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Historians have long referred to the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 as “the European Testing Ground for World War 2.” Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave armed support to the ultimately victorious Fascist Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco while the former Soviet Union assisted the Loyalists who fought for the Spanish Republican government.
Similarly, since former Governor Jim Florio’s successful enactment of the assault weapons ban in 1990, New Jersey has been the national testing ground of the battle between 1) the National Rifle Association (NRA) and 2) gun control advocacy groups favoring a national assault weapons ban, enhanced background checks, and gun registration.
The recent White Nationalist terrorist mass shootings, fueled by the racist and xenophobic rhetoric of President Donald Trump, has brought the gun issues to the forefront of American politics. Yet as former Republican Congressman from Florida David Jolly has predicted, there is no way that any action will be taken by the President or Congress on gun issues prior to the November, 2020 elections.
For the Democrats, these gun issues are manna from heaven. As US Senator, Joe Biden was the original prime sponsor of the ten-year federal assault weapons ban enacted in 1994. For suburban women voters, gun violence is the principal 2020 issue. Their votes are the key to the presidential election of Joe Biden and a Democratic House and Senate in 2020.
In the meantime, in predicting what Donald Trump may or may not do, one must consider two immutable Trump characteristics: 1) Racism and xenophobia; and 2) Transactionalism.
Trump’s racism has been an absolute constant throughout his life. From his anti-African-American discrimination in the rental of his housing units in Brooklyn, through his advocacy of the death penalty for the Central Park Five, to his leadership in the racist anti-Obama birther movement, to his bigoted defamation of an outstanding judge of Mexican ancestry, and finally his characterization of those who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “fine people”, bigotry is something that Donald Trump wears on his sleeves. In order to deny Trump racism, one has to be either ignorant, self-deluding, or an outright liar.
As for transactionalism, this Trump character trait always comes into play on any controversial issue. He will take any position based upon what he regards as being in his self-interest. On the gun issue, Trump perceives that he cannot win reelection without NRA support. Accordingly, he will do nothing that may negatively affect sales of the AR-15 of Smith and Wesson, a key player with the NRA. White Nationalist Terrorists who enthusiastically utter the vernacular of Trump racism can rest easy tonight. Donald Trump will do nothing to take your guns away, and neither will the Republican majority in the United States Senate, a cowardly collection of pusillanimous poltroons.
And today’s NRA is much different than your grandfather’s NRA. Up until the mid-1980s, the NRA was a true sportsmen’s organization, dedicated to environmental preservation and gun safety. They actually supported Jim Florio in his 1981 campaign for governor, due to his advocacy of open space preservation, which expanded their ability to hunt.
Today’s NRA has as its primary interest the promotion and protection of gun manufacturers and gun dealers. Many of these gun manufacturers are publicly traded companies whose shares are largely funded by mutual funds or hedge funds. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, who has been seeking to purchase a $6 million mansion in Dallas resembles Daddy Warbucks far more than Joe Sixpack.
Yet there is now compelling evidence that rank-and-file gun owners are very much at variance with the leadership of the NRA on significant core gun issues.
Rank- and-file gun owners treasure their Second Amendment rights. They use their weapons primarily for hunting, personal protection, and target shooting, and they have little or no use for assault weapons. Nor do they necessarily believe that background checks are a hinderance to them, since they are law abiding citizens who are fully confident in passing same.
The results of a survey of gun owners taken by the Journal of American Health and published in the May 24, 2018 issue of Business Insider are most instructive:
On such fundamental issues as gun registration, concealed carry restrictions , disqualifications from gun ownership, age restrictions, and gun dealer accountability, rank-and -file gun owners are highly supportive of such measures, despite the opposition of NRA leadership. Yet most surprising is the position of gun owners on bans of assault weapons. Over 40 percent would support banning military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons, and high-capacity magazines.
For New Jersey Republicans, their history over the past three decades provides a guide to the perils of a political alliance, explicit or implicit with the NRA.
Remember the bumper stickers that said “Florio Free in ’93?” Those bumper stickers were designed and produced at the behest of the NRA. Due to Florio’s successful enactment of the assault weapons ban during the first two years of his administration, when he had Democratic majorities in both legislative houses, the NRA viewed him as an existential mortal threat, both with regard to Second Amendment and property rights concerns.
The assault weapons ban was actually a popular measure with the electorate. The NRA realized this, so they used the tax issue as a cover for their anti-gun control agenda. Whenever you would see an anti-tax rally in those days, you could be sure that the NRA was playing a major, if not the sole role in organizing it. Indeed, the NRA was the warp and woof of the anti-Florio resistance throughout his term. The anti-tax hike organization, Hands Across New Jersey, was actually an NRA front.
The NRA was in the forefront of the 1991 GOP legislative campaign. In 1993, as an organization, the NRA was not in the inner circle of the Whitman campaign, but its members individually were playing an active role with Republican State Committee get-out-the-vote efforts throughout.
There are two essential factors to remember about this intense period of NRA – NJGOP cooperation. First, while the NRA was an important source of volunteers for the NJGOP 1991 and 1993 campaigns, its anti-assault weapons ban position never became a component of New Jersey Republican messaging during this period. Second, since 1993, the NRA has not served in any capacity, volunteer or otherwise, as a critical organizational or fundraising component in New Jersey Republican campaigns.
Given the divergence in the interest of New Jersey rank-and-file gun owners from NRA leadership, the door is now open to the GOP to make a direct appeal to gun owners that bypasses the NRA. The message of this appeal is simple: Yes, we will outlaw assault weapons, and we will make background checks more extensive and stringent. But we will fully protect your rights to your possession of your rifles and shotguns which you use for your protection and hunting.
The current legal context totally enables the next president to enact and execute these policies. This legal framework is set forth in the opinion of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the 2007 case of Heller v. District of Columbia, which I described in depth in another column elsewhere:
In a nutshell, in Heller, the Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, unconnected with service in a militia. Such “traditionally lawful purposes” includes self-defense within the home.
The Heller opinion also validated the Constitutionality of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Specifically, the Court affirmed the absolute right of government to prohibit the ownership and usage of guns that are not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns.
The judicial context provided by Heller and the ongoing divergence between the values and beliefs of rank-and-file gun owners from the greedy interests of NRA leadership provides the national Republican Party in the post-Trump era the opportunity to make a two-part compelling appeal that provides common sense gun control yet strongly protects the Second Amendment rights of rank–and–file gun owners. In New Jersey, the Republican Party does not have to wait for the post-Trump era to adopt and advocate these policies. It should seize them now with both hands.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.