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Why The Second Amendment Rulings May Make a Ban on Assault Weapons More Likely

- December 15, 2012

In the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy, several experts argue that new gun control measures are unlikely to succeed in part because of recent Court rulings that have strengthened the second amendment, including last week’s Seventh Circuit ruling written by Richard Posner (who cited this Monkey Cage post in the opinion!). I suspect this is true for some gun control measures but not for others. Indeed, it may strengthen the case for some forms of gun control.

Consider a ban on “assault weapons,” something that plausibly could have prevented  yesterday’s tragedy or could have limited the number of victims.  There is no defensive rationale for owning semi-automatic weapons that hold 10 rounds or more. No-one hunts with these weapons. People may enjoy owning them and shooting them but that is a fairly limited rationale. The case against a ban on semi-automatic weapons rests strongly on a “slippery slope” logic: the idea that once you start outlawing some weapons legislators will gradually impose more severe restrictions.

Recent Supreme Court rulings undermine that logic. The more credible the protection of core Second Amendment rights, the less credible the slippery slope argument. That is: fewer people should be concerned that the government is going to take away their hunting rifle or handgun next if the Supreme Court firmly protects Second Amendment rights. [A ban on semi-automatic rifles almost certainly does not violate the Second Amendment].

I am not saying that the NRA will buy this argument but contrary to gun control more generally, bans on semi-automatic rifles are popular with the public. If legislators feel assured that the Supreme Court protects core gun rights, then they have at least an argument to their constituents for accepting such a ban. A ban on the manufacturing and sale of semi-automatic rifles would also have important spillover effects for Central America, where many massacres are committed with assault weapons purchased in the U.S.. This may matter too in certain key states. In short, I don’t think it is so unlikely that the next Congress will pass a new and improved version of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and I think that we will hear pro-gun control advocates using the Second Amendment rulings as an argument in favor of such a ban.

ps. I know that there are issues with the definitions of assault weapons and semi-automatic rifles but I do not think these are prohibitive and I didn’t want to touch them in this post.