When Planes, Trains and Cars Have Their Own NRA

04/24/2013 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013
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The National Rifle Association (NRA), aka the Gun Manufacturers Association, should be feeling pretty good about itself. It blocked approval in the Senate of a provision for expanded background checks that overwhelming numbers of people support -- even in those states of Senate Democrats who voted against the modest bill.

From prominent reporter David Cay Johnston, we learn that thanks to the NRA, law enforcement didn't have at its disposal a crucial tool for tracking down the Boston Marathon bombers. As Johnston wrote:

But for the NRA-backed policy of not putting identifiers known as taggants in gunpowder, law enforcement could have quickly identified the explosives used to make the bombs, tracking them from manufacture to retail sale. That could well have saved the life of Sean Collier, the 26-year-old MIT police officer who was gunned down Thursday night by the fleeing bomb suspects.

Of course, thanks to the NRA, guns themselves are hard to trace.

The FBI had a similarly hard time tracking down explosives used in the 1995 Oklahoma city bombing, because of the NRA-backed ban on making explosives traceable.

To put the wide-ranging influence of the NRA into perspective, let's try an exercise in alternate history. For those of you who don't read this subgenre, alternate history is the use of real people and events with different outcomes, as if what if John Kennedy had not been killed, or what if the South had won the civil war. That type of thing.

For this exercise, we will focus on something more narrow -- the history of the Second Amendment. It's pretty short: "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." This one is followed by an amendment no one talks about, the Third Amendment: "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law."

These two amendments have something in common. Both were based, at least in part, on the actions of British troops leading up to, and into, the Revolutionary War. In 1765, for example, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required colonists to house British soldiers. And before the war, the British army confiscated ammunition and weapons. So a new country, looking to rectify the abuses of the past, included these two amendments to the Bill of Rights. There is lots of other common law, particularly to the Second Amendment, but the experience was fresh in the minds of the constitutional drafters.

An Alternate History

Let's say, for the sake of alternate history, that the British altered their strategy. Instead of trying to confiscate weapons, they decided to isolate pockets of resistance. The British army set up roadblocks and checkpoints between Charles Town and Williamsburg, between Philadelphia and New York, and between New York and Boston, between Boston and Lexington. The Army closed or closely controlled the taverns along the way, checking everyone in and out.

In that case, all other things being equal, the Second Amendment could have come out quite differently: "A well-functioning system of Transport, being necessary to facilitate commerce and society, the right of the people to travel freely and without restriction, shall not be infringed."

Sounds pretty simple, right? And yet if we adopt the model, as has the NRA, that anything to do with bearing arms, like taggants in explosives or limits on military-style weapons in civilian hands, violates the Constitution, imagine what things would be like with that Alternative Second Amendment.

The founding of the National Transportation Association was a pivotal step in the development of the organization which now is the leading defender of the Second Amendment. Originally started to teach driver safety, (and it still offers classes) the group began in earnest in the earliest 20th century, thwarting Connecticut in 1901 when the state sought to impose the first speed limit on automobiles -- 12 mph. There had been many times since when the states and Federal government wanted for safety reasons, among others, to set a limit on how fast cars can go. The NTA, claiming infringement of the Second Amendment, beat them back. A couple of years later when some states wanted to require licenses for people to drive, complete with vision tests and driving tests, the NTA objected, saying, "You will have to pry the wheel from my cold, dead hands." Sometimes a law was passed, but the group would win in court. Other times through the years, they would bottle up bills in legislatures.

Due to the carnage on the roads (averaging 70,000 deaths annually), some consumer advocates in the 1960s wanted to require seat belts be built into cars. There was quite the struggle then also, but the NTA won out when its then-president uttered the famous, "Cars don't kill people. Bad drivers kill people." That same argument came up in the 1970s when some in Congress wanted to set standards for crash-worthiness. Who can forget the debate over mileage standards for cars and trucks? The NTA had a harder fight but prevailed saying that the Constitution gave Americans the right to drive whatever cars they wanted, and that infringing on engine performance would violate the Constitution.

But the NTA didn't confine itself to cars. In the early 20th century, Congress decided to impose new regulations on railroads, updating the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act through the proposed Hepburn Act in 1906 and Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, each of which would give the government new powers over railroad rates and elements of the rail system like terminals and bridges. "This bill is a slap in the face to the Founding Fathers. Its like won't be seen again," the NTA said in 1906 as it stuffed the first bill and then the second, claiming violations of the facilitation of commerce language.

Of course, the cars in 1901 went 12 mph. Today's vehicles can exceed 100 mph, but no matter. That would be like complaining that guns in the 1700s were muskets that fired three rounds per minute, as opposed to today's that fire 1,000 rounds per minute. Technology doesn't matter.

Since then, the group has chalked up an amazing rate of victories from support from railroads, auto manufacturers, airplane manufacturers and airlines and a daunting grass-roots network any time the government wanted to regulate trains, trucks, buses or airplanes.

Back To Reality

That was a nice little bit of fantasy, wasn't it? It would be nice, of course, if the fantasy didn't exist in our time, that any attempt to curb carnage wrought by guns or explosives was seen as defending the Constitutional value of gun ownership.

But that's today's reality. The right to own weapons trumps the right not to be killed or maimed by one, or to help law enforcement catch the person responsible. We set speed limits and require seat belts and set standards for how cars behave in a crash. The results speak for themselves as auto crash deaths have gone down over the years. We wouldn't put up with the carnage guns cause in any other part of our lives, and shouldn't in this one, either.