“House Democrats will fight to pass bipartisan, common-sense solutions to prevent gun violence in communities across the country.”
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Front-runner for speaker of the U.S. House
The 2018 midterm elections yielded such a colorful patchwork of outcomes that, as the results began to trickle in, both parties had something concrete to cheer. Early in the evening, it became clear that we were headed for a divided federal legislature, with Democrats taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republicans maintaining—and, indeed, expanding—their majority in the U.S. Senate. As the night progressed, it became apparent that the results in the states would be mixed, too. Overall, the Democrats increased their strength at the gubernatorial level and in the statehouses. But they did so without winning high-profile contests in Ohio and Iowa (and likely Florida and Georgia, too), and without knocking out the GOP’s governors in deep-blue states such as Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland. On the day after the election, a popular question in the press was, “Does this count as a blue wave?” This inquiry prompted an array of different answers, but the fact that it was asked at all tells us something important: American politics is presently in flux.
How Second Amendment advocates feel about the results will, to some extent, depend upon where they live. Floridians such as myself are relieved that the polls were so wrong. More relaxed than they might otherwise have been are Georgians, Texans, Iowans and South Dakotans. Nevadans, New Mexicans and Californians, by contrast, are alarmed—and with good reason. Nov. 6 was a night of conflicting stories and incomplete narratives, and geography, as so often, was key. In consequence, those hoping to develop a solid impression of where the pressure points now lie need to look more closely at the map.
But—and this is a big but—they also need to remember that they are not islands, for, however salutary were the results in a given state, nobody is off the hook here. Nobody. Yes, Nov. 6 brought some encouraging news for gun owners. But it also provided their opponents with some powerful levers that, if pulled, will have consequences nationwide.
The good news is that the Senate will be able to continue its work putting originalist judges on the federal benches—work that will now include filling the six vacancies on the infamous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Together, President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been remaking the judiciary at a record pace. And with an expanded—and more conservative—Senate majority, they will have at least another two years in which to do so without serious pushback. Should another vacancy arise on the U.S. Supreme Court, it is now all but guaranteed that it will be filled with a jurist who respects the Constitution as it is actually written, rather than as he or she would like it to be written. In addition, the lower courts, where much of the judiciary’s crucial day-to-day work is done, are becoming more likely by the day to stay within their bounds. For Americans who hope to ensure that the right to keep and bear arms is encroached no further—and who are forced by recalcitrant state governments to rely upon judges for the protection of their liberties—this is a welcome development, indeed.
The bad news for gun owners is that the other chamber, the House of Representatives, is now being run by figures who are openly hostile to the Second Amendment, and who can do a great deal of damage to it should they so wish. Nancy Pelosi has already made it clear that the new majority will make gun control “a priority” both on the floor and off it, and there is no reason whatsoever to doubt her. Before long, it seems, we will see the House attempt to introduce federal legislation regulating the private transfer of firearms—even when those transfers occur within a single state, or in no way implicate “commerce,” or are made between family members; we will see an attempt to prohibit, confiscate or restrict beyond reason the most commonly owned rifles in the United States; and we will see a series of attempts to make firearms, ammunition and accessories considerably more expensive than they currently are. Because a pro-gun majority remains in the Senate, it seems unlikely that these measures will pass imminently. But, even if they do not, the media will pick up on the attempts and use the opportunity to demonize anyone who dissents. Like it or not, a political fight is coming.
Away from the spotlight, meanwhile, the House’s various committees will do their level best to advance or enhance the gun control agenda. It is almost certain that u.s. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., will be the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which, traditionally, has jurisdiction over firearms legislation. Congressional records show that Nadler has voted in favor of every single anti-Second Amendment measure that has come up since he arrived in Congress in 1993, and that his views on the right to keep and bear arms are outside of the mainstream even within his own party. Nadler is against the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), preferring a federal five-day waiting period instead; he wants to entirely prohibit gun shows; he believes that firearm manufacturers should be liable if someone misuses their product; he opposes stricter due process protections for veterans who are at risk of having their right to bear arms undermined; and, most astonishingly of all, back in 2008 he opposed repealing Washington, D.C.’s extremely stringent regulations even after the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Given Nadler’s history, it seems reasonable to assume that any legislation that makes it out of the committee he will head up will be as draconian as it can feasibly be. Gun owners should be ready to reject it.
