others.”
Experts say the prevalence of AR-15s in mass shootings is due to the rifles’ military-style appearance and the copycat effect, not ballistics. Politicians who want the guns outlawed rely on scare tactics and emotional arguments because the facts simply don’t support their premise.
FBI figures show handguns were used to commit homicide 22 times more often than rifles of all types in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Uniform crime reporting data shows 297 people lost their lives to rifle fire, while knives and cutting instruments were used in 1,515 killings, “personal weapons” such as feet and fists accounted for 672 deaths, and blunt objects such as clubs and hammers claimed 443 lives.
There’s also no evidence the 1994 assault weapons ban was effective in reducing gun violence. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org calls the expired law’s results inconclusive, noting that both sides in the debate “are cherry-picking from the studies.”
While gun control remains polarizing, there’s overwhelming consensus that Congress should expand background checks, making private sellers follow requirements that currently apply only to licensed dealers. In a 2018 Gallup poll, 92 percent of respondents said they favor universal background checks as an approach to preventing school shootings.
Do Democrats have the message discipline and political pragmatism to advance a clean background check bill that most voters can support, or will they bet the farm on a heavy-handed gun ban?
Either way, they’re in for a fight. H.R. 127 has gun owners on high alert. When party leadership coalesces around alternative legislation, opponents will be fundraising and flooding Congress with phone calls before the ink dries.
By vastly overestimating Americans’ appetite for gun control, Sheila Jackson Lee may have shot herself and fellow Democrats in the foot. A cardinal rule of gun safety, Congresswoman: Aim before you fire.