(CNSNews.com) - The words of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution have been debated more than possibly any law in American history. What will 2002 hold for liberals determined to restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners, and for conservatives intent on protecting those rights?
The Second Amendment says, "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 a May 17, 2001 letter to the National Rifle Association (NRA), Attorney General John Ashcroft stated his position on those words as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
"Let me state unequivocally my view that the text and the original intent of the Second Amendment clearly protects the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms," Ashcroft wrote. "While some have argued that the Second Amendment guarantees only a 'collective right' of the states to maintain militias, I believe the amendment's plain meaning and original intent prove otherwise."
But Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, says despite Ashcroft's clear statement, and many court cases supporting "individual rights", liberals will continue their efforts to restrict gun ownership in 2002.
The Gun Show Loophole
"The continued attack on private sales at gun shows is likely to be the hardest push coming from gun control forces both in and out of Congress," Pratt said. "They put their heads together after September 11 and decided that, even though guns weren't used in the biggest mass murder in American history, they would go ahead and try to link terrorism to gun shows."
Pratt is referring to comments made by liberal senators such as Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), that a so-called "gun show loophole" has allowed terrorists to buy "thousands" of weapons at U.S. gun shows.
"We've been trying to deal with this problem for many months," Kennedy charged in a December Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "that a potential terrorist would walk into a gun show, walk out with a gun, no questions asked."
The "problem" Kennedy describes, is that citizens can legally sell firearms to one another without registering that sale with the government, unless the seller is a federally licensed firearms dealer. The "solution," according to Kennedy, is to require all gun sales to be predicated on a criminal background check.
Gun control activists, however, can cite only three cases in which alleged terrorists attempted to obtain weapons at gun shows. In all three cases existing laws, prohibiting the purchase of weapons by non-citizens or the export of firearms to other countries, thwarted the plans.
And, as CNSNews.com previously reported, a November 2001 Justice Department report entitled "Firearms Use by Offenders" found that less than one percent of the firearms used in all crimes were purchased through private (unregistered) sales at gun shows.
"In fact, there are very few guns available for sale at gun shows without going through the background check," Pratt explained.
He adds that even when the "Brady Background Check" is conducted it is a waste of time and resources.
"An anti-gun scholar named Jens Ludwig published the results of a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a very anti-gun publication," Pratt said, "which found that there was no impact on lowering crime from the Brady law."
The August 2000 JAMA report concluded that states implementing waiting periods and/or background checks did "not [experience] reductions in homicide rates or overall suicide rates."
"It's simply an effort to have every last gun registered," Pratt charged, "having your name put into a national database maintained by the FBI, a gun registry."
Lawsuits Against Gun Manufacturers
Another issue that will remain in the forefront of Second Amendment debates, Pratt predicts, is the attempt by gun control advocates to bankrupt gun manufacturers with liability lawsuits.
"It is a ruthless, premeditated strategy to go after the companies," Pratt charged, "by people who have decided that, since they can't ban guns legislatively, they will judicially make it so that nobody can afford to make a gun, certainly for the civilian market."
Pratt suggests the Founding Fathers provided a protection of gun owners' rights in the specific wording they chose for the Second Amendment, which ends with the words "shall not be infringed." By comparison, the First Amendment begins with the words "Congress shall make no law."
"If anything, the 'shall not be infringed' language goes farther than 'pass no law abridging,'" Pratt argued. "Because you could through regulation, or lawsuits, attempt to accomplish what you couldn't through legislation."
Chuck Cunningham, director of federal affairs for the National Rifle Association (NRA), says despite the court decisions against them, gun control activists continue to pursue this strategy.
"The other side has lost virtually every case out there," he said. "The problem is that it only takes one bad decision from one court to create precedents that reverberate across the country."
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (H.R. 2037), which the NRA supports, would eliminate any potential criminal liability the firearms and ammunition industry might incur from criminal use of their lawful products. The bill has 230 co-sponsors, including about 35 to 40 Democrats.
Cunningham says the bill should be considered by the House in the Spring of 2002. "And considered favorably," he added.
The Aftermath of September 11
The terrorist attacks lead many Americans to realize their responsibility for their own security, Pratt believes. Statistics seem to bear out his theory.
Applications to buy handguns in Maryland, for example, more than doubled during the week of Sept. 11. Virginia State Police said background checks on those seeking to buy firearms were up 32 percent during the same period.
Connecticut State Police say residents bought 5,397 guns in September of 2001, an increase of 41 percent over September of 2000. An October 2000 check showed gun sales had increased 42 percent over the previous year in California.
Cunningham says applications for NRA firearms training courses and for state concealed carry permits increased, as well. Pratt hopes those facts will help shift the agenda from containing gun control to expanding the legal recognition of gun owners' rights.
One area where that shift might begin is the concept of "concealed carry reciprocity."
Concealed Carry Reciprocity
Gun Owners of America supports the Secure Access to Firearms Enhancement (SAFE) Act of 2001 introduced in the House by Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) and in the Senate by Bob Smith (R-N.H.). That legislation would amend the federal criminal code to allow individuals to carry concealed weapons into states other than their state of residence if they:
\li720\fi-360- Are not prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm;
- Possess a valid state license or permit for carrying a concealed firearm; or
- Are otherwise legally entitled to carry a concealed firearm in their state of residence.
"This bill would be a tremendous step forward in making [sure] that the average American would be re-empowered to protect himself," Pratt said.
The Hostettler-Smith legislation could present an interesting scenario in cities with strict gun restriction laws like the District of Columbia.
"The irony of this bill would be that a visitor ... would be able to carry a concealed firearm," Pratt noted. "But the city fathers of Washington are so suspicious of the people they have living there, that they refuse to let them even own a gun, let alone carry one concealed."
Despite one of the most restrictive gun prohibition laws in the United States, Washington, D.C. continues to have one of the highest annual rates of homicides with firearms in the country.
Department of Justice statistics for 1999 show Washington, D.C. the homicide rate at 46.4 per 100,000. Gun control supporters say that rate is so high because criminals bring guns in from Virginia. But the Northern Virginia metropolitan area, which has the same population density as Washington, had a homicide rate for the same time period of only 6.1 per 100,000.
"Criminals don't apply for carry permits," Cunningham said. "Criminals don't register their guns. They don't apply for licenses. They don't get mandatory training. They don't go through background checks. They don't get fingerprinted, and they certainly don't obey gun bans."
Re-establishing Second Amendment Rights
Pratt says the greater willingness of individuals to accept responsibility for their personal security should translate into greater support for Second Amendment rights in 2002.
"I believe it will mean more support for rolling back gun control laws that only make it more difficult for people to do what they now have determined that they must do," he continued, "defend themselves."
Cunningham agrees, saying those realizations should help gun owners' rights on two fronts.
"I don't think gun control advocates are going to prevail either in the legislative arena or in the  election cycle," he predicted. "There's been a shift, not only among the general public, but also among politicians."
As evidence, Cunningham says only two direct votes on general Second Amendment issues were taken in either House of Congress in all of 2001. Gun owners' rights were supported on both votes by a two-to-one margin.
That does not mean, Pratt warns, that conservatives can let down their guard on the issue of the Second Amendment.
"If the folks in the trenches decide to relax because we've got fresh recruits, I think they'll be making a big mistake," he cautioned. "We're only going to reclaim parts of our lost liberty if we continue in the fight, those who have already been in it, and welcome the new recruits.
"It's a campaign, that I think is going to be long and hard," Pratt adds, "to finally re-establish our Second Amendment rights."