Nancy Pelosi has already made it clear that the new majority will make gun control “a priority” both on the floor and off it, and there is no reason whatsoever to doubt her.
Beyond the direct effects of the changes in House leadership, we can (and should) expect a total cessation of House oversight of the non-governmental institutions—in particular, financial institutions—upon which the gun control movement has increasingly come to rely. Thus will the stage be set for a replay of Operation Choke Point should an anti-gun president take office in 2021. Elections, as the author of policy liked to say, have consequences, and in the House of Representatives, those consequences look highly alarming. Were it not for the countervailing results in the Senate, the right to keep and bear arms would most assuredly be in immediate trouble.
And then there is California.
Strange as it is to say, the election of Gavin Newsom has guaranteed that California’s state government is about to become even more hostile toward the Second Amendment than it currently is. Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown is nobody’s idea of a pro-gun politician, but in the coming years Californians who value their right to keep and bear arms may look back upon Brown’s tenure as a relative Golden Age. Certainly, Brown signed far too many gun control bills during his last eight years. But even he had a limit. Among the measures that Brown vetoed were a bill that would have outlawed all semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines; a bill that would have required gun owners to register effectively every single type of rifle as an “assault weapon”; a bill that would have permitted teachers, professors, employers and co-workers to petition for an individual’s firearms to be taken away; and a bill that would have studied the idea of creating a “lifetime firearm prohibition” database into which Californians could voluntarily place themselves. These proposals, Brown said, would have done nothing to improve public safety.
Brown was right, even if “does nothing to improve public safety” perfectly describes the vast majority of the bills he did sign. But that, unfortunately, is not going to matter for long, because for Newsom there exists no such line in the sand. If a gun control bill hits his desk, Newsom will sign it without reflection. Even before he became governor, Newsom was successfully leading the fight for drastic changes to the law. It is in part because of him that California requires background checks on ammunition purchases, and in part because of him that the state tried to confiscate all magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds (a move that was halted by a judge and remains on hold). Given that the California Legislature has, if anything, become more extreme in recent years, it seems likely that the measures that Brown nixed will make it into law before long—and, thereby, that they will affect at least one in 10 Americans. Moreover, given that Newsom clearly sees himself as the national leader of the #Resistance—and views California as an oasis of progressivism in a benighted, backwards nation—it seems likely that Newsom will end up using his position to agitate for similar laws to be imposed federally.
Newsom was not the only red flag that voters raised on election night. In neighboring Nevada, incoming Gov. Steve Sisolak has announced his intention to enforce the “universal” background check law the state’s attorney general concluded in 2017 was both unimplementable and unenforceable. In New York, meanwhile, the Republican party lost control of the only veto point it maintained, the state Senate, and thereby left a newly re-elected Gov. Andrew Cuomo with a blank check to use as he sees fit. And in Wisconsin, which had seen something of a renaissance in the right to keep and bear arms since 2010, Gov. Scott Walker was replaced by Tony Evers, a former school superintendent who, among other things, has called for a state-run registry of gun owners.
The core lesson to be learned from these midterms should be acutely obvious to Second Amendment advocates, who, as a result of 30 years of focus and hard work, have managed to achieve that rarest of things—the restoration of a right once lost. The judiciary has played a part in that story, and, given the revival of originalism we are seeing on the federal bench, it has a significant role to play in the future. But the root of the change has been solidly democratic (with a small “d”). For decades now, gun owners have knocked on doors, shown up at the polls and engaged in good old-fashioned persuasion. By doing so, they have made it clear to their representatives that they expect them to follow the law—and that if they don’t follow the law, they will be removed. If Nov. 6, 2018, showed us anything, it is that the stakes are as high as they ever were. When advocates of the right to keep and bear arms win races, they secure the future for themselves and their posterity. When they don’t, those age-old risks rear their ugly heads once more.
How did the election go? How long have you got? And what are you going to do about it?
Charles C.W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.