Just four days after the patriots defeated the Red Coats at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the inhabitants of occupied Boston were desperate to flee the city. The British governor, Gen. Thomas Gage, offered a deal. Just turn in your guns to selectmen at Faneuil Hall marked with your names, and you can leave Boston. The deal stated that “the arms aforesaid at a suitable time would be return’d to the owners.”
Bostonians turned in “1778 fire-arms, 634 pistols, 973 bayonets, and 38 blunder-busses.” What happened next is revealed by the Continental Congress in its Declaration of Causes of Taking Up Arms of July 6, 1775: The inhabitants “delivered up their arms, but in open violation of honor,” Gage “ordered the arms... to be seized by a body of soldiers” and “detained the greatest part of the inhabitants in the town.”
Recalling such experiences, the Founders penned and ratified the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, declaring that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
In 1934, the first draft of what became the National Firearms Act would have required registration of, and a $200 tax on, pistols and revolvers, along with machine guns. The NRA successfully lobbied to remove handguns from the bill—mind you, this was just a year after Prohibition was repealed. Imagine the new crime wave that would have erupted had the original bill passed.
The ultimate purpose of registration is to facilitate confiscation. New York City passed long-gun registration in the 1960s. This eventually led to the city demanding that registrants confirm they got rid of their semi-automatic rifles.
Just before Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Congress gave wide powers to the government to requisition property. But, cognizant of the ongoing atrocities in Europe, the law forbade any act to “authorize the requisitioning or require the registration of any firearms possessed by any individual for his personal protection or sport,” or “to impair or infringe in any manner the right of any individual to keep and bear arms.”
Congress rejected bills to require gun registration in 1968, and it prohibited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from adopting regulations to register gun owners in the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. An anti-registration provision in the 1993 Brady Act did not stop the Clinton administration from keeping records for six months of persons who passed the NICS background check, and, in NRA v. Janet Reno (2000), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that this obvious registration scheme wasn’t actually registration. Congress again had to step in and prohibit NICS from keeping the records once the background check was passed.
The ultimate purpose of registration is to facilitate confiscation. New York City passed long-gun registration in the 1960s, denouncing opponents as paranoid “right-wing kooks.” Then, in 1991, it banned any semi-automatic rifle with a bayonet mount or other “assault weapon” feature, which included the venerable M-1 Garand purchased through the Civilian Marksmanship Program. The police demanded that registrants confirm that they got rid of their rifles and threatened that they would knock on doors.
Now we have the drive to enact “universal background checks” on law-abiding gun owners (don’t hold your breath for criminals to undergo them). Requiring “universal background checks” on private sales, according to the National Institute of Justice, “depends on … requiring gun registration.” To avoid that “loophole,” registration has to be the next step, or otherwise the guns could not be traced to the current owner.
“Shotgun Joe” Biden proposes that owners of undefined “assault weapons” choose between a “buyback” from the federal government (which never owned them to start with) or registering them under the National Firearms Act. Expect about as much compliance with that as occurs in California each time the state changes the rules and broadens the “assault weapon” definitions to encompass more guns required to be registered.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” Beto O’Rourke proclaimed. But his colleagues want him to keep his mouth shut about the actual plan to confiscate maybe 17 million rifles. Not to worry, Beto responds, owners will sell them “back” to the government with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts.
Actually, after an embarrassingly few sell their junk rifles to the feds, it would be time to round up the rest. The rifles aren’t registered, but the records of every person who made the first retail purchase are available at the FFL dealer shops. The dealer records could be inspected and the identities of the purchasers could be obtained. It then might not be much trouble getting magistrates to rubberstamp applications for search warrants. It might not even matter if the guns were purchased years before and may not even be at the address on the Form 4473 or that the purchaser does not even own the guns anymore—I’ve seen warrants aplenty approved with such lack of probable cause.
But who’s going to confiscate all those rifles? The feds cannot conscript local law enforcement to enforce its gun laws, because the U.S. Supreme Court said exactly that in Sheriff Jay Printz v. U.S. (1997), a case I was fortunate to handle. The job would have to be assigned to ATF Special Agents, many of whom would likely recoil at such orders.
