WASHINGTON — Washington--THE NATIONAL RIFLE Association, whose first line of defense against all efforts at gun control is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, popularly and in oversimplification known as "the right to bear arms," has just taken a serious hit from the Supreme Court.
The court, in declining to reconsider a federal appellate court's ruling upholding a federal ban on the private sale of new machine guns, has for the first time indicated that it accepts the interpretation of the Second Amendment that it conveys a collective rather than individual right. It had previously declined to review local bans, which are spreading, especially in suburbs of major cities like Chicago.
The NRA has long contended, but has been wary of testing in court, that the Second Amendment guarantees the unrestricted right of any individual to own and keep a firearm. But lower courts have held that the precise language in the amendment -- "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" -- clearly refers to the collective raising of a community defense, not the right of one person against reasonable governmental limitations in the interest of public safety.
An NRA spokesman says the Supreme Court really didn't take a position on the machine-gun ban and that the case dealt only with a specific kind of weapon, but it was the NRA that brought the case to the court on the Second Amendment grounds. As a result, the ruling constitutes a major blow to the gun lobby's longstanding use of the Constitution as the core element in its fight against regulation.
A practical result may be that the NRA may have to curtail "the right to bear arms" as its slogan and fall back on that other turkey it so often uses -- "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" and that most firearms are used for hunting, target practice and other sporting endeavors.
But it is hard to make the case in this instance that a machine gun is a sporting weapon. An NRA researcher, Trey Hodgkins, says 175,000 such fully automatic weapons have been registered under the 1934 National Firearms Act and not one of them ever has been used to commit a crime. Such a claim, obviously, assumes that everyone who has ever committed a crime has been caught -- another of the simplistic defenses of the NRA.
While the NRA contends that the Supreme Court's failure to take on the case means little, a spokesman for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, Dennis Hennigan, says it is a clear indication "that the Supreme Court sees no reason to disturb the judicial status quo," in which the right to ban or control the sale and possession of firearms has been repeatedly affirmed.
What this latest ruling means, Mr. Hennigan says, is that the NRA will now be hard-pressed to continue its defense of firearm ownership on constitutional grounds and will be more obliged to deal with policy issues, such as "fundamental issues of public safety and the proper governmental response to the massacre going on on our city streets."
The most immediate and significant battleground on firearms control is expected to be Congress, where legislation offered by 100 co-sponsors has already been reintroduced. Known popularly as "the Brady bill" after James Brady, the White House press secretary severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan, the legislation would establish a federal seven-day waiting period before any handgun purchase through a licensed dealer. During that time, local law enforcement agents would conduct background checks on purchasers before clearing the purchase.
The Brady bill, supported by every major law-enforcement agency in the country, made considerable progress through the last Congress. Gun-control advocates say the Supreme Court's ruling in the machine-gun case should give it further impetus. But the NRA has a reputation as a hardball player in Congress, both in supporting financially the campaigns of legislators friendly to their cause and in aggressive Capitol Hill lobbying.
Quite aside from the NRA's efforts, however, gun control has always been an issue that has played out on geographic lines, with legislators from Southern, Southwestern, Mountain and Western states that have retained pioneer traditions -- even some of the most liberal congressmen on other issues -- digging in against gun control. But with the Second Amendment argument undercut by the Supreme Court, a breakthrough on enactment of a broad federal waiting period may be at hand.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column, which has also been appearing in this space, will after today be published in The Evening Sun Monday through Friday.