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Banning assault rifles: It is a matter of public safety

Written By | Feb 18, 2018
Banning Assault Rifles

By Steve Rainwater from Irving, US – img_5566, CC BY-SA 2.0,

WASHINGTON, February 17, 2018: The killing of 17 people in Florida came as the result of the easy availability of military-style assault rifles. The NRA, the gun industry and those they finance in Congress are quick to blame our problem of mass shootings on “mental illness.”

But there is no more mental illness in the U.S. than in other advanced countries where gun violence is negligible.

America’s gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than a group of 22 other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine.

Guns are the reason.

The U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population and more than half of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.

Florida, where more than 1.4 million people have licenses to carry concealed weapons, has some of the most permissive gun laws.  To buy an AR-15, the gun in the Parkland school shooting that resembles the M-16 assault rifle, requires a cursory background check.  So cursory that the shooter, Nicholas Cruz, who was expelled from school and whose home police visited nearly 40 times, could easily pass it.

He could not purchase a beer in Florida but had no trouble purchasing an AR-15.

 Parkland mass shooting: time to think nationally, act locally 

Even if you are on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, you can purchase this weapon.  What, then, is the purpose of such a watch list? Similar laws put military-style weapons in the hands of shooters who killed:

  • 14 people during an office Christmas party in California in 2015,
  • 49 people in a Florida nightclub in 2016, and
  • 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017.  What, one wonders, would the death toll have been if these shooters had been armed with a knife rather than an AR-15?
  • 17 students and teachers at Parkland

The only purpose of a weapon of this sort is to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time frame.  These weapons are not designed for hunting or self-defense, but for combat, accompanied by multiple ammunition magazines.

They have become the weapon of choice for mass murderers

 An AR-15 killed small children in Newtown, Connecticut, and untold additional victims since then.

Banning assault rifles is fully consistent with the Second Amendment.

These weapons were already banned.  In 1994, President George W. Bush, under pressure from the NRA and the gun manufacturers, allowed the ban to die.  In 2005, Bush signed into law a measure protecting arms makers and dealers from liability for crimes committed with their products.

The NRA called it “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.”

Unlike handgun purchases, which carry a minimum age of 21 and require a three-day waiting period before the sale, anyone 18 and over can walk out of a gun shop in Florida with an AR-15 in a matter of minutes.

Horror on my street: Parkland shooting demands mental health discussion 

 A Pew poll last year, before the latest mass shooting, found that 68 percent of Americans favor banning assault weapons, including 48 percent of gun owners. That number is surely higher today.  The latest school shooting has led some pro-gun politicians to speak up against the AR-15.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said on the Senate floor:

“I have hunted all my life.  But an AR-15 is not for hunting.  It’s for killing.”

The fact is that the idea of the Second Amendment promoted by the NRA and the gun industry is a revisionist idea, bearing no relationship to what the Framers of the Constitution intended.  In the 1990s, Warren Burger, who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a conservative appointed by Richard Nixon, declared that the Second Amendment:

“has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud. I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have seen in my lifetime.”


Conservatives say they believe in “originalism,” interpreting the Constitution by seeking to understand exactly what its authors had in mind. If they were honest about it, they would find that the NRA’s advocacy of unlimited ownership of any kind of weapon, civilian or military, to be the opposite of what the Framers meant and the courts traditionally upheld.  Until the 21st century, no court suggested that the Second Amendment even called for an “individual” to right to any weapon.

Historians point out that in creating the Second Amendment, the Founding Fathers sought to prevent the existence of a standing army during times of peace.  They felt that, when given too much power, armies would overthrow democracy and put a military rule in place.

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 As James Madison told the Constitutional Convention in 1787,

“A standing military force will not long be safe companions to Liberty.  The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.  Among the Romans, it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was approached.  throughout all Europe, the armies kept up, under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

The Second Amendment was written with this in mind.

“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Prior to 2001, every court decision concerning the Second Amendment asserted that the “states’ rights” or “collective right” model was inherent in the written words of the Amendment and that it did not apply to individuals.  It recognized the right of each state to arm its militia.  Under this view, citizens as individuals have no right to keep or bear arms, but the states have a collective right to have the National Guard.

The right to bear arms does not preclude banning assault rifles

In United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the Supreme Court held that,

“The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution, neither is it in any manner dependent on that instrument for its existence” and limited the scope of the Second Amendment’s protections to the federal government.  In United States v.Miller (1939), the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment “did not protect weapons types not having a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.”

Only in 2008 in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, by a 5-4 vote, did the Supreme Court hold that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms.  Ironically, Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s leading advocate of “originalism,” turned his back on the consensus about the intent of the amendment’s authors.

Hewing closely to the Framers’ intent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent:

“The Amendment’s text does justify a different limitation: ‘the right to keep and bear arms’ protects only a right to possess and use firearms in connection with service in a state-organized militia.  Had the Framers wished to expand the meaning of the phrase ‘bear arms’ to encompass civilian possession and use. They could have done so by the addition of phrases such as ‘for the defense of the individual.'”

Whatever one thinks the “right to bear arms” set forth in the Second Amendment may mean, whether it is individual or collective, this has nothing whatever to do with the notion of the NRA and gun manufacturers, and the politicians they purchase, that such a “right”  must include weapons of war.

D.C. v  Heller

Justice Scalia, in his decision in D.C. v. Heller, makes it clear that the ownership of weapons can be properly overseen by the government:

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and bear any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.  The court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on…laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of firearms.”

If the original intent of the Second Amendment had not been altered by a militant campaign funded by the gun industry and the NRA, Newtown, Las Vegas, Orlando and now Parkland, Florida might not have happened.  For some people, the Second Amendment has become something of a cult. It is sad to see people who call themselves “conservative,” who say they respect the Constitution and the original intent of its authors, so easily led to join such a cult. Hopefully, they will come to rethink the deadly policies they have been promoting.

The time has come to outlaw assault weapons, a step fully consistent with the Second Amendment, as even Justice Scalia has declared.

Must more people die before common sense at last prevails?


Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.