War has been declared on Virginia’s gun owners by the Democrats who recently won both houses of the General Assembly. Most notorious is Senate Bill 16 by Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, which would impose five years imprisonment on law-abiding citizens who possess the most common firearms in America today. Among other proposed restrictions on conduct that has been lawful since Jamestown was settled in 1607, not one would penalize criminal misuse of guns.
The firearms to be banned are mostly semiautomatic rifles with features that facilitate accurate shooting. They include an adjustable shoulder stock to make it fit one’s size, a pistol grip to enable a firm hold (the same type used in Olympic rifles), and a muzzle brake to reduce kick. Even a flare launcher is a banned feature — distress signals will be verboten. These innocuous features somehow transform a gun into an “assault” weapon in the proponents’ fantasy land.
Throughout the Commonwealth, around a hundred counties and cities have reacted by declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. That’s a national trend arising in states being subjected to one infringement after another on the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
Gov. Ralph Northam, best known for his gig in blackface or a Klan hood, threatened localities with “consequences” if their law enforcement officers don’t enforce the coming gun laws. U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin proposed that Mr. Northam should call out the National Guard to bring the sanctuaries under the boot. Perhaps Guardsmen would establish checkpoints on the streets to pat down residents or conduct house-to-house searches. But don’t count on members of the Guard to do that to their neighbors.
Attorney General Mark Herring, another blackface veteran, threatens that “these gun safety laws … will be enforced.” “Safety?” Gun safety means not pointing at anything you don’t intend to shoot, not imprisoning peaceable gun owners. The Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions, he says, “have no legal effect whatsoever.” This is the same Mark Herring who, when first elected, disclosed that he wouldn’t defend a certain law defining marriage with which he disagreed.
Mr. Northam says that his gun ban will have a grandfather clause for those who already own the forbidden weapons to register them by a certain deadline. States like California and New York did the same when they passed similar bans. But Mr. Northam must not have gotten the memo that only about 10 percent of gun owners complied.
There are deep historical reasons why Americans don’t go along with gun registration and confiscation. We’ll skip what happened when royal governors like Thomas Gage in Massachusetts Bay and Lord Dunmore in Virginia tried to seize the colonists’ arms in 1775, sparking the American Revolution. Would you guess that had something to do with the adoption of the Second Amendment?
Instead, let’s jump to Europe in the 20th century. In 1933, the Nazis seized power in Germany and used the Weimar Republic’s gun registration lists to disarm their political opponents and then the Jews. In 1935, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval sought to repress citizen unrest by decreeing gun registration, limits on the right to assemble and an increase in the national guard.
When Germany launched its blitzkreig against France in 1940, decrees were posted in each town warning French civilians that the death penalty would be imposed on any who did not turn in their firearms within 24 hours. Upon its defeat, France signed an armistice agreeing to enforce the decrees of the Nazi forces.
How convenient that the French police, who had the gun registration records, now worked for the Germans. Yet, despite the threat of the death penalty, many French refused to surrender their firearms. The press routinely reported the names of gun owners who faced the firing squad for that reason. Those who never registered their guns were less likely to be caught.
Seeing the gathering war clouds, in 1940 the U.S. Congress authorized the requisition of certain private property. Aware of the Nazi war on gun owners, Congress declared that nothing in the law would allow the registration of firearms, and reaffirmed support for the right to bear arms. That sentiment remains today in various federal laws prohibiting a national gun registry.
Unregistered firearms facilitated the beginning of the French Resistance against the Nazis. After the war, it was estimated that, despite potential execution, less than one-third of some 3 million hunting guns had been turned in to the authorities.
This is in no way to compare today’s America with those dreadful events, but there are some lessons to be learned. If a gun ban can’t be enforced with the death penalty, don’t expect a five-year prison term to be effective. Don’t expect overwhelming compliance with gun registration from a public that sees it as just a step to confiscation.
And it goes without saying that the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment and the Virginia Constitution. It’s not too late to have a conversation about measures to repress criminal violence rather than peaceable exercise of a constitutional right.
• Stephen P. Halbrook, a lawyer in Fairfax, Virginia, and senior fellow with the Independent Institute, is author of “The Founders’ Second Amendment” and “Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France.”