June 16, 2004

Who can Gun Owners Trust?

KeepandBearArms.com had a poll up for a while that asked your opinion of an unnamed person based on his actions. The actions described were not good for gun owners to say the least. & most respondents disapproved of the person based on his actions.

Now KABA.com has a follow up in which they reveal the identity of the person described in the poll: it was the late Ronald W. Reagan.

I admit that when I found out some of the things that Reagan had done I was a bit surprised. The Reagan I was familiar with wrote this piece while he was Governor of California. The Reagan I remembered signed the Firearms Owner's Protection Act of 1986 thinking it would roll back some of the more burdensome gun control laws on the federal level (despite what I consider to be a price in excess of the value received - but more on that in a bit).

But my memory failed me.

Reagan signed California's Mulford Act in 1967. That made carrying a firearm in public verboten. He signed two pieces of legislation in the 80's; one which restricted certain types of handgun ammo (the infamous "cop killer bullets" bill) & another which prohibited the manufacture of firearms that could not be discovered by a metal detector (the "plastic gun" ban). Through an executive order he prohibited the import of shotguns that held over ten rounds. He supported the Brady Bill as well as the "assault weapons" ban,

But his writings were so passionate about the importance of the Right to Arms that it's difficult to reconcile them with his actions. It's simply not an easy thing to accept that the person who wrote about the necessity of arms for defense against criminals & government (that was redundant wasn't it?) would support laws that would disarm those same people. Reagan carried a gun himself for a while, due to threats he received, but then he turned around & signed a law that made carrying a gun in public illegal in California. It's just not easy to accept considering what we know of his character.

Now Difi carrying despite her desire to ban guns isn't a surprise at all. I can pretty much tell she's an elitist who thinks government & its employee should be privileged. But Reagan doesn't fit that mold; he's the one who said on more than one occasion that government needs to be reduced because its the problem. So I can't chalk up the chasm between his words & his action concerning the Right to Arms as the typical elitist mentality (guns for me but not for thee).

But I will say this: Reagan probably was the best president in terms of the Right to Arms (among other things) since that socialist bastard FDR. The competition he has for that title isn't much to speak of, but from what I've read I think JFK might (repeat might) have given him a run for his money. & there were presidents who went through their terms without signing nary a gun control law. I don't think Truman or Eisenhower had congresses where more gun control was a hot item. Kennedy did have that possibility as what would become the Gun Control Act of '68 was being tossed about, but it didn't get legs until after he was gone.

But Reagan signed three bills into law that dealt with firearms. Two were prohibitions that didn't have that much of a practical effect (although they set a dangerous precedent - or built on an already existing dangerous precedent I should say) & the last was arguably good or bad - depending on which camp you fall into.

The FOPA of '86 curbed some of the more burdensome aspects of the GCA of '68. I'm sure the FFL's (that'd be the federally licensed gun dealers) breathed a big sigh of relief when they didn't have to keep records on ammo purchases anymore ( I can imagine the shudders any dealer would have if he had to keep Kim du Toit's ammo paperwork straight for 20 years - hell, he'd probably have had to charge Mr. du Toit a storage fee for said paperwork) & it did offer a means of transporting a firearm through states which prohibit their transport or require a license for possession. But it did something else that I don't think was worth the benefits we received from it.

Through a questionable voice vote the Hughes Amendment was tacked onto the FOPA of '86 at the last minute. The language of one part was a bit ambiguous & it's entirely possible that Reagan simply wasn't aware of this addition when he signed it into law. The Hughes amendment did two things: it made the possession of a single part punishable as possession of an unregistered machine gun & it froze the supply of machine guns in the civilian market by prohibiting new manufacture for the civilian market.

The language reads:

"Except as provided in paragraph (2), it shall be unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machinegun.
(2) This subsection does not apply with respect to -
(A) a transfer to or by, or possession by or under the authority of, the United States or any department or agency thereof or a State, or a department, agency, or political subdivision thereof; or
(B) any lawful transfer or lawful possession of a machinegun that was lawfully possessed before the date this subsection takes effect."

(See 18 U.S.C. § 922 (o) (1))

Now since machine guns were already owned & possessed via a tax stamp subject to federal approval one could conclude that the wording didn't alter the existing law. Unfortunately it's been taken to mean that only employees of the government may own or possess machine guns manufactured after the effective date of the act. David T Hardy (who I've linked to a few times before in this post) does a thorough job of covering the possible interpretations of the Hughes amendment here.

In 1968 the GCA prohibited the registration of any machine gun already made (except in cases of an amnesty for registration which the Attorney General can set up). It didn't affect new manufacture so a post-'68 machine gun could still be registered with the NFA. But then along came Hughes & the very questionable interpretation of his amendment & post '86 machine guns are contraband - not able to be registered at all. In fact there's an argument that his amendment effectively negates the AG's power to declare an amnesty for the registration of machine guns.

I believe there are about 100,000 machine guns in the NFA registry. So I'd estimate that there are 200,000 to 300,000 machine guns that were purchased legally under the NFA rules (the ATF is incompetent at many things - keeping their NFA registry accurate is but one example). so Hughes didn't succeed in totally eliminating private possession of machine guns. So what's my beef with it then?

