By Marc Fisher
Sunday, December 7, 2008
For decades, partisans on both sides of the nation's gun-control debate looked to the Supreme Court as some believers await a sign from the messiah: Someday, the justices would rule, and then, like it or not, we would know. Finally, firearms would be freely available as a basic American right, or they'd be strictly regulated, restricted to limited purposes.
But here we are, less than six months after the high court ruled 5 to 4 that the District's ban on handgun possession violated the Constitution's Second Amendment, and the partisans are at their battle stations, arrayed on either shore of the Potomac like the Hatfields and McCoys of yore.
Sam Hatfield, for example. He's the proprietor of Hatfields Gunsmiffin', a shop in Old Town Manassas that sells and customizes firearms. Hatfield and his volunteer apprentices can barely get their craftwork done these days because of the constant stream of customers. Like most other gun shops across Virginia and throughout much of the country, Hatfields is happily bucking the recession as he copes with an onslaught of business.
Meanwhile, across the river in the District, even after the Supreme Court ruling, there's no run on guns. Only 248 weapons have been registered in the city since the July decision, police said. That could mean that D.C. residents came to like their gun ban, or it could reflect continuing confusion over just how tightly the city is going to restrict gun ownership.
As The Post reported in October, gun sales nationwide have been rising steadily since summer, as the prospect of Barack Obama's election became clearer. Since then, sales numbers have shot through the roof.
In November, according to the Virginia State Police, more than 38,000 guns were sold statewide, more than double the average number in the preceding 24 months. State police monitor the background checks made on every potential buyer.
A sign on the wall of Hatfield's store says: "STOP: This store is not the place to voice your political or religious views. Please keep them to yourself." But no sign can dam the wellspring of panic Hatfield says is sweeping up many Virginians, including lots of first-time gun buyers. "It's a premature panic attack," he says. "Definitely a knee-jerk reaction to the election."
People are buying just about anything and everything except hunting rifles, he says. Semiautomatics with magazines are going especially fast -- the weapons that many buyers assume gun-control advocates would target first.
Hatfield agrees with his customers that it's important to "have the ability to defend yourself, not just from individuals, but to keep the government in check." But he's also a bit amused by the rush to buy. After all, he says, even if Obama were to push for tighter controls, such a move would hardly occur overnight.
In the District, however, the lawmakers are moving with blazing speed, and there's no panic of gun buying. The D.C. Council last week voted unanimously to require gun owners to alert police once a year if they possess firearms, re-register weapons every three years and submit to a background check every six years.
"I'm trying to find the right balance," says Phil Mendelson, the at-large council member who wrote the bill. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to stand on the steps and say, 'The courthouse doors are open, sue me.' "
That's exactly the kind of person Mendelson (D) looks like to the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates, who were already talking lawsuit within minutes of the council's vote.
In retrospect, it was unrealistic to think that our deep divide on guns might be bridged by a Supreme Court decision, especially one that both affirms the constitutional right to bear arms and acknowledges that government may regulate access to firearms. Some people are raised to believe that a gun is this nation's most important symbol of individual freedom. Others grow up believing that easy access to firearms is a bizarre exception to this country's claim to an advanced state of civilization.
The cultural stalemate has created a political reality: No one who has been elected to national office is going to make major changes in gun policy. They don't want to touch the subject, and the room to maneuver is impossibly narrow.
Even Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, says the rush to buy guns isn't necessarily justified. "You've really had a sea change in the center of the Democratic Party," he says. "A lot of cooler heads in the Democratic Party are going to say, 'Don't take us into that battle again.' "
The main action will return to the courts, where advocates will battle over regulations designed to keep guns away from dangerous people.
The District seems intent on forcing a courtroom confrontation it is likely to lose. Although he says the object is not to get sued, Mendelson concedes that the city is trying to limit access to guns. "If we can't have a complete ban, we want to try to preclude ownership by the people most likely to commit gun violence," he says.
The winners in all this are the gun industry, the lawyers who will fight over regulations and the academics who in a couple of years will be asked to parse whether new gun violence stemmed from this surge in sales or from the nation's economic woes. The result will be what guns always produce: more questions -- part of a puzzle that, it should be clear by now, no court will ever solve.