Feb. 14, 1929, began in Chicago like any other Valentine’s Day holiday; men and women affirming their affection, a cold wind blowing through the city and the prospect of several more weeks of winter ahead. It ended with seven bootleggers cut down by Thompson submachine guns in the back of “Bugs” Moran’s garage. Chicago was shocked and the county horrified. Over the next few years the likes of Bonny and Clyde, John Dillinger and Baby Faced Nelson all used machine guns to support careers of crime and murder. Machine guns were legal and easily obtained.
National outrage led to the National Firearms Act of 1934. The act regulated machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and several other kinds of firearms. It did not outlaw them, but tightly controlled the circumstances under which they could be possessed by private citizens. Among other things, it required an extensive background check that included submitting photographs and fingerprints and payment of a then-substantial registration fee. Its effect was not to eliminate machine guns or sawed-off shotguns, but it did limit their availability and use.
Today, we watch our children being massacred in schools and attacked at movie theaters and rock concerts, yet the country does nothing to regulate the weapons that have caused this seemingly ceaseless slaughter. We argue about the purpose and intent of the Second Amendment; a constitutional provision designed to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens, not the power of disturbed people intent only on bringing death and injury to the most innocent members of our society.
Powerful guns designed to hurl large amounts of ammunition at a target as quickly as a trigger can be pulled are bought and sold with little or no regulation; with less apparent regulation than we apply to pharmaceuticals or Volkswagens. Demands to ban “assault rifles” miss the point; are futile and impractical. In the first place, defining an “assault rifle” is much like defining pornography or holding mercury in your hand. Precise definitions of the item lead to minute changes in manufacture that put the product outside the definitional scope. And the term “ban” runs right into the Second Amendment and triggers eschatological arguments about individual rights and government power.
We suggest another path. We suggest that Connecticut or the federal government focus not on impossible-to-define “assault rifles,” but on much more easily defined “semi-automatic” guns. We suggest that these weapons, whether long gun or pistol, not be banned, but regulated, just as machine guns and sawed–off shotguns have been for the last 80-plus years. Impose registration, deep background checks, hefty ownership taxes and requirements for demonstrated, thorough training and proficiency as conditions to ownership. Those who currently own such firearms could chose to register them under the new standards or turn them in to the authorities for an appropriate amount of compensation. We believe that such an approach would survive judicial examination under even the strict scrutiny test of constitutional law.
There can be no more fundamental government responsibility than protecting innocent lives, particularly the lives of our children. Regulation of semi-automatic firearms rather than prohibition and confiscation is an effective way to protect these interests and balance the rights of legitimate sportsmen and women who wish to continue to acquire and use these guns for target shooting or hunting.