Strictly as a matter of national security Hughes quite possibly stunted our growth. The military relies on new designs in order to keep its troops as well equipped as possible. I think most people would agree that a well armed military is essential to our defense & security (well, except for those such as myself who would be in favor of downsizing the military & instead relying on well armed citizens [i.e. the militia] but that's another thing altogether). What Hughes did was guarantee that our military will usually be equipped to a lesser standard than possible.

John Moses Browning designed the Colt 1895 "potato digger" machine gun, the 1917 water cooled .30 caliber belt fed machine gun, the 1918 BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), the 1919 air cooled .30 caliber belt fed machine gun, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, & the 1911 automatic pistol. The M2 is still in widespread use today despite its design dating from the 1920's. The 1911 & the 1919 .30 caliber belt fed machine gun are no longer standard issue but they do appear from time to time in diverse places. The FN MAG is designated the M240 & is used by our military. I mention this because the MAG is a design variant of a 1918 BAR.

Eugene Stoner designed the M16 rifle.

David Marshall Williams (along with a few others) designed the M1 carbine.

All of these gun designers were working in the private sector. I'd wager that the majority of our firearms (used by the military) have come from the private sector. In fact the only government employee I can recall that designed a firearm that was issued to the troops was John C. Garand (he was an employee of the then government owned Springfield Armory). There's simply more incentive to work in the private sector.

There's also more incentive to sell to the private sector than to the government. Government contracts can be very lucrative providing you can get them. But they are few & far between. Bill Ruger (who left a job with the then government operated Springfield Armory to design a machine gun!) tried for some time to sell his AC556 to the military but he only received orders from various law enforcement agencies. I do seem to recall that some third world countries ordered limited quantities of the AC556 but I'd wager that civilian sales were equal or more profitable. Ruger's AC556 was also sold in a semi-automatic only version as the Mini-14.

In short, the private sector has supplied most of the new & innovative firearms designs that the military has adopted. But the military market is far too limited to be relied upon so the gun designers & manufacturers need civilian sales to have any incentive to sink time into research & development. What the Hughes amendment did was to guarantee that another J.M. Browning would not be welcome in the U.S. & his/her potential designs would never be used by the military.

If you were running Winchester or Remington would you pay someone to work on a design for an machine gun in the slim hopes of getting the military to replace what they've got right now? Or would you tell the enterprising young lad that you'd be happy to hire him but he can't waste the company's time on anything unavailable for the civilian market?

So that is one of the reasons why I believe the FOPA of '86 was simply not a good idea; it hurts our national defense. I assume you'll already have guessed my objections that it conflicts with the 2nd amendment as do all federal firearms laws & most state laws. I've written before on the necessity of civilians training with military style arms. Geek With A .45 has written about the harm that gun prohibitions can cause our military (although he uses a different example).

Reagan signed that into law. While it's very arguable that his intentions were good (in fact it's believable that he was simply unaware of the Hughes amendment & its implications) I can't chalk that up on the "goof things" side of the ledger.

As gun owners we live in a very fractured world. That fracture increases exponentially if you're an absolutist on the Right to Arms. David T Hardy enlightened me that the gun manufacturers not only agreed with the GCA of '68, but actively supported it along with the NRA. Dean Speir of The Gun Zone informed me that Bill Ruger was in favor of a ban on the possession of "hi capacity" magazines. KABA.com clued me in to the NRA's support of gun control as early as 1934.

I could go on but honestly it's just too depressing. Even those we think are on our side for their own self interests seem to switch camps for various reasons.

So I shouldn't be surprised that Reagan didn't have a stellar record in acting in defense of the Right to Arms. But I am.

As for KABA.com disclosing all this about Reagan I'm sure some will not approve. They'll think it's distasteful or for some other reason berate KABA.com for letting this out. Bur personally I'd rather know the truth whether it’s good or bad than be told a pleasant fiction.

Politics is perception; what people think you are will be more important than what you actually are. This bleeds over into many other professions but in politics it’s most prevalent. Reagan was perceived as a friend of gun owners, mainly due to his writing. His actions dispute that perception (at least to the absolutists such as myself. If you're okay with some gun control then perhaps this seems like a non-issue).

Does this change how I feel about Reagan? In some ways; yes. If he'd have been consistent in either supporting or condemning gun control then I'd have a little more respect for him. I still feel he was one of the best presidents we've had in the last 144 years or so, but given the competition that's not really saying much.

One thing it does do is make me even more untrusting of the government & those in its employ: after all if Reagan, who wrote very inspiring pieces about the importance of the Right to Arms, can support gun control then who can we trust? I can say that Rep. Ron Paul is perhaps our only friend in office as I write this. & despite the outcomes of the presidential election in a few months he'll still be our only friend in office. (If you're thinking that I don't think Bush is a friend of gun owners, you'd be correct.)

Many will criticize KABA.com for publishing this information about Reagan. I won't be one of them.

I'll leave you with the words of Patrick Henry, which while addressing an entirely different subject I find them to be applicable here as well:

"Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it."

Posted by Publicola at June 16, 2004 08:59 PM

very cool place! bookmarkin fer future reference... lots of great thought provokin stuff. (I had ta comment on this one only cause it was my birthday..lol) thanks for worrying about all us recreational gunners....

Posted by: maggie baker at June 23, 2004 12:54 AM
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