Jules Witcover: Can common sense beat the NRA?

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — In the current firestorm over gun control sparked by the mass schoolroom shooting in Parkland, Florida, the pro-gun lobby peddles the notion that restoring the federal ban on sale of all assault weapons is a non-starter. As a diversion, the NRA and associates switch the debate to opposing much less effective measures like raising the age for purchase from 18 to 21, or joining President Trump in advocating the arming of teachers.

But the aggressive and committed pushback by Parkland student survivors and others of their generation presents an impressive and valid test of whether the one proposal that makes the most sense is or should be off the table.

The approaching students’ march on Washington slated for March 24 for real gun control, and their protection in schools, will indeed be a steep climb. The determined gun lobby has a stranglehold on Congress through lavish and continuing campaign contributions to its compliant members, particularly but not exclusively in the Republican Party.

It relies on a public impression, widely accepted by supporters, that the Constitution’s Second Amendment provides an absolute and inviolate right to own all firearms, including weapons clearly intended for war. One such gun was used by the teenager who took the lives of 17 students and staff members in Parkland.

But there is no such guarantee expressed in the amendment, which explicitly refers to “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.” In 1994, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California successfully passed a flat ban on assault weapons that stayed on the books for a decade. It was repealed only under a sunset provision in the law when the NRA money worked its will on recipients on Capitol Hill.

She has a similar bill before the current Senate. Ironically, in proof that no good deed goes unpunished, Feinstein has just been denied the endorsement for renomination for a fifth term by her state’s Democrats in their June primary, in favor of a more liberal challenger.

In addressing the state convention, Feinstein reminded the delegates that “I authored the assault weapons ban that was the law for 10 years. Passing it now is my quest. It is my mission. I am absolutely dedicated to achieving this.”

At age 84, Feinstein is expected run for re-election without the state party endorsement, against a California state Senate leader, Kevin de Leon, who won 50 percent of the convention vote to only 37 percent for her. With 60 votes needed for the endorsement, it seems neither of them will have it going into the primary. In any event, the Senate seat is considered likely to remain in Democratic hands no matter which of them is nominated, considering the overwhelming party strength in the state.

Of all the proposals for new gun control legislation, none even approaches the total ban on purchasing assault weapons. Even better would be a federal ban on the manufacture and sale of such mass killing machines except to U.S. or foreign military forces, or to local and state police with a demonstrated need for them beyond peace-keeping functions. These semi-automatic or fully automatic devices intended for the battlefield have no justifiable use in hunting or in target practice.

The old NRA defensive mantra — “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” — is ludicrous on its face, and an insult to innocent children and adults alike who are striving to make American life in and out of the classroom safe. Most other civilized nations therefore are much better protected from random gun violence.

Many voters are looking to the November midterm elections to deny Donald Trump the majority his party now holds in both houses of Congress. Others should look to the ballot box to oust Republican and Democratic incumbents who take the NRA blood money, enabling the gun lobby to continue its collusion that results in the killing of any more of our defenseless school-age kids.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.