CPAC 2015: The History of Gun Control

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP
National Harbor, MD

The history of gun control is one of a constant shift in focus, CPAC attendees learned at a breakout session on Saturday. Anti-gun advocates have moved from a steady push to cancel the Second Amendment on the federal level, to shifting to state level campaigns, and in some cases they are winning because of the left’s ability to buy the press.

The session, lead by the NRA’s Leslie Rusnak, traced the basic historical timeline of efforts to curb our Second Amendment rights. Noting that the National Rifle Association started in 1871 to help train Americans in the use of firearms, Rusnak pointed out how remarkable it is that there was no such thing as an anti-gun group in the US until the 1930s. But when anti-gun advocates first started their efforts to curb the Second Amendment, they were focused on the federal level.

Rusnak started with the 1934 National Firearms Act which was aimed at curbing the lawlessness of Prohibition-era gangsters who had taken to using Thompson Submachine Guns in their interminable gang wars.

The ’34 Act was the first federal law to seriously curb American’s Second Amendment rights, Rusnak said. In one instance, the National Firearms Act put in place a licensing fee of $200 for each fully automatic weapon, pricing them out of reach for a country where the average yearly income was under $2,000. The act also banned the importation of fully automatic weapons.

Anti-gun advocates claimed that their efforts were “one time” policies and meant only to “make the streets safe” from the gangs. Indeed, for several decades, there wasn’t much movement on the anti-gun front. That quiet ended in the 1960s, after race riots and the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King took their toll, Rusnak said.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 went much further than the 1934 law by giving sweeping powers to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to regulate guns and gun sales.

During the earliest days of the ’68 law, the ATF constantly trampled the rights of gun sellers with its ever-shifting definitions and conceptions about what was “illegal,” and this overstepping brought the National Rifle Association further into the political arena than ever.

The onslaught of anti-gun groups and laws became so severe that the NRA spearheaded the passage of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, an attempt to set limits on the gun grabbers.

The law wasn’t perfect—one setback was that both the manufacture and importation of fully automatic weapons was banned—but it was one of the first times the pro-gun forces got a “win” on the federal level, Rusnak said.

By the late 1980s and the early 1990s, anti-gun lobbyists were very straightforward about their goals. They wanted all handguns banned. But as the years rolled on, they began to realize that the American public stood against their radical ideas. So, the anti-gun focus began to shift from wholesale bans to partial bans.

This shift brought a major victory for left-wing forces with the 1994 Assault Weapons ban. This law was sold to the public as a “safety measure” but was based on false information. In fact, Rusnak said, the anti-gun forces had to literally invent scary gun categories in order to ban them. The term “assault weapon,” for instance, had no meaning previous to their banning—and still really doesn’t.

But one provision of the assault weapons ban forced the law to sunset in a decade. And after the country realized that all the gun crime that the weapons ban was meant to stop wasn’t impacted at all, few elected officials had the backing of voters to re-up the ban ten years later.

Since the failure of the re-authorization of the 1994 Assault Weapons ban, pro-gun forces have realized a series of wins, not only by keeping more federal anti-gun laws at bay but also at the Supreme Court level.

For the first time in over 200 years, two cases affirmed that the Second Amendment was an individual’s right to own weapons, not a collective right meant only for “the militia” as some organized army.

But while facing some major setbacks on the federal level, Rusnak warns that the anti-gun forces are not down and out of the game. They have indulged yet another shift in focus, this time to the state and local level.

Using the deep, deep pockets of their multi-billionaire donors, anti-gunners are targeting left-leaning states with ballot initiatives and laws meant to curb guns, even in the face of the Supreme Court’s decisions.

The left’s scheme is to essentially buy the media with the millions they have at their disposal. And losing isn’t a big deal to them, Rusnak said. Even single wins here and there helps them advance their agenda, whereas any loss for pro-gun advocates is a loss of our freedoms.

The scheme was at its most effective in Washington State. With the successful passage in 2014 of Initiative 594, the anti-gunners spent $10 million to pass the law. And they won. Still, even though they won and the NRA was outspent 20 to one, the anti-gunners couldn’t even get 60 percent of the vote—a telling fact. And now that the law is passed, many voters are upset after actually being impacted by the law.

As the new law takes effect in the Evergreen State, many are coming to rue its passage. Those opposing the legislation won’t back down from their opposition, and in other cases, new bills are being introduced to whittle away at its provisions.

Regardless, anti-gun forces see the ballot initiative as the next big way to smash the Second Amendment.

But the NRA, Rusnak said, isn’t standing still. Its next big fight is to nationalize Concealed Carry Reciprocity.

Currently when you go through the process of gaining your concealed carry permit in one state, the observance of your legal rights to carry is left up to the vagaries—and shifting politics—of all the other states. The NRA feels that every state should have to recognize any other state’s carry permit. Consequently, the NRA wants to make the rules uniform and prevent what happened in Pennsylvania where an extremely political new Secretary of State just canceled the state’s concealed carry reciprocity with other states.

So, as Rusnak concluded, the anti-gun forces are not folding their tents, and those of us who support the US Constitution need to stay vigilant.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at