That brings us to the dirty part. Since 1775, Americans haven’t taken kindly to armed government agents confiscating their firearms or conducting searches and seizures. Searches entail the ransacking of houses to find contraband. No-knock warrants served at night will result in homeowners mistaking agents for intruders. This is a recipe for bloody disaster for both agents and citizens.
This would be a nightmare no sane American would want. The electorate has the power to vote down the politicians who peddle such snake oil.
Not to mention that the U.S. Supreme Court held in D.C. v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment protects firearms that are in common use or are typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes. The AR-15 falls easily within that description, penned then-lower-court Judge Brett Kavanaugh in a dissenting opinion in a case known as Heller II. But that hasn’t stopped courts from upholding such bans in the jurisdictions that have them.
There’s another long-simmering issue that affects many citizens in their daily lives: The policy in some states to ban the right of the people to “bear arms,” which the Second Amendment dictates “shall not be infringed.”
These infringements began with New York’s Sullivan Act of 1911, which banned the carrying of handguns for all New Yorkers other than the influential few who could get licenses. The first person sentenced under the act was a working man named Marino Rossi, who carried a revolver because he was in fear for his life from the Black Hand criminal gang. The police obviously weren’t protecting him. But the judge gave him a year in Sing Sing, scolding the custom of “your countrymen” and “your kind” (Italian Americans) “to carry guns,” which “furnishes much of the criminal business in this country.”
After over a century, another part of the Sullivan Act is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. You have to have a “premises license” merely to have a handgun in your home in New York City, and, for all practical purposes, the handgun cannot be taken out of the home. It may as well be attached to an ankle bracelet. The court of appeals in New York City upheld this idiocy based on the flimsy allegation of a police official that it would “endanger public safety” to allow a licensee to take an unloaded, inaccessible handgun to a second home or a shooting match.
Afraid that the U.S. Supreme Court would throw out the law and say something nice about the Second Amendment, New York City has changed its policy to allow taking handguns elsewhere, although that may require yet another license.
On the bright side, some courts have repudiated “trust me” arguments that bearing arms can be banned and the state will protect you. Rejecting the argument that the right to bear arms for self-defense is confined to the home, the court of appeals in Chicago opined that “a Chicagoan is a good deal more likely to be attacked on a sidewalk in a rough neighborhood than in his apartment on the 35th floor of the Park Tower.”
Californians were not so lucky, as the Ninth Circuit upheld discretionary handgun licensing for a favored elite, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision. But Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented, explaining: “For those of us who work in marbled halls, guarded constantly by a vigilant and dedicated police force, the guarantees of the Second Amendment might seem antiquated and superfluous. But the Framers made a clear choice: They reserved to all Americans the right to bear arms for self-defense.” Hopefully, the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve the issue in another case.
Stephen P. Halbrook is an attorney and a senior fellow at the Independent Institute who has argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and is the author of The Founders’ Second Amendment, Gun Control in the Third Reich and Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France.
History Also Shows Us What Happens After Gun Confiscation
Grisly things have happened to disarmed peoples. Examples include Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Idi Amin’s Uganda. In two books, I’ve focused on the Nazi experience. As shown in my book, Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State,” the Weimar Republic enacted gun licensing and registration in the 1920s, and when Hitler came to power in 1933, he used the records to disarm any and all political opponents. In 1938, the same records were used to disarm the Jews at the time of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” No resistance to the Holocaust was to be tolerated.
In France in 1935, Prime Minister Pierre Laval decreed gun registration and repressed the right to assembly. What could go wrong? Everything. France fell to the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940, proclamations went up that anyone not turning in their guns in 24 hours would be shot, the armistice provided that French police would work for the occupiers and those very same police had the registration records. Until Liberation, countless gun owners were executed for not surrendering their firearms, but others fought back. This is all documented in my book Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France: Tyranny and Resistance.
Gun prohibitionists deny that such events ever happened, but, as a fallback, insist that it could never happen here. The trouble is, it did happen to disenfranchised African Americans in the American South. When slavery was about to be abolished here in the U.S., Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, famously wrote: “The best work I can do, therefore, for the freed-people, is to promote the passing of just and equal laws towards them. They must have the cartridge box, the jury box, and the ballot box, to protect